Singer, songwriter, and actress Dolly Parton once described herself as a “backwoods Barbie.” Her hair, her clothes, her makeup, even her voice supported that image. I once wrote her off as just too glitzy and fake for me. The truth is I didn’t really know much about her. Then I did some research.
She grew up in poverty in Sevier County, Tennessee, one of 12 children raised by a tobacco farmer. Her parents married when her mother was in the seventh grade. Education was not an option for most of her family.
Because of her background, Dolly has made it a mission to remember where she came from and God’s blessings to her. She started an Imagination Library to give books to children, one a month, in Sevier County where literacy and resources were both minimal. The initiative now donates books throughout the U.S., U.K., Canada, and Australia. Dolly explains, “Imagination Library was really born out of my need to try to help people knowing what a handicap it was with a lot of my relatives.”
But Dolly’s generosity extends beyond books.
In 2016 a massive forest fire spread in the Smoky Mountains of Tennessee, destroying homes and businesses throughout Sevier County. Firefighters targeted Dollywood, the entertainment park bearing her name, for protection. The cynical side of me thought that this was due to the influence of her star power. I was convicted when I learned Dollywood is the major employer in the area. Without it, many would have lost their jobs.
In the aftermath of the fire, Dolly pledged $1,000 a month for six months to each family that lost a home until “they get back on their feet.” And just recently, she surprised these families with another $5,000 each and pledged $3 million to provide ongoing support.
What lessons can we learn from Dolly’s giving?
- Discover your passion. While blessed with many talents, it’s clear Dolly has a passion for the people and places of East Tennessee. Having grown up with limited educational opportunities and surrounded by poverty, she’s now pairing her passion and her resources to make a difference in the lives of others.
- Plan your giving. It’s very likely Dolly has a Giving Plan as she works through Imagination Library to support its book donations. Each year her plan reflects an increase in giving to this passion of hers.
- Prepare to respond. Dolly’s heart was ready to be generous when tragedy struck. She never forgot where she grew up, what it was like to have so little, and the people and experiences that made a difference in her life. Maybe God raised up a woman like her for just this time in Sevier County.