9-year-old Talia Hill was too busy sipping her hot chocolate to notice the vehicle barreling toward her when suddenly a pair of arms swooped her up and out of harm’s way. It was an angel. Literally. Well, almost. It was Dolly Parton who was playing an angel in “Christmas on the Square,” the holiday special in which Talia was a featured actor and dancer.
“She hugged me and shook me and said, ‘I saved your life,’” Talia recalled. “And my mom was crying, like, ‘Yes you did, Dolly Parton, yes you did.’”
“Well, I am an angel, you know,” Talia said Mrs. Parton told her.
But for many, Dolly Parton, whose myriad good works don’t always show up on the world’s radar, is not just a Christmas angel, but a godsend for all seasons.
Dolly’s grandfather was a Pentecostal preacher so was familiar with the gospel at a young age. She attended church at a young age and remembers an older woman at church telling her God had “anointed” her and that this “triggered a faith” in her. Later in life, she explained “I’m not that religious, but I’m very, very spiritual. I grew up in very religious surroundings. I grew up with a Bible background, and I’m glad I did. I know my Bible stories.”
Raised in a poor community, she learned all about how dreams can go unrealized due to circumstances of finance, location, non-schooling and neglect. Remembering that her Dad never learned to read or write, Dolly vowed that the same fate would not befall other children. “When I was growing up in the hills of East Tennessee, I knew my dreams would come true,” she said. “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.”
So in 1995, she founded Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library, a nonprofit early childhood literacy program that sends a free pre-selected book monthly to children from birth to age five. Beginning with her home county and now involving additional states in the U.S. and now Canada, the U.K., Australia and the Republic of Ireland, the program has donated nearly 200 million books to over 2 million children.
Mrs. Parton’s guardian angel-ship does not stop with early childhood. Her Buddy Program, conceived as a solution to her home county’s 30%-plus high school dropout rate, is simple in plan and brilliant in execution. She met with 7th and 8th graders in Sevier County, Tennessee, and paired them up as buddies with the pledge to help one another get through any rough spots until they made it through high school. As a reward for their achievement, she would hand them each a check for $500. The program has been a success with Sevier County’s drop-out rate falling to under 6%.
After high school comes college, and Dolly’s got that covered as well. Every employee at her Pigeon Forge, Tennessee theme park, Dollywood, becomes eligible as of their very first day of work for a full scholarship covering 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. That’s over 11,000 university educations covered by the initiative called the Grow U program.
When disaster strikes, Angel Dolly is there—when the Great Smoky Mountains wildfires struck in 2016 the Dollywood Foundation supported 900 families with $1,000 a month for six months. In the final month, the support was raised to $5,000 due to incoming donations that the foundation had received. The foundation also assisted in home site cleanups and gave extra funding to those in need. A total of $12.5 million from Dolly’s foundation helped those whose lives had been turned upside down by the wildfires.
A high school band from a poverty-stricken mountain town shows up to a recital in first-class uniforms, care of Dolly Parton.
An underserved Black community in Nashville gets itself a much-needed strip mall, courtesy of royalties earned from Whitney Houston’s monster hit cover of Dolly Parton’s song, “I Will Always Love You.” Mrs. Parton said, “It was just off the beaten path from 16th Avenue and I thought…‘This is the perfect place for me to be,’ considering it was Whitney…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.’”
When an awe-struck interviewer asked her the obvious question, she answered, “You gotta work at being positive, just like some people work at being miserable. It’s an attitude. So I try to find all the good things that I can, and if I see something wrong or something bad I try to make it into something better.”
Sounds like a great idea for a song by Dolly Parton, the Angel of Sevier County.