Dolly Parton: From Rags to Riches


Gabby Hanson, Co-Editor

From her charming looks to her witty personality, the charitable nature of Dolly Parton has made herself a part of many homes across the nation and has become a staple in American culture. She has received many awards for her music while building her empire and being the proud founder of some of America’s most popular entertainment establishments including, Dollywood, Dixie Stampede and Pirates Voyage. Parton planted her foot in society by giving back to major charities and relief funds, as well as establishing her own foundations and giving back to her community for issues across the board, including illiteracy, financial incentives contributing to graduation rates and college careers, wildlife conservation, disaster relief, further medical development, and advocating for the rights for all, while maintaining a political omission.

But Dolly didn’t always have it all. Born in 1946 in the small town of Locust Ridge, TNN, she was one of twelve children growing up in rural Appalachia in their dilapidated one-room cabin with hardly two pennies to rub together. Her music career sparked growing up with her mother who sang and played guitar. At the young age of 13, Parton made her appearance at the Grand Ole Opry and after high school moved to Nashville to pursue her music career which quickly took off, landing a contract with RCA Records. Producing top hits, Parton produced her first top hit, “Joshua” which was No. 1 on country music charts in 1971 with only more coming after that with songs like “Jolene” and “I Will Always Love You.”

Parton’s success from rags to riches is only part of her legacy. She turned her misfortune into a fortune and used it for good. In 1988, Parton established The Dollywood Foundation in her home county of Sevier County to decrease high school dropout rates, which later became “The Buddy Program.” Parton asked every seventh and eighth grader to “buddy-up” and pledged $500 to those in the Buddy Program if they both successfully graduated high school. Parton’s efforts were a huge turning point for those in Sevier County, dropping the dropout rate from 36 percent to only 6 percent. Along the same lines of The Buddy Program, in 1989 Parton gave a $500 scholarship to every high school student in Sevier County who wished to attend Hiwassee College.

In 1991 Parton opened the 30,000 square-foot Eagle Mountain Sanctuary in Dollywood, inhabiting disabled and endangered American Bald Eagles. In 1995 the Dollywood Foundation became “The Imagination Library” with the initiative to “achieve educational success” by sending families one book a month from the time their children are born until they reach one-year-old. The library, originally intended to only serve Sevier County, went international in 2006 and was established in remembrance of Parton’s father, Robert Lee Parton, who was unable to read.  Parton also established the Dolly Parton Scholarship in 2000, awarding five scholarships every year of $15,000 to students in Sevier County. According to The Dollywood Foundation, the foundation is, “awarded to those who have a dream they wish to pursue and who can successfully communicate their plan and commitment to realize their dreams.”

In 2007 a benefit concert was held to raise funds for a new hospital in Sevier County which raised $500k and both The Dollywood Foundation and Dixie Stampede Dinner Show both contributed $250k, raising $1 million in total for a new hospital and cancer center which opened in 2010 featuring a 30,000 square-foot Dolly Parton Center for Women’s Services. After the devastating wildfires in Eastern Tennessee in 2016, Parton put together the Smoky Mountain Rise: A Benefit for the My People Fund country music stars, Chris Stapleton, Chris Young, Kenny Rogers, Lauren Alaina, Alison Krauss, Reba McEntire, Cyndi Lauper, and others performed at the event raising over $13 million for those hit hard in Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge, where Dollywood resides. To continue her efforts to provide for those affected by the wildfires, Parton created the My People Fund which provided families with $1,000 a month for six months to those affected by natural disaster, as well as donating $8.9 million to those in need and continues to help those with rent, basic necessities and mental health resources. In 2016, Parton also awarded a $30,000 Special Merit scholarship to Evey Johns to celebrate The Imagination Library’s one-millionth book. After releasing her children’s album, I Believe in You, in 2017, Parton donated $1 million to Vanderbilt University Medical Center’s Monroe Carell Jr. Children’s Hospital in honor of her niece who was treated there for leukemia. Lastly, to tie together all of the good that pours out of Dolly, Parton donated $1 million to Vanderbilt University to help fund further COVID-19 research and Moderna’s new vaccine.

Parton is a perfect example of someone who has worked hard for herself and used her success for the good of others. Philanthropy, charity and hospitality are all characteristics and values of Parton that have shaped her into America’s most-loved celebrity.