Dollywood Foundation
Podcast #122 — Aired February 20, 2017

Generous, grateful, and thoughtful…. Those are just some of the words used to describe Dolly Parton, a true BetterWorldian! This week on BetterWorldians Radio, we’re celebrating Dolly Parton with David Dotson, the President of the Dollywood Foundation. Dotson will tell listeners how Dolly’s humble beginnings inspired her to make giving back a big part of her incredible career.

Sign Up for New Shows & Updates!

David Dotson
President, Dollywood Foundation

David Dotson is the President of The Dollywood Foundation. He oversees Dolly’s Imagination Library, Dolly Parton’s non-profit that gives away more than a million books to children each month. He also support Dolly Parton Productions, including editorial assistance on Dolly’s many books. David previously served as the Executive Director of Associated Catholic Charities of East Tennessee. He is also a member of the Board of Directors of the Public School Forum for East Tennessee.

 

Episode Transcript

Raymond Hansell
Hi, Welcome to Better Worldians Radio. Better Worldians Radio is a weekly broadcast whose mission is to uplift and inspire you to make the world a better place. I am Ray Hansel joined here by my co-host Mary Sue Hansel. Better Worldians Radio is brought to you by Better Worldians Foundation and its co-hosted by the family team that created the popular social game on the Facebook called a Better World. It rewards players for doing deeds while helping to raise money and awareness for charities. Today there were 40 million good deeds been done in Better World by 4 million people in over 100 countries around the world. Today in Better Worldians Radio, we are talking about the Dollywood Foundation. Dolly Partons non-profit, she supports children and families around the world. Joining us today David Dotson, the President of the Dollywood foundation. He oversees Dollys imagination library which we will discuss in depth during this episode. He also supports Dolly Partons production including editorial systems in Dollys many books. David previously served as an Executive Director of Associate catholic charities of East Tennessee. He is also a member of the Board of Directors of the public school firm for East Tennessee. Hi David, Welcome to Better Worldians Radio.

David
Hi, Thank you so much for having me. Its pleasure to be here today.

Raymond Hansell
Well, Its pleasure to have you on board. This is a special program for us at Better Worldians. Listeners actually are going to be anxious to hear what you have to say. Now Dolly Parton is known some of with a really big heart. So what makes her a better worldian in your mind?

David
Well, one of the I guess nicest things about Dolly first and foremost is asked us a lot is the person you see in public is exactly the person who she is in private. There is no difference who you see is exactly who she is in terms of big heart, kind and quiet people or so, drawn to, I guess 5 quick things always jump out to me, one is her eternal optimism, her eyes and her heart are always foster on to the good and people into the good and the situation to the good and then opportunity and thats infectious in terms of her optimism. Obviously second generosity has always been legendary and I say that not only on the so on profit sense of the foundation and her programs for just the generosity as a spirit. She is a giver, she likes, she is incredibly generous to her family and her friends, not just in monetary kind of way but in really giving herself to do whatever they need. She is extremely grateful. She knows what certainly know she has talent and know she has worked extremely hard, she is the first to always recognize that there is also a bit of fate and blessings, good old blessings involved in all of this and she is great in that position that she s been in and lastly I think 2 things that kind of go hand in hand are the thoughtfulness. She is a very thoughtful person, very instinctive person but also a person who really thinks before she speaks and is really, I just sort of quite thought about her which probably wouldnt, people wouldnt know and that start into spirituality. I think that she is very very spiritual and I think anybody whos life is grounded in spirituality also knows for well that there are things larger than themselves.

Raymond Hansell
Thats a really, such a really good explanation. So, tell us a little bit about Dolly and her childhood. What was that like, how has that helped her to inspire the philanthropy that has become such big part of her career.

