Thursday, August 7, 2014

Dolly Parton. Really.

So you say you'd like a cheerful story for a change. Fine. Let's talk about Dolly Parton. Really.

You may or may not be a fan of Dolly Parton, Country Icon and Oddly Constructed Barbie Doll, but if you're not paying attention, you might miss Dolly Parton, Philanthropist. And not Investment Philanthropist or Disruptive Innovation Philanthropist. Parton is pretty old school.

Parton came from real poverty, growing up with eleven siblings and a father who couldn't read or write in the middle of one of the poorest regions in the country. A tough time for her was not wondering if she dropped out of college, would her parents be willing to support her long enough to get her start-up off the ground.

Parton never forgot where she came from. You may think of Dollywood as a monument to kitsch, a big slice of Tennessee tacky, but it is also a sturdy economic engine and job factory in the middle of an otherwise poverty-stricken region. Parton's thought never seemed to be, "I'll build a big plastic monument to myself," but "I'll create a business that will bring money to my home region."

But Dollywood is only the most visible of Parton's work. Since the 1970s she's been awarding scholarships in Sevier County (her home). She's played at times with giving students a $500 bonus for finishing high school. Some of what she's done I can't tell you about because, apparently, much of her philanthropy is done anonymously.

But I can tell you about the Dollywood Foundation and the Imagination Library.

This program started with the simplest idea in the world-- putting books in the homes of small children. It began, once again, in her home county, and her proposal was simple-- sign your newborn child up, and once a month from birth through Kindergarten, the child will receive a book. On the program's website, Parton writes

When I was growing up in the hills of East Tennessee, I knew my dreams would come true. I know there are children in your community with their own dreams. They dream of becoming a doctor or an inventor or a minister. Who knows, maybe there is a little girl whose dream is to be a writer and singer. The seeds of these dreams are often found in books and the seeds you help plant in your community can grow across the world.

The program launched in 1995 in Sevier County, and it grew quickly. By 2006, when the Washington Post wrote about it, the program had spread to 471 communities in 41 states. In 2011 it launched in Scotland, and it can now be found in the UK, Australia, and Canada. The site says that 706,468 US kids are currently signed up. It's still fairly simple. Some combination of sponsors (some private, some government, depending on the locale) help with the financing (the cost is roughly $27 per child per year) and the Foundation delivers the books, each in its own poly bag with the child's name on it (consider the power of a child, even a small one, receiving a book that is theirs, addressed to them, by name).

Researching this was challenging, because press about the program is sparse. Apparently Parton is unaware that good philanthropists make sure to get plenty of press coverage for their work.

And one other noteworthy feature of this program-- she doesn't pay people to promote it or participate. It has spread across the world because people like the idea and want to do it. Imagine that-- a program that makes so much sense that it sells itself.

It makes me wonder-- what if Bill Gates had decided that rather than rewrite public education, he would spend a gabillion dollars putting books in the hands of every elementary school student in this country. What if a raft of corporate sponsors had worked with Scholastic Books to give every child a good-for-one-book voucher?

Ah, well. Parton may not be setting the education world on fire, but she's also not telling the children of Sevier County that they just need to find some grit to escape or insisting that Sevier County schools need to be more rigorous and testier. And if she has been, please wait a day or so to tell me. Let me have at least a day to enjoy the idea of a person who got rich and used the money to help folks out in a simple and direct way.


  1. Ironically, research shows that getting books to kids who don' t have access to them will improve test scores and even close tje achievememt gap.

  2. AGREED!
    My comment on the Imagination Library, from 2006:

    Sent to (Memphis), Feb 1, 2006
    Dolly Parton seems to have a better grasp of what counts in reading than many of the “experts.” (“Dolly's Imagination paves road to reading,” January 31). Her Imagination Library’s efforts to make sure all children have plenty of good books available is exactly what needs to be done, a much more sensible and effective approach to literacy than tedious workbook exercises.

    One of Reverend Henry Blaze’s concerns, however, is well-founded. There is a huge difference in access to books between children from high- and low-income families and special efforts need to made to make sure children of poverty benefit fully from this effort.

    But Reverend Blaze should not be concerned that the books will be used for “leisurely reading”; Study after study confirms that the amount of “leisure reading” (or self-selected reading) children do is a very strong predictor of reading scores: Those who read more, read better.

    My suggestions for making the Imagination Library program even more effective are to extend it to older children, to contribute books to school and public libraries, especially in high-poverty areas, and to allow more book companies to participate: At the present time, only books published by Penguin Putnam can be purchased for the Imagination Library.

    Stephen Krashen
    Professor Emeritus
    University of Southern California

  3. Thank you. TNBATs have been trying to recruit Dolly Parton for a while now. Still no response from her. Perhaps a twitter storm of your blog is in order. We love Dolly.

  4. Thanks for spreading the word about Dolly's great humanity; she's a shining example for all us who want to make the world better for others.

  5. Our NewsHour piece about Dolly's program is here: