The vaccines are upon us. Finally. In poring through the news, some impressive figures emerge: Kizzmekia Corbett, a key African-American scientist behind the Moderna vaccine, and European researcher power couple Ugur Sahin and Ozlem Tureci.
Then there’s music legend Dolly Parton—yes, the beloved 74-year-old country crooner behind classics such as “Jolene.” Parton, it turns out, made a $1 million donation to coronavirus vaccine research and supported the development of the Moderna vaccine.
Back in 2014, Parton befriended Naji Abumrad of the Vanderbilt Institute for Infection, Immunology and Inflammation after she was involved in a car accident and treated at Vanderbilt. In April, Abumrad told Parton they were making big advancements in the search for a cure for COVID-19, prompting Parton to donate. The preliminary report on the vaccine in the New England Journal of Medicine cites the Dolly Parton COVID-19 Research Fund, along with the NIH, for financial support. Her donation also supports convalescent plasma study at Vanderbilt.
“I’m just happy that anything I do can help somebody else,” she said. “When I donated the money to the COVID fund, I just wanted it to do good, and evidently it is. Let’s just hope we find a cure real soon.”
While this move might seem surprising, Parton has been active in philanthropy for years. And through our Glitzy Giving coverage, we’ve been tracking the philanthropy of a number of celebrities, some of whom have been quite serious about their giving for decades. And despite the impression of celebrity philanthropy being too often performative, Parton and others like Sean Penn, whose nonprofit CORE helped create the largest COVID-19 testing site at Dodgers Stadium back in late May, are illustrative of the real impact celebrities can have with their giving.
What’s more, there is a lot of wealth coming out of this sector. Parton herself is worth $600 million by some estimates, and has always had many irons in the fire. She was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1999 and has starred in films like “Nine to Five” and “Steel Magnolias.” Parton opened her Dollywood theme park in the 1980s and also launched her Dollywood Foundation. Parton’s philanthropy has been far-reaching at times, and hyperlocal in others—driven by her modest beginnings in Sevier County, Tennessee.
Like many philanthropic stories, the Dollywood Foundation’s giving has evolved over the years, initially focusing on decreasing the dropout rate in her county’s high school. Parton promised every seventh- and eighth-grade student $500 if they graduated from high school, so long as they made sure one of their peers did, as well. This effort, called the Buddy Program, helped reduce the dropout rate for these two grade levels from 35% to 6%, according to the Dollywood Foundation website.
Launched in 1995, Imagination Library is one of the foundation’s core programs today. A top global early childhood book gifting program, it has distributed some 150 million books in Australia, Canada, the United Kingdom and the United States. Parton’s vision was to create a lifelong love of reading, prepare children for school and inspire them. The Imagination Library expanded to the Republic Of Ireland in 2019.
The foundation’s Dolly Parton Scholarship, meanwhile, provides a $15,000 award annually.
Parton’s reasons for funding this issue is deeply personal. “Well, my dad, like so many country people, the hard-working people, especially back in the rural areas, my dad never had a chance to go to school because he had to help make a living for the family. And so, Daddy couldn’t read and write. That always bothered him,” she explains.
Local disaster relief and more
Through her My People Fund, Parton supported Tennessee wildfire relief, distributing $1,000 per month to Sevier County families affected by the major crisis in the late fall of 2016. Additional funds raised provided one-time scholarships to high school seniors whose homes were lost to the fires. The fund has since shuttered. Parton’s Mountain Tough Recovery Team, meanwhile, worked to rebuild communities in Sevier County.
Parton has also worked with Vanderbilt in the past, capping off the release of her children’s album “I Believe In You,” by donating $1 million to the Vanderbilt University Children’s Hospital in Nashville. Dollywood Parks and Resorts’ 30,000-square-foot Eagle Mountain Sanctuary at Parton’s Dollywood amusement park houses the country’s largest presentation of non-releasable bald eagles.
Sporting nicknames like the Queen of Nashville and the Book Lady, Parton may need to add a pandemic-fighting moniker to the list soon, too. And expect the star and her low-profile husband Carl Dean to keep the philanthropic hits coming.