David
Well, she grew up extremely poor in the objective sense of the world. Again, people who know her, she is quick to say that she never really (could not understand) poor because of the love that they share in their family and they always thought they wish they could have more but from an objective standpoint, it was a lot people living in a small house in Monroe, Mount Valley and Tennessee . So by any kind of material standards and certainly in terms of security standards, financial security it was just hoping that tomorrow has got same blessings like today and I think for her it certainly shaped her career her philanthropy in a big way which is in terms of knowing (could not understand) her career that she wanted to be successful, she believed that there was a world out there beyond where she was living and she wanted to experience that world. But hand and glove with that she wants that, she achieved what she dreamed of, she knew it was her obligation to give back to her hometown and to give back so that she could be of help and support to other people so perhaps they wouldnt experience some of the hardships that she had faced.

Raymond Hansell
She founded the imagination library over 20 years ago and thats distributing free books to kids around the world, around the country, so what inspired her to do that?

David
Her father. Her father - she in her words is the smartest man she ever knew but he couldnt read or write and he made a living for them with his hands and his back but she has always felt like Gosh if she could have known how to read/write, there is no talent what he could have done for himself and for his family because he was so smart but she saw (could not understand) on the limitations that created for him and for the entire family so again when she was in a position to do something she wanted to do something that honour him and we stand the sort of landscape of possibilities this notion of what would be really inspiring in creative way to help children learn to love books, to love reading, to be inspired by that was really place from which the program was created.

Raymond Hansell
Thats pretty interesting. We actually have a charity of the month program on the scrap in a few minutes to our audience but effectively one of the people that we cover with the company called First (could not understand) which is in the same space so,

David
I know them quite well (could not understand) good colleagues and friends

Raymond Hansell
so, how does the imagination library actually work. What does that do?

David
Very brief history is, it was created simply and exclusively for the children here in our home town to always view a philanthropy has always take care of your home town and your family and so all kinds of things of the (could not understand) came from that place. Certainly the foundation and its work before imagination library with scholarships and supporting the school were the program designed to reduce the dropout rate in the high schools back in the early 90s and then economically the creation of Dollywood and the other businesses, family entertainment businesses that have been created here are all about how to get back and take care of the town. The library was back to that point after some work for years in the school system and saying we needed to do something significant with children before they attended school and if there is one thing that we could do, what would it be and that would be this love of reading books and if there was one way to inspire that it was about the lots of books, gifting of lots of books to a child, and that lots translated into once a month from birth until their 5th birthday, brand new books, carefully chosen. But most importantly with the childs name on the label of the book and mailed right to the child at home, so the fact that the child was getting not a charity or a social service or even a education or Montessori program but the child and the familys point of view, they were given a gift. And we felt like, she certainly felt like those kind of terms and those kinds of situation would elevate this to something very different than a program. We felt like it was terrific success but then back in the 2000s other people in other communities were saying we would like to do this too and we knew that we couldnt find it and she couldnt find it everywhere in the world. So, we worked at a business model where local community adopted the program paid just for the books and mailing for the children and she absorbed all the overhead. We had a replicable and affordable model for this program to grow and since 2001 to today, so you are looking at a 16 year period we have gone from gifting through to about 2000 children a month to now 1.1 million per month across the world.

Raymond Hansell
Oh my god, thats amazing

David
So needless to say the program caught on was peoples (overlap)

Raymond Hansell
Certainly it did. What a wonderful story to see how that spread so widely. I am sure it is still spreading.

David
It is. The matter of fact, these last couple of years these do some of the fastest growing years we have ever had. We keep setting records each year with number of children involved. This past November is when we crossed the million children a month threshold and that had long dream of hers and mine as well to Gosh! Could we get one million and then coming early next year, we will hit that second sort of threshold in standard we never thought we could achieve we will have gifted over 100 million books since it started and this is the point to say, she is first, she is not doing all by herself, this network of local sponsors and organizations in several countries from united ways to Rotary clubs to governments to education foundations, community foundations. Its a vast network of partnership and thats why its been able to grow where it has.

Raymond Hansell
Fantastic. Now can anyone actually sign up to receive the free books?

