April-May 2018 | Features

Don’t judge a book by its cover

Don’t judge a book by its cover

With her tell-tale looks and sweet, sultry voice, Dolly Parton has been a country and western icon for more than half a century, but what people don’t know much about is her education-focused philanthropy.


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April-May 2018

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The legendary singer has sold more than 100 million records and enjoyed a successful movie career. However, less well-known is Dolly’s philanthropy.

Since the mid-1980s, this icon of country music has supported many charities through her Dollywood Foundation – particularly in areas of literacy. One of the main projects is the Rotary-supported Dolly Parton Imagination Library, for which the inspiration came from her father, Lee.

“My daddy was the smartest man I have ever known,” she said. “But he could not read or write. Early on, I decided if I were ever in a position to do something good for kids, it would be to make sure they could read.”

“I am not a person to tell people what they should do, so I thought if we could do something that inspired kids to love books and to love reading, then maybe we could make a difference.”

“After a year or so of figuring it out, we created the Imagination Library.”

Dolly set up the first Imagination Library in 1995 in her hometown in Sevier County, Tennessee. Since then, The Dollywood Foundation has sent over 70 million free books to children worldwide, with more than 1.3 million posted in the UK.

The Imagination Library is a free book-giving initiative devoted to inspiring a love of reading for young children everywhere. Every child enrolled in the Imagination Library receives a book personally addressed to them in the post every month until their fifth birthday.

I thought if we could do something that inspired kids to love books and to love reading, then maybe we could make a difference.”

All of the titles in the Imagination Library are published by Penguin Random House and carefully selected by a panel of experts in early childhood literacy and reading.

A child enrolled from birth to their fifth birthday will build their own home library of up to 60 books and the programme is completely free for children and their families.

In June 2014, Dolly handed over her one millionth book to a UK child. “Every time a child comes up to me and says ‘Thank you for the books’, I say, I love being known as The Book Lady!”

For Rotary, this has been a perfect project working alongside Helen Hastle, who is the Regional Director of The Dollywood Foundation UK.

With access to local schools, councils and youth services, alongside dynamic and hard-working members, Rotary clubs have been able to deliver and successfully run Imagination Libraries across the UK.

The driving force of the Rotary effort has been Rolf Sperr from the Rotary Club Cleethorpes, who has been instrumental in setting up five branches alone.

Dolly, incidentally, is an Honorary Member of the Lincolnshire club.

Rolf, who has been a Rotarian since 1990, says “There is a big difference between the children who get the books and children who do not get the books by the time they start primary school.”

Rolf has worked closely with Leonard Gelblum from the Rotary Club of Nottingham – a project which coincided with the Midlands club’s centenary.

“The Rotary Club of Nottingham is one of the oldest clubs in the country,” explained Leonard. “It was about to enter its 100th year of operation.”

I am not a person to tell people what they should do, so I thought if we could do something that inspired kids to love books and to love reading, then maybe we could make a difference.”

“We had a talk from the Dolly Parton Foundation who spoke about a library to the club which ticked a big box for us because literature in Rotary is a major project.”

“At the same time, we discovered the importance of early intervention in education – if you can get hold of kids before they are four or five-years-old then you can lay the foundations of education.”

The Nottingham Imagination Library now has over 3,781 children registered and shipped over 89,000 books since starting five years ago.

As a result, Nottinghamshire City Council has produced a website with a voice message from the country and western star.

Dolly Parton knows that the value of Rotary to the project is immense. “To make all of this work successfully, we have to have partners,” she explained.

“No matter how clever our idea is, it takes our local sponsors to make this dream a reality for the children.”

“Since day one, local Rotary clubs expressed an interest in what we are doing. However, we did not go big time until I was invited to speak at the Rotary International Convention in Montreal. We created an international partnership that day which continues to grow over the years.”

“Rotary is so strong. I don’t think you need much advice or inspiration from me. You have always dreamed big and have done so much good for so long. I can only say ‘thank you’ and tell you that it is always an honour to work together.”

But Dolly is dreaming big. When asked about her vision for the libraries in ten years, she said: “Our hope is for 2.5 million children to be enrolled and receiving a book each month. It’s a big dream, but I am a mighty big dreamer!”

You can find out more about Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library here.

Rotary Magazine