Dolly Parton is an undisputed legend for her contributions to music. Not only has she sold over 130 million records internationally and written over 3,000 songs, but she holds several Guinness World Records for having the most singles on the country charts. However, there is another side to the country singer that more and more people are just now discovering. Her donation of $1 million toward vaccine research during the pandemic shed light on her charitable efforts. In reality, that donation is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to Parton's philanthropy.
Parton has long been a philanthropist, but she does so with little publicity or fanfare. This is why many people may not realize her incredible contributions, particularly to Sevier County—the poverty-stricken part of Tennessee where she grew up. In March 2022, Twitter user Michelle B. Young started a thread championing some of Parton's charitable contributions. Some of the causes she supports, like Black Lives Matter, are well known. But many others focus on her local community and, in particular, helping its youth prepare for a better future. In fact, her theme park, Dollywood, was created with the purpose of providing jobs to families and creating a tourist attraction for the community to generate for income. This alone is amazing, but she’s done so much more over the years.
Here is just a sampling of some ways that Parton has been helping make the world a better place, and doing so without expecting anything in return.
Country singer Dolly Parton is a legend in the music industry.
She is also just an all-around beloved figure for the quiet way she gives back, particularly to her own community in East Tennessee.
Often donating funds with little or no fanfare, Parton—who grew up in poverty—always knew she'd give back if she became a success.
Here are just some of the ways that Dolly Parton makes her community and the world a better place.
Paying for students’ band or choir uniforms at predominantly Black schools
Here’s a quietly wonderful thing I noticed:
If you talk to someone who was in choir or band at a majority Black HS, you’ll eventually discuss those annoying fundraisers for uniforms, instruments, etc. & a SURPRISING number will casually say:
“Oh, Dolly Parton paid for ours”
— Michael Harriot (@michaelharriot) October 6, 2022
Writer Michael Harriot tweeted about how a surprising number of band and choir students at predominantly Black high schools have had their uniform and instrument fees paid for by Parton. For years, the country singer has been quietly doing this, simultaneously supporting her community and encouraging kids to pursue an interest in musical arts.
30+ years ago I was in high school marching band in East Tennessee. One year we played Sevier County High School…and DANG that band was equipped – uniforms, instruments, flags, everything. Mountain area, much poverty. Paid for by Dolly Parton. That woman is a national treasure.
— DSquared (@blusurfer) October 6, 2022
Giving free books to kids
One of Parton's most well-known projects is her Imagination Library. Run through her non-profit, the Dollywood Foundation, the initiative was started in 1995 to increase literacy in Sevier County. Every child, regardless of income, was mailed an age-appropriate book each month until they reached the age of 5.
By 2000, the program had become so successful that it expanded to any community that wanted to partner and give local support. The Imagination Library can now be found in over 1,800 communities in the United States, as well as Canada, Australia, Ireland, and the United Kingdom. In 2018, Parton celebrated sending 100 million books to children and she's been the recipient of numerous awards for her work in literacy.
Incentivizing kids to finish high school.
In the early 1990s, Parton discovered that the high school dropout rate in Sevier County was over 30%. She astutely realized that the lack of education was not only impacting the individual lives of local youth, but also making it difficult for the county to prosper. So, she started The Buddy Program, which targeted students in 7th and 8th grade. Parton met personally with the students to explain the program. It was very simple: the students needed to pair up. If both they and their partner graduated high school, Parton would hand each of them a check for $500. In addition, both partners had to sign a contract that they would be each other's support system and do everything they could to help each other graduate.
The program was a rousing success and soon the dropout rate plummeted to under 6%.
Offering free college tuition for all Dollywood Employees
Since it opened in 1986, the Dollywood theme park has been a source of tourism and employment in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee. Three million people visit the theme park annually, making it the state's biggest tourist attraction. In 2022, parent company Herschend Enterprises announced that all 11,000 full-time, part-time, and seasonal employees of Dollywood and the company's other ventures who wanted to pursue higher education would have their fees paid for.
The education initiative, which is called the Grow U program, covers 100% of tuition, associated fees, and books for 108 programs from 30 universities. According to the Dollywood website, these degrees include Business Administration and Leadership, Finance, Technology, and Marketing. An additional 149 programs in Hospitality, Culinary, Engineering, Human Resources, and Art & Design are partially covered. And, importantly, employees can apply for funding from their first day on the job.
Supporting victims of the Gatlinburg Fire
In 2016, a complex series of wildfires spread through the Smoky Mountains, greatly impacting the towns of Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg. Just two days after the fires, Parton, who was on tour at the time, called the CEO of the Dollywood Foundation to figure out how they could help. What they set up was an unprecedented way to help many of the families who had their lives destroyed by the fires.
Through the My People Fund, about 900 families received $1,000 a month for 6 months. In the final month, the support was raised to $5,000 due to incoming donations that the foundation had received. And if that weren't enough, they also opened the Mountain Tough organization to assist in home site cleanups and provide a helping hand to those in need on a case-by-case basis. In total, $12.5 million from the foundation went to people in the county impacted by the fire.
Using Song Royalties to Rebuild a Predominantly Black Neighborhood
Whitney Houston's I Will Always Love You is one of the most recognizable songs of all time. But not everyone realizes that the song was written—and originally performed—by Parton. Though the song was already a #1 hit for Parton, it really skyrocketed to success after Houston's iconic 1992 rendition. As the songwriter, Parton earned royalties from the ballad and it's estimated that just in the 1990s alone she earned $10 million from the single.
So what did she do with all of the money? During a 2021 appearance on Watch What Happens Live, Parton divulged that she'd invested the money in a strip mall located in a predominantly Black part of Nashville.
“It was just off the beaten path from 16th Avenue and I thought, ‘Well I am going to buy this place, the whole strip mall.’ And thought, ‘This is the perfect place for me to be,’ considering it was Whitney. I just thought, ‘This was great. I’m just going to be down here with her people who are my people as well. And so I just love the fact that I spent that money on a complex and I think, ‘This is the house that Whitney built.’”
Helping Save the Bald Eagle
In her 2020 book, Dolly Parton, Songteller: My Life in Lyrics, she wrote that she related to eagles. The bird of prey actually features in many of her songs, including 1991's Eagle When She Flies. And her love for the bird goes far beyond music. Since 1990, Dollywood has been home to an eagle sanctuary, which is run in partnership with the American Eagle Foundation.
The Eagle Mountain Sanctuary rehabilitates injured eagles and other birds of prey, releasing them into the wild when possible. Currently, the sanctuary is the largest gathering of non-releasable bald eagles in the world. Parton once noted, “Back when we started it, bald eagles were beginning to be extinct. We’ve helped to get it back to where they aren’t so scarce anymore.”
In 2003, she was given a Partnership Award from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for her efforts in saving the bald eagle.