David
They have to live in a community if thats sponsoring the program, our goal would be, one day be everywhere no matter what but right now in those couple of thousands communities that sponsor the program we do have like in Tennessee, obviously our home stay in Tennessee, it is universal. That any child who is in Tennessee under 5 can sign up no matter where they live, we are trying to replicate that in Alaska, Arkansas, South Carolina, some of the major cities, so that was in these large places, there is the universality of access but right now the fact of anyone in America being able to sign up anywhere is still a dream and a big one but one thing weve learned about ourselves is we are (could not understand) big dreamers.

Raymond Hansell
Absolutely. Got to dream big. Got to dream big. What do you think the future looks like speaking about dreaming big. What do you see is the future for imagination library?

David
Well, we had a 10 year plan and we are about the 3rd year of it, Dolly approved and we would like to see where we are currently operating which is the US, Canada, UK, Australia and Bullies, now here I mentioned Bullies, they like to have 10% of all the children under 5 in those countries actively participating in imagination library and then the other 90% knowing about the program, 10% of those populations we are looking at 2.3, 2 and half million kids a month and we figure at that kind of scale, we are obviously doing it not just for everybody to feel good, about giving and receiving but about moving the needle for children as they move through school that scale is everything and if we could impact that many children in a positive way so they are entering Kindergarten not only with the love of books and the love of learning and love of reading. Thats going to translate into academic success (could not understand) how its measured test scores, grades whatever that I think we all know alley bus who had kids that kids really, they will do what they love to do and its really hard to make them do something that they dont like or love to do. So I think you can tear up the future with this kind of scale over 5 -10 years which is everything that kind of falls out from that over a childs academic career which is better grades, better motivation and hopefully better people.

Raymond Hansell
Better people, Better Worldians. Okay.

David
Thats right. There you go. We

Raymond Hansell
We are going to talk more with David Dotson about Dollywood Foundation in a moment, but right now I would like to take a brief break and tell our listeners a bit about our game on Facebook called a Better world. A better world encourages habits of love and goodness, positive mindsets and giving to social causes to make a positive difference in the world. Players actually do things like send hearts, love, express gratitude, share acts of kindness, send get well notes to real sick children around the world and so many more things. Each month we partner with a different charity and challenge her players to do a certain number of good deeds within the game itself. When they do, we release funds to our charity partner with the month. Charity partners have included children international where we have actually helped perform surgeries for removal of palate, knocked knees and different countries around the world. First books providing books to the children for the first time. World vision and many more including Marys mail recently where they are actually now doing upto a million (could not understand) every single day for children in disadvantaged countries and at the same time getting them purge at the school level where they can also educate their minds and feed their bodies. This month we are partnering with experience camps. Experience Camps are one week summer camps for children whose parents, siblings or loved one has died. When our players reach the goals that we have set them for month, we will release funds for send kids to camp. You can find out more at betterworld.com. So lets get back to our conversation with David Dotson, president of the Dollywood foundation and my co-host MarySue Hansell.

MarySue Hansell
Hi David,

David
Hi Mary Sue.

MarySue Hansell
I really enjoyed listening to all that wonderful characteristics of Dolly, I would add just one more if I could be so bold to say

David
Please do.

MarySue Hansell
I think she just exudes love whenever you hear her speak or even see her in a movie, there is just lot of love that comes from her. But

David
There is indeed. She is a tremendously loving person and everybody responds to that love for sure.

MarySue Hansell
Yeah, and as a matter of fact, she made headlines last year with the My people fund which raised millions of dollars. How much for families affected by the wall fires in Tennessee. Can you talk more about that?

