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Dolly Parton Donated 130 Million Books to Children

Dolly Parton donated 130 million books to children, and the number continues to climb. As an award-winning singer and songwriter, Parton is well known for her work in the entertainment industry. But she’s less well known for her philanthropic work—especially when it comes to books.


Parton was born in a one-room cabin in Tennessee, the fourth of 12 children. She described her family as “dirt poor,” and although her father was business savvy he could neither read nor write. As Parton achieved more and more success, she began to think of ways to help others, particularly in poor rural areas like where she grew up.


As Parton said, “When I was growing up in the hills of East Tennessee, I knew my dreams would come true. I know there are children in your community with their own dreams…The seeds of these dreams are often found in books and the seeds you help plant in your community can grow across the world.” And so in 1995, she launched Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library in her childhood home of Sevier County, Tennessee.

Dolly Parton Donated 130 Million Books to Children
Parton said “It is an honor for me to share the incredible talent of these authors and illustrators. They make us smile, they make us laugh and they make us think.” Image credit: Dolly Parton's Imagination Library

The idea for the Library was simple: because a lot of families don’t have the means to purchase books, each child who joins the program is mailed an age-appropriate book every month from birth to five years. If the parents sign the child up right after birth, that’s a total of 60 books by the time the child turns six. And multiple children from the same family can sign up—meaning that a four-child family could potentially receive 240 free books, and a 12-child family like the one Parton grew up in could receive a staggering 720 free books.

Families responded to Parton’s generosity. By 2003, Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library had mailed one million books. In 2004, the program expanded to the entire state of Tennessee. Nationwide coverage followed soon after. The program launched in Canada in 2006 followed by the United Kingdom in 2007, Australia in 2013 and the Republic of Ireland in 2019. With growth like that, it’s no wonder Dolly Parton donated 130 million books to children.

"I think it is pretty clear that now is the time to share a story and to share some love.”

As government lockdowns during the coronavirus crisis drag on, Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library has started a new program of weekly bedtime story videos. “Goodnight With Dolly” launched on 2 April, with Parton herself reading the books. Regarding this new program, Parton said: “This is something I have been wanting to do for quite a while, but the timing never felt quite right. I think it is pretty clear that now is the time to share a story and to share some love.” She couldn’t be more right, and during this crisis people all over the world are willingly helping each other.


One of the objections often raised to a purely voluntary society is that not enough people will voluntarily pay for things like public libraries, and so poor children will never be able to read books. As of this writing, there are over 1.5 million children registered with Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library, and over 133 million books have been mailed. Parton’s amazing example not only shows that there are other methods to meet literary needs than the archaic model of the public library, but that those needs can be met by people acting voluntarily.

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Voluntaryism Means More Cajun Navies

This piece by Dan Johnson was the winner of VIA’s inaugural essay contest.

The 5-year-old Rescue

“He’s hanging on to the tree branch,” a voice crackled across the line. “A kid…he looks 5 years old…is hanging on to a tree branch.”

“What street?” another voice responded. “X and X.” “Okay, we need our closest boat to respond.”

The line went silent. Too long. Then a third voice cracked over the radio “We got him! He’s in the boat.”

Everyone breathed a huge sigh of relief. A few claps and cheers from listeners. Then, it was back to work. The rescue was impressive, but there were thousands more that needed help, and many more weeks of work ahead.

Broader Disaster Picture

It was August of 2017 and Hurricane Harvey had blasted the coasts of Texas and Louisiana, dumping 33 trillion gallons of water on the southeast United States. Houston was at the epicenter of Harvey’s fury with most areas receiving over 30 inches of rain, leaving hundreds of thousands without power and bursting lakes, streams, and levees designed to protect residents from lesser storms.

While federal and state agencies—including the U.S. Coast Guard—mobilized quickly and were on the ground within hours of landfall, there was one group that received more praise for being at the heart of the disaster (and rescued more people) than anyone else: the Cajun Navy.

On that day in August, I was listening in to the “Navy” Houston relief channel. A friend had noticed my interest in how the Cajun Navy had rescued Louisiana residents during the 2014 floods, and had offered to let me listen in as they worked their operations during Harvey.

The Cajun Navy had begun as a rag tag group of citizens with shallow water boats who, after the miserable federal response to Hurricane Katrina, decided to work together to protect their neighbors from any future Louisiana flooding. On the day after Harvey struck, they felt a strong urge to help their more southern neighbors, and posted a video of a convoy of boats and trucks headed to perform water rescues in Houston.

