Dolly Parton Stretches Circle of Giving from Sevier County to the Globe

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No one can deny how Dolly Parton becomes the center of attention on any stage.  This weekend, the country music queen will celebrate the premiere of her latest Netflix holiday charmer, Christmas on the Square. While some reviewers, such as USA Today per the Arizona Republic, deem that the goodhearted TV musical is too “gooey,” millions of Dolly Parton supporters will attest that the big dose of dancing and Dolly goodness is just what the doctor ordered for this Thanksgiving and Christmas season.

Dolly Parton’s generous spirit sprung from the example of her family, and especially her mother, as she described last week on Today.  The family of 12 struggled just to get by but always gave to neighbors and friends in immediate need.   The tremendously successful singer-songwriter doesn’t devote much time to tooting her own horn.  She does do her best to “love all people, and see people’s hearts,” as she explained on the morning show.

With her name at the center of conversation since the release of her name as a vital donor in the development of the Moderna vaccine, Billboard decided to trace the long history of Dolly Parton in giving to make a true difference.  Charity does begin at home, and the superstar definitely has a heart for her Sevier County, TN roots.  She also had a life-changing encounter with doctor who didn’t run in famous circles.

Dolly Parton has decades of doing good to her credit

Throughout the 60s and 70s, Dolly Parton was already forging her musical legacy. Although she felt immense gratitude for her seven years on The Porter Wagoner Show, a country music and television mainstay from 1960 to 1981, Dolly Parton intrinsically knew when it was time to go.  The man who launched her career was never ready to listen, so she put her parting in a song.   Porter Wagoner told Dolly Parton that “I Will Always Love You” was the most beautiful song he’d ever heard.  He grudgingly consented to let her go in 1974 but insisted that he be the one to produce the song.  He did, and Whitney Houston would take the song to stratospheric heights, all with Dolly keeping the rights.  It’s not surprising that the superstar stressed education first.

Dolly Parton has kept education, literacy, and health as a focus of her giving.  As her stardom rose, she quietly made donations to women’s clinics in Sevier County and the surrounding area, with expectant mothers and moms of preschoolers being the primary beneficiaries.  In 1988, the Dollywood Foundation was established, and Dolly didn’t just want to re-create the joys of her rustic upbringing.  She wanted to raise a solid crop of high school graduates.  The Buddy Program offered $500 to every seventh and eighth grader in Sevier County who completed high school.  According to the foundation’s figures, dropout rates dropped from 35% to 6%.  A follow-up scholarship in 1989 offered $500 to any student in the county who aimed to attend the local Hiwassee College.

Dolly goes far beyond entertainment for the birds

Everyone knows about the butterflies, bugs, and little log cabins that populate the rides and attractions at Dollywood.  It takes a more intrepid visitor to engage with the 30,000-square-foot aviary on the property established by Dolly Parton. The Eagle Mountain Sanctuary earned the Partnership Award from the US Fish and Wildlife Service in 2003.  The refuge protects the largest group of “non-releasable” bald eagles in the country.  The Eagle Mountain Sanctuary was established in 1991.

Literacy and healing

Even for the artist honored as the most successful female in music By the Guinness Book of World Records, Dolly Parton declares that seeing her father live to see the success of the Imagination Library is her dearest honor.  The literacy initiative started in 1995 has delivered almost 150 million books to children around the globe who are not yet in school.  Dolly consistently credits her father’s business savvy for a big part of her success.  Robert Lee Parton never learned to read, but the beginnings of her dream started in Sevier County and surrounding libraries.  To millions of children, Dolly Parton is “The Book Lady” who transformed their lives forever.  When the Imagination Library reached the milestone of shipping 1 million books, Dolly Parton pledged a $30,000 scholarship to two-year-old Evey Johns.

Before Dolly Parton’s designated her life-saving one-million-dollar gift to Vanderbilt University Medical Center,  the stellar songwriter stood solid for the people of the Smoky Mountains through the tragedy of the 2017 wildfires.  She signed the $1000 checks and saw that they were delivered to the families most affected by the blaze.  She also supported Dollywood employees and enlisted friends and fellow stars like Chris Stapleton, Reba McEntire, Kenny Rogers, and Cyndi Lauper, and others for the telethon, Smoky Mountains Rise A Benefit for the My People Fund.  A few of the willing friends left behind sizable checks for the cause.  What many folks don’t realize is that the work of the fund still continues.  Impacted families still receive basic sustenance support and mental health services.

Her mother is still a model of compassion for Dolly Parton

While Dolly Parton’s dad spawned her business acumen, her mother possessed incredible spiritual intuition.  The acclaimed daughter frequently remembers the songs her mother sang through childhood, and the stories of those American roots’ songs stayed with every child.  Avie Lee Parton often trusted in the foresight of dreams to communicate God’s truth.

During her time with Hoda and Jenna, Dolly absolutely gushed over the remembrance of her mother.   “We had a wonderful mother, “ Dolly Parton exalted.  “She could say anything and make it sound good, cook anything and make it taste good,” the daughter insisted, or “sew anything and make it look good,” even if it came from rags, like the famous “Coat of Many Colors” that still teaches lessons of love and courage to countless listeners.  Dolly Parton couldn’t put her finger on one special attribute.  She simply said that her mother had this “wonderful way and this creative way” of making all she did memorable and lasting. Dolly Rebecca Parton surely inherited the same creative insight as her legacy.

An unfortunate collision led Dolly Parton to her greatest collaboration

Dolly Parton recounted in a Washington Post feature last week how her first-ever car accident in 2013 led her to meet the medical professional who would profoundly intersect her life.

Her resulting injuries were minor, but thanks to Dr. Naji Abumrad, her healing progressed swiftly, in no small measure because of the enjoyment by both doctor and patient of their discussions on science and current events.  Abumrad is a physician and a professor of surgery who later had an affiliation with Dolly Parton through the treatment of her niece, Hannah Dennison.  Parton dedicated a butterfly garden in Hannah’s honor in 2018 and made another donation to Vanderbilt’s Children’s Hospital.

Dr. Abumrad had a hard time convincing his own son, Jad, that he was on a first-name basis with a big-name celebrity.  “My dad’s not someone who hangs out with the Dolly Parton’s of the world,” the son contended.  When Jad asked his dad to arrange an interview for him on his nationally-syndicated “Radiolab,” and it happened, the son became a believer.

Credit: Dolly Parton Instagram
Credit: Dolly Parton Instagram

Dr. Abumrad also spoke of his friendship and esteem for Dolly Parton in the 2019 series, Dolly Parton’s America.  The admiration is clearly mutual.

The physician affirms that “her funding made the research for the vaccine go 10 times faster than it would be without it.”   Dolly Parton was a Billboard cover girl in August.  This feature doesn’t display her quite so flamboyantly, but definitely gives her credit where credit is due, whether she admits it or not.

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