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Here, Parton speaks exclusively to Vogue about her philanthropy work, what accomplishments she’s the most proud of to date, and how she remains so positive. Vogue: Congratulations on being a Carnegie Medal of Philanthropy honoree. How does it feel to receive that acknowledgment? Dolly Parton: I feel very special being among those folks. I’m proud for what I’m being honored for—especially with the Imagination Library. It’s always nice to be be recognized for what you do, although that’s not why you do it. Some people do, but that’s not why I do it! You take pride in it, but I take more pride in why I’m getting the award. We’ve done so many wonderful things through the Imagination Library; we’ve done great things for children in their young, impressionable years, so that they can learn to read and write. You’ve done great work supporting youth education through the Imagination Library, sending free books to children around the world. Why is that cause so close to your heart?
I started [that work] because of my own father, who was not able to read or write. He had had a family of 12, and he still managed to provide for us. My dad was really smart—I used to imagine what his life would have been like if he [had been literate]. So, I got the idea that it would be a good thing to do something in his honor. He’d always get a good kick out of hearing the kids call me the “book lady.” Whenever things like [this Carnegie Medal] happen in my career, I’m always thinking that my parents would be proud of me. You’ve always used your platform for good, and it’s not something you have to do. Where do you think your focus on philanthropy work stems from? I grew up in a very open-hearted, faith-based family. You’re taught to love and be accepting, and to give more than you receive. Both sides of my family are funny, tender-hearted, good people. Whether you believe in God or not, you need to be grounded; you need to believe in something greater than yourself. We grew up thinking that other people are just as important as we are. I wrote a song that’s going to be in my Christmas movie special in December. And it goes, “Whoever you are, be that. Whatever you do, do that. Anything else is just an act.” When I got into a position to be able to do it on a larger scale, I did. It means a lot to me. How hard can it be for me to take pride in the Imagination Library, knowing that I’m helping put books in the hands of children all over the world? It’s more about children learning to read—it’s the fact they get recognized. They get this little book with their little name on it in the mail, and they feel special. They start taking pride in themselves, and they know that somebody out there is thinking of [them].
You’ve done some great work through your Dollywood Foundation as well. What are some of your proudest achievments through that organization? I started it before I even had the Dollywood [amusement] park. I started giving out scholarships at the Sevier County High School, back when I had my first job with The Porter Wagoner Show. We’ve done things like help people when Gatlinburg burned [in 2016]; there were so many people who lost their homes and businesses. We’ve bought instruments and uniforms for schools. You helped spearhead Moderna’s COVID-19 vaccine research at a time when it was so easy to hide under the covers. Why did you feel the need to step up? Well, I’m not one to hide under the covers when something that scary is going on! That was just the freakiest thing—a plague that was going to wipe us all off the face of the earth. I try to keep my my heart in tune with what’s going on, as well as my eyes and ears, so when I started hearing and seeing all these things, I felt I needed to do something. I didn’t know exactly what to do, but I thought one one thing we could do is to find a vaccine—to try to stop it in its tracks, or keep it from spreading further. My heart and my head said to donate money to try and get a vaccine.
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