"These were hundreds of volunteers, doing what needed to be done for humans they’d never met, simply because it was the right thing to do."

The rescue of the 5-year-old—and the realization of how much impact this cooperation between citizens could have—was too much for me to take sitting on the sidelines. I asked a coordinator to put me to work, and that they did. I spent every free hour calling people who would post their location on social media asking for help. I would ask about their emergency situation, how many needed help, and how high the water was. Point, click, call. Receiving twitter confirmation that someone you alerted rescuers to was rescued is a high I don’t know that I’ll ever get over.

There were hundreds of people involved in the operation. From rescuers, to social media, to logistics and dispatch, people across the entire country were powering the Navy’s operations. These were hundreds of volunteers, doing what needed to be done for humans they’d never met, simply because it was the right thing to do.

Numbers in any disaster are sticky and hard to exactly pin down. Rescuers have better things to be doing than paperwork. However, it is estimated that the hundreds of volunteers of the Cajun Navy, just Americans doing what we do best, rescued over 6,000 Houstonians from catastrophic flooding. The United States Coast Guard, with a $4.6 billion budget by comparison, rescued about 4,500.

More than Disaster Relief

Disaster relief is often where it’s most easy to see, as the reporters are on the ground and the news cameras are rolling, but this type of voluntary cooperation happens all the time. It is in everything from the classic example of helping an old lady cross the street or helping a single mother through tough times to the thousands of Americans who pitch in to help veterans recover from the horrors of war.

In 2018, American voluntaryism smashed records with 30% of Americans volunteering a total of 6.9 billion hours in a single year for their communities, churches, and vulnerable populations. There are over 314,000 public charities in the U.S. today, and that number is growing every year.

Hundreds of millions of us donate to crowdfunding sites to help people pay for unexpected expenses, get new ventures off the ground, and help others in need. To some this seems like a tragedy, but over 120 million donations worth over $9 billion later, we can see how generous Americans are to their fellow Americans in time of need.

Charities and purpose-driven for-profits are outperforming government agencies at nearly every turn, and we are gradually losing faith in government to solve complicated social problems. Even though these voluntary actions may not get the media coverage and press conferences of suit-wearing politicians, this robust social safety net is upheld by millions of Americans working to lift up Americans in need.

A Solution to our Toxic Political Climate

And yet, according to Gallup polling, 77% of Americans believe we are more divided than ever before. This has manifested itself on both sides of the political spectrum in such ugly ways as public shaming, cancel culture, and even violence. Many of us can recall a time in recent years where a friend or family member was “unfriended” on social media or was cut out of someone’s life purely due to their political views. Blame has been laid at the feet of many things for this: social media, angry words from politicians, rampant sexism and racism—even Russian propaganda.

"We line up to the ballot boxes like lining up for war—to the victors go the spoils, and to the losers, they shall pay."

The answer is far more simple. Instead of relying on the very cooperation we so enjoy and participate in in our daily lives, we have turned to forcing our neighbors to adopt the solutions we think are best for them. We line up to the ballot boxes like lining up for war—to the victors go the spoils, and to the losers, they shall pay. We fear the American who dresses different, holds different personal views, and votes for people we disagree with. We are players in a winner-take-all game, and we’ll be damned if we’re going to lose.

That’s not how the men and women of the Cajun Navy viewed it. There was no regard or consideration for color, sex, or political affiliation. When certain reporters, for ratings, tried to sow such division, it was resoundingly rejected by both volunteers and those they were trying to help. What if we instead adopted their attitude—not just in disaster relief, but for each of the problems we are trying to solve?

What About Voluntaryism?

There’s actually a name for this philosophy: it’s called voluntaryism.

Like all ideologies, voluntaryism is the pursuit of an idea. Also, like all ideologies, the idea is the ideal, unlikely to be fully realized at any point, but still the north star that guides us towards a better future.

Voluntaryism simply states that the ideal is that all human interaction should be voluntary—that we build better communities, better societies, and a better world when we use cooperative means to solve problems rather than those where we take from our neighbor to benefit ourselves.

Voluntaryism means more Cajun navies everywhere. It is Cajun food banks. It is Cajun health clinics. It is Cajun shelters. It is Americans doing what we do best: it is helping one another.

"I choose to believe in my fellow Americans. That’s why I’m a voluntaryist."

Voluntaryism is also bigger than that. Voluntaryism is every win-win transaction in business, in charity, and in society. If the hammer and sickle represents communism and the raised fist represents socialism, it is the handshake that represents voluntaryism. Not me, not us versus them, but you and me together.

