CHICAGO—Dolly Parton, entertainer, actress, businesswoman, philanthropist, and literacy advocate, received the National Education Association’s highest honor today, the Friend of Education Award. Dolly received the award from more than 6,000 educators gathered virtually and in person in Chicago during the 2022 NEA Representative Assembly (RA.)
“Dolly Parton is a national treasure, and America’s educators are proud to bestow NEA’s highest honor, the “Friend of Education” award, upon her,” said NEA President Becky Pringle. “In addition to bringing incalculable joy, with a smile like a breath of spring and a soft voice like summer rain, to fans across the world, she has championed literacy, learning and diversity in literature for nearly half a century. In distributing more than 2 million books each month, Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library has poured a cup of ambition for millions of young children. She knows that in tough times we rely on each other, as demonstrated by her support for wildlife conservation, wildfire relief, and her contribution toward COVID-19 vaccine development which has saved millions of lives worldwide. Educators will always love Dolly, and I am personally honored to name her 2022’s “Friend of Education.”
The Friend of Education Award, presented each year during NEA’s Representative Assembly, recognizes a person or organization whose leadership, acts or support have significantly contributed to the improvement of American public education. Dolly joins previous award recipients: Nobel-prize winners Malala Yousafzai and economist Paul Krugman; education policy writer and researcher Dr. Linda Darling-Hammond; leaders of the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB); U.S. Presidents Lyndon B. Johnson, Jimmy Carter, and William Jefferson Clinton; U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall; Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.); U. S. Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley; Sen. Edward Ted” Kennedy.
“I created the Imagination Library over 26 years ago in honor of my dad, who never had the opportunity to learn to read and write,” said Dolly. “He lived long enough to see the program really growing, and he told me that he was proud of me for that than just about anything I'd ever done. Now, I never imagined we'd be gifting over 180 million books. I think that's amazing, don't you? So, on behalf of my team and all of our local partners to make the Imagination Library possible, I'm happy to accept this wonderful award. And most important, I want to take this opportunity to thank you so much for all that you do. Together, let's continue to inspire kids to dream more, care more, learn more and therefore, be more. And remember that I will always love you.”
Dolly Parton grew up in a one-bedroom cabin in the mountains of Tennessee, the 4th of twelve children. While she is widely known for her work as a musician, entertainer and songwriter, since the 1980s she has supported many charitable efforts in the area of literacy, primarily through her Dollywood Foundation. Formed in 1988, the Dollywood Foundation, funded from Dolly’s profits, originally launched to help decrease high school dropout rates in Parton's home county.
In one of her first efforts, the Buddy Program, Dolly gave $500 to every 7th and 8th grader who finished high school in her home community of Sevier County, Tennessee. However, there was one additional requirement: each student’s Buddy must graduate as well and they had to sign a contract pledging to do everything they could to make sure both graduated. Through the Buddy Program, Sevier County’s dropout rate decreased from over 30 percent to just 6 percent. From there, the Dollywood Foundation has expanded into other great works, including the Imagination Library.
Dolly Parton's Imagination Library mails one book per month to each enrolled child from the time of their birth until they enter kindergarten. While the Imagination Library began in Sevier County, it has spread worldwide. Currently, more than 1,600 local communities provide the Imagination Library to more than 2 million children each month across the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia, and the Republic of Ireland. The Imagination Library has donated more than 180,000 million books. Dolly often shares the story of her father, who was illiterate, telling her shortly before he died that the Imagination Library was the most important thing she had ever done.
Dolly also funds an annual scholarship in her hometown. Every year, five high school seniors in Sevier County are awarded the Dolly Parton Scholarship, which provides $15,000 for each recipient to pursue a college education. The scholarship is given to students who “have a dream they wish to pursue and who can successfully communicate their plan and commitment to realize their dreams.” In February, 2022, Parton announced she would pay for tuition, fees and books for all her employees who choose to "pursue further education.” Herschend Enterprises, Dolly’s partner company, announced the pilot program, titled GROW U. The program will be implemented for 11,000 employees, seasonal, part-time or full-time, across its 25 parks, including Dollywood. The company is offering more than 100 fully-funded diploma, degree and certificate programs, and will also provide partial funding for 150 additional programs in fields such as hospitality, engineering, human resources and art design.
Dolly’s philanthropy is not just limited to literacy and education. Over the years she has donated millions of dollars to wildlife preservation, conservation, Tennessee wildfire relief and various medical causes and institutions. Notably, in 2020 she donated $1 million to the Vanderbilt University Medical Center towards COVID-19 research, leading to the development of the first COVID-19 vaccines. When she herself was vaccinated in March 2021 at Vanderbilt, she documented it with a song to the tune of “Jolene”, titled, “Vaccine.”
The RA is the top decision-making body for the more than 3 million-member NEA, and sets Association policy for the coming year. NEA’s RA is the world’s largest democratic deliberative body. Delegates will complete an agenda that will include adoption of a budget, election of executive committee members, and will again address new business items.
Follow the conversation at #NEARA
Follow us on twitter at twitter.com/NEAMedia
The National Education Association is the nation's largest professional employee organization, representing more than 3 million elementary and secondary teachers, higher education faculty, education support professionals, school administrators, retired educators, students preparing to become teachers, healthcare workers, and public employees. Learn more at www.nea.org.
- Richard Allen Smith
- [email protected]