David
Yeah, I would be happy to because it was definitely a bit of a departure from business as usual but then when fire happens, it certainly disrupts peoples lives from businesses usual so, on Monday November the 28th we had a terribly dry summer, one of the driest in falls that I have ever seen, warm and it rains a lot in Tennessee, it hadnt rained in months highly unusual. That evening we had fires around, the place was extremely smoky, there was big fire up in national park and you couldnt hardly see very far in front of you but still it was warm kind of beyond kind of lot of these things tend to be contained and essentially what happened was the perfect storm of everything coming together about Monday evening of extremely high wind 70 80 miles in an hour downing power lines which sparked fires all over the place and then main fire swept down into the outskirts of Galvanberg then suddenly by 9 or 10 O'clock, that night I was watching the news and my house included packed and ready to evacuated, it was clear that and told number of people were literally running for their lives from their homes, so the next day it was kind of like a zombie day really trying to understand what had happened, emergency shelters and those kind of things, so kind of I went around and looked at what was happening and then on Wednesday Dolly was on tour, we set over Dollywoods offices to head at Dollywood myself, Dollywood miller, Dolly productions and (could not understand) Dolly said that this is what I think we should do and we put money in the hands of people as quickly as possible but I want to focus solely on people who lost their primary residents, who had no home to return. We didnt knew how many? No one knew how many. Nobody knew what we were facing and that the evening was the premier of her second Coat of Many____ colors movie and so she said, hey NBC, said I could do a video message may at 9 o'clock at the top of the show but can we be ready so of course, sure we can be ready and we were like how the heck are we going to be ready. But from like noon from 11 to 1 O'clock that day, we created the name My People Fund and kind of got down whenever we wanted do from 1 to about 6 Jacob Cummins and his staff who we work with, We all, we pulled together at the website the donor a part behind of the donation spot, she filmed the video, she turned out NBC (could not understand) video at 9 so we flicked it to the social media and next morning we woke up to million dollars so we then had a couple of weeks to kind of do the distribution that we wanted to because the idea was that everyone who lost their home to the fire would get a thousand dollars a month for 6 months which we though was cash in their pocket over a nice period of time and that would help them and many other aspects to recovery what we are doing but this would sort of be an unconditional loving response to the situation, so in 2 weeks time we went from that to handing people their first checks and then numbers they came were far greater than we originally have thought. We are at about 10 million dollars mark now and thats a lot of money to fulfill Dollys commitment.

MarySue Hansell
Thats fantastic

David
So we were fortunate enough with all these kindness and generosity from literally around the world that we were able to be in that position to do exactly what we intended to do.

MarySue Hansell
Well David, thats just wonderful. I know, I was checking out your facebook page and so all these really heart filled stories that people put on the videos and how thankful there were. Is there one that comes to your mind that you might share with our audience?

David
There is. Its a great story and its a funny one as well. But it does, theres one thats always that jumps out. There is a man, who he and his wife has retired here and he is working part time in one of the stores and that they lived in an area that is about a row on top of a ridge of about 10 cabin houses and they lived there full time and other rented the cabins out. So anyways, he said that when the fire started which is the same story for it just happened also quickly and without wanting to certainly it was in front of your house and they told his wife, we got to just get the cat and lets get out of here but he said right before he got in the car, he called his best friend in Toronto and said I just want you to know I think fire is going to take us, I dont know if I can make it but I am sure I can call you in the morning. So he had a harrowing story about getting up the top of the ridge and the road being blocked but they made it. The next day, he went back to go look at it and so this is again a story you will hear a lot about where it would be like burnt house, burnt house, burnt house then right there next to their house was a big cabin that was completely untouched by flames and any way, form, shape or fashion and then burnt house, burnt house. So the people who own the cabin next to them, they rented that out and they called them up and they said your house made it, they were like, great and they came down and they had their few days later from Cincinnati and the folks who own the home, they didnt burn, took him to home and they said to him and his wife, you know we talked it over and we decided that we are going to give you this house so you can live in it. Anyways like you cant do that, let us live there till we rebuild so they couple of more weeks go by, its Christmas time, they go upto this family invited them to Cincinaati to spend a few days and go to a Christmas party and (could not understand) already talked to his friend in Toronto that who he called that night. The friend called him at night and said you know, I didnt tell you all of the story and he goes whats that? He says, Well, when you called me and told me that you might not make it, because I am not a very religious person at all never I (could not understand) I got pray for them so he said All night he just kept praying for 118 mountain way, 118 mountain way, please god put the hand god, 118 mountain way ,the friend said, (could not understand) goes thats really great but thats not our address, they started laughing and he goes No, its not your address. No, Its the address of the house next to them that didnt burn

MarySue Hansell
Oh, I got Goosebumps on hearing that one.