Perhaps that is too radical a proposition for America today. Perhaps we are too angry at each other to cooperate. But it is in the rough times that our values truly matter, and I choose to believe in us. I choose to believe for the 5-year-old who will live because of the kindness of strangers, for the dialysis patient who was airlifted by private helicopter, and for the family on the 3rd floor rescued by a fisherman from Louisiana.

I choose to believe in my fellow Americans. That’s why I’m a voluntaryist.

Dan Johnson

Dan Johnson

This guest post is by Dan Johnson. Dan is the founder of We Do Better, an organization concerned with the best outcomes for Americans in need.

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Seeking Volunteers for our Covid-19 PPE Project

Voluntaryism in Action (VIA) is seeking volunteers for our Covid-19 PPE Project! VIA’s chief of technology, Alon Ganon, is piloting a project to produce face shields in response to the high-demand for Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) since the viral pandemic Covid-19 began sweeping the globe with caution, fear, and necessity.

While many volunteers all over have met the demand by producing cotton masks in their home for close family, friends, and their local hospitals, Ganon’s tool to create these shields is quite unique—a 3D printer, specifically a model created by Czech inventor Josef Prusa who forefronted the original project to produce the face shields when his country was especially hit by the need.

Since then, Ganon has obtained a dependable design for the U.S. based on Prusa’s original design, and now VIA is calling for the community to help with supplies and operations to assemble and process the face shields. The shields are durable and the frames sanitizable, enabling them to last through the remainder of the long pandemic. Here are four ways our voluntaryists can help us with provisions:

  • By donating supplies directly. Needed supplies include clear presentation covers, 1” wide elastic or rubber bands, 1.75 mm of PETG (plastic), and disposable gloves. These supplies can be found and bought online via Amazon Wishlist.
  • By donating your money to Voluntaryism in Action. Money is used to supply the needed materials to make the 3D printed PPE’s as well as the shipping costs to process the completed equipment.
  • By creating and donating face shields to VIA using a 3D printer. The free downloadable file can be found here. VIA accepts them in PLA or ABS—please notate which filament is used when sending them. Those with 3D printers are also encouraged to create bias tape makers to donate to their local sewing communities making fabric masks.
  • Healthcare workers can help additionally by donating face shields to VIA for free or the cost of shipping, as we are managing and processing them to where they are most needed with this project.

If you have any questions about our project or are a healthcare worker in need of a face sheild or you know healthcare workers in need, please reach out to us at [email protected] And please help us spread the word as we continue seeking volunteers for our Covid-19 PPE project!

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Nashville Tornado Disaster Relief

During the early morning hours of March 3rd, a very violent EF3 tornado moved through Nashville, Tennessee. Most of the Music City’s residents were asleep soundly in their beds as the funnel tore into downtown with its echoing roar.

By the time the storm approached Cookeville, Tennessee, it had produced a terrifying E4 with 175mph winds—the strongest our nation has seen in nearly four years. A resident of Cookeville, Eric Johnson, was crouching with his family in a bathtub when they were pulled and thrown 50 yards into a pile of debris. While they were lucky to survive, 24 lives were claimed in Nashville and Cookeville in total and hundreds of injuries were reported.

Nashville Tornado Disaster Relief
The E4 tornado rips through Nashville, TN.

When the sun rose on March 4th, Nashville looked entirely different than just hours before. Displaced families sifted through piles of memories to grab pieces of their own. Streets in downtown and closely lying neighborhoods were decorated with torn floral curtains, shattered flat screen televisions, family photos, and incredible amounts of debris piled on top of each other in mounds. Within just days, over 2,400 volunteers arrived from all over the US to feed residents and help with clean up.

Nashville Tornado Disaster Relief
Eric and Faith Johnson in the ruins of their home.

The morning after the storm’s harrowing devastation, Voluntaryism in Action launched the “Nashville Tornado Disaster Relief” fund. Within days, our donors were able to raise over $5,000 that was sent to the Community Foundation of Middle Tennessee. There, these funds will be utilized to help with disaster relief and family needs.

With the power of voluntary assistance, these cities are being pieced back together quickly—action greatly needed considering we are in the beginning of what looks like a very active storm season in the southeast. If another crisis like this occurs, the VIA team stands ready to look for ways to send help to those in need. “Nashville Tornado Disaster Relief” is poised to become “Anytown Anystorm Disaster Relief,” thanks to our generous donors.

