Dolly Parton's Book-Giving Charity: You Can Read a Lot Into It

By John Gerome
Associated Press
Sunday, January 22, 2006

NASHVILLE -- Dolly Parton often wonders what her father, a tobacco farmer who eked out a living for 12 children in the Smoky Mountains, could have accomplished had he known how to read and write.

"He couldn't write his own name. He wouldn't even recognize our names if he saw it on a paper, but my dad was one of the smartest people I knew. He just didn't have an opportunity to get an education," Parton said recently.

Her father's lack of opportunity inspired the country singer a decade ago to create a children's literacy program in her native Sevier County, Tenn.

The idea behind the Imagination Library was simple: Mail one free book a month to children from birth to age 5, regardless of family income.

Parton didn't think too far beyond that -- she didn't have to. The program spread quickly, and today it's in 572 communities in 41 states and has provided children with nearly 4 million books. This spring Tennessee is aiming to be the first state to make it available in every county.

"It's just one of those things that when I heard about it I thought, 'What a great idea. Why didn't I think of that?' " said Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen, who made the library part of his campaign platform and then secured $2 million for it. "It struck me as inexpensive. The way we set it up, we do it as a partnership between the state and local communities."

The program costs $27 per child, with half the money coming from the state through matching grants. So far, 85 of Tennessee's 95 counties are on board.

As with her music, Parton's charitable work is colored by her humble Appalachian upbringing. Although much of her philanthropy has been anonymous, her contributions back home are numerous:

· Paying for college scholarships in Sevier County since the 1970s. She currently provides $60,000 a year in scholarships at the county's high schools.

· Starting the nonprofit Dollywood Foundation in 1988 to promote education in the mountains where she grew up.

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