David
I know and I said this out (could not understand) so he said they just couldnt believe it and so it all turned out, that was just an amazing story on all levels of the generosity of the people who offered their homes to them, the fact that they made and this is very funny and quirky story about the guest to show that even if you got the wrong address you should (overlap)

MarySue Hansell
I love that David. Thank you. How can our listeners help support The My people fund.

David
Well, you know interestingly and Thankfully enough, we have enough money to do what we need to do. So we are not really seeking donations anymore but there are still other needs in community beyond what we are doing and people go to mountaintough.org and it is the place thats locally operated of all the local efforts in your county, there are still tending to ensure and long term recovery so all of those mentioned in that website are wonderful organizations that are fully and completely endorsed.

MarySue Hansell
So, mountain tough, how do you spell tough? Just so that I get it correct

David
Yeah, tough. Mountainrough.org

MarySue Hansell
Okay, Mountaintough.org Well, thank you very much. Now I understand this quite a bit of philanthropy that Dolly does anonymously, can you give us any tidbit into that?

David
Well, you know I cant reveal any secrets [Overlap and laughter]

MarySue Hansell
She is a great person. How do you believe Dolly Parton and Dolly foundation is helping to make the world a better place?

David
Thats a great question. You can only hope you are. I guess you never really sure if you have may be after you are gone, somebody could tell you a bit. For us I think, we will start first with her and truly what she wants to do to make the world a better place is like I said started in a more specific way, how can I make my home town a better place. She talks to her..about her smoky mountain DNA that (could not understand) she was born and the town she was raised in even though she had a lot of pain and lot of poverty, she has such a love for her home town then such a feeling of obligation and commitment to make it and its people. Thats why she came up with the my people, these are my people and really what can I do for them. So, I think for her she wanted to be able to look back from up above and see over her life spend what she has left here. She has left obviously an academic engine that has given all kinds of people work and prosperity to the county, Our county is very different in the surrounding mountain counties because of she has given children the love of reading and then huge amount in terms of dollars of scholarship for kids to pursue their dream in college, she is left a new hospital with birthing unit named after her. She has given to, to help bring children into this world. She is definitely full of love to her county, a much better place than it was when she was born and I think anybody who lives here would act on that to say that this is a very different place to live because of Dolly Parton.

MarySue Hansell
And not to mention all the wonderful things that she has done, but the enjoyment that she has given to people with her songs and with her movies.

David
It is exactly right. Having kind of all one stop shop here, often times if people contacting us to express whatever thoughts they have about her and whatever she is involved in, but when you read emails and letters then receive phone calls and I think we all know this in our personal lives how much of song can mean to one at a certain time in your life or just by the way the songs written can capture the emotion or may be you cannot articulate yourself but the song and the words in that song capture it perfectly. So, many people talk to us and share with us stories of their life and times of honestly a despair or times of real love and at the height of marriage you found that person and just wept her songs meant to people, they have always been their to comfort people, to inspire people, to share love with people and thats like I see that the last till the end of time I am sure.

MarySue Hansell
Well, thank you!

Raymond Hansell
That incredible better worldian story she really exemplifies what exactly we think we mean when we say this is truly a better worldian. So, our listeners, you can learn about the Dollywood foundation by going to the dollywoodfoundation.org. David, thank you so much for joining today and joining us today at Better Worldians radio

David
Well, thank you for having me and thank you for all the fabulous work that you are doing as well. Its a thorough pleasure to be on this show.

Raymond Hansell
You are very very welcome. Better Worldians Radio is brought to you by Better Worldians foundation a 501C3 who is non- profit, mission is to make the world a better place by encouraging the very best in every one. Essentially we believe that its more important to play in flowers than just pour weeds. So, we focus on positive thinking , positive vibes and positive actions. In short our vision is to bring out the better worldian in everybody so that we can all make it a better world but we sure could use your help, donation support at better worldians radio partners as well as go to developing new features like articles, videos, blogs and many many more. We need your help from people like you better worldians to ensure the success of the mission. So go to Betterworldians.com to become the part of this important mission and I will see you next time everybody, please be a better worldian