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March 2020 Organizational Update

March has been an incredibly busy month for us at VIA! We started out the month initiating emergency relief for tornado victims in Tennessee, and then the COVID-19 crisis suddenly turned the world upside down. Many of our volunteers were impacted, but we’ve been able to do our part to help those in our communities and all across the country who were the most affected by the government’s actions.

Here’s a quick rundown of what we’ve accomplished this month:

  • Raised $5K for victims of the severe tornadoes in Nashville and surrounding areas.
  • Raised nearly $20K for COVID-19 relief.
  • Provided a few weeks worth of meals for 68 children and 37 low income families across the country. At our current pace we expect to be able to help five times that many!
  • Further invested in our IT infrastructure to operate more efficiently and cost-effectively.
  • Got our publishing department off the ground to help spread information about the voluntaryist philosophy as well as sharing what our small team has been able to accomplish. Check out our latest articles and share them with your friends!
  • Assistant Director Justin Glassman and Publishing Manager Jeff Perry represented VIA on our very first podcast! You can listen to the episode featuring VIA here.

Heading into April, we will continue to disperse COVID-19 relief as quickly as we can. You can help us by sharing this relief form with your communities: https://viaction.org/covid19-relief

As time allows, we hope to appear on podcasts more often to help spread our reach even further so that we can help even more people. None of this would be possible without our donors—thank you so much for helping us help so many people! Together we can prove to the world that voluntaryism is the better way.

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Private Entities are Combating Government Enforced Boredom

The government’s belated response to the coronavirus has been to force everyone they can to stay indoors—sometimes at gunpoint. In addition to the economic impact, many people are getting a serious case of cabin fever. People stuck at home need something to do before they start weaving baskets. But as usual, voluntary efforts take over when the state fails, and private entities are combating government enforced boredom. There are too many people helping to count, but here is a quick rundown of some highlights of the efforts being made.

In addition to donating millions of dollars to medical coronavirus relief efforts, Amazon has made much of its family-friendly movies and TV shows available for free, including classics like Arthur and Reading Rainbow. They have also altered their Audible audiobook streaming service to make hundreds of titles in multiple languages available to listeners for free—even such apropos titles as “Brave New World” and “Atlas Shrugged.”

Amazon is far from the only player in the digital media industry. Not to be outdone, Apple has added a limited-time “Free Books” section to its Apple Books app. Nonprofits are not being left behind. The non-profit online library Internet Archive has created a National Emergency Library where books can be read without the main site’s lending restrictions.

Pokemon Go is a game beloved by millions across the world. Unfortunately one of the main mechanisms in the game is walking around outside—a great form of exercise that, in some areas, the government will arrest you for nowadays. But the creator of Pokemon Go have altered the game’s mechanics temporarily to make it possible to catch Pokemon easily from your home and making it easier to interact with other players—even giving away free in-game items.

Private Coronavirus Relief is Better than Government
"We are committed to the safety and well-being of our community," the development team of PokemonGo said.

Individual creatives are also acting to meet the mental and emotional needs of people imprisoned in their own homes by the government. Award-winning children’s artist Mo Willems is holding virtual “lunch doodle” sessions from his home. Using the hashtag #OperationStoryTime, authors of children’s books are using social media to provide free readings of their books for families. You can even find Julie Borowski reading her modern classic “Nobody Knows How To Make A Pizza,” and Connor Boyack reading “The Creature from Jekyll Island” from his Tuttle Twins series.

Neither are the finer aspects of entertainment being left out. World-renowned actor Sir Patrick Stewart is tweeting out daily readings of Shakespeare’s sonnets. “When I was a child in the 1940s, my mother would cut up slices of fruit for me (there wasn’t much)”, Stewart said, “and as she put it in front of me she would say, ‘An apple a day keeps the doctor away.’ How about, ‘A sonnet a day keeps the doctor away’?”

The Metropolitan Opera was forced to cancel its live presentations, but is re-airing its Live in HD series for free.  “We’d like to provide some grand opera solace to opera lovers in these extraordinarily difficult times,” said Met General Manager Peter Gelb. “Every night, we’ll be offering a different complete operatic gem from our collection of HD presentations from the past 14 years.”

Headlines all over the world have focused on the medical impacts of the coronavirus, and the financial impact of the government’s actions. Often overlooked has been the emotional an psychological impacts on individuals and families. But as we can see, private entities are combating government enforced boredom, demonstrating again that people will voluntarily help each other—and that help is always better than what the government offers.

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