KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Dolly Parton's My People Fund gave more than $8 million to people who lost their homes in the deadly Tennessee fires last year. Preliminary results of a study of that funding indicate it provided the right money at the right time.
The fund, administered by the Dollywood Foundation, was handed out to 875 Gatlinburg, Tenn.-area residents in the form of $1,000 checks, one each month over the six-month period after the Nov. 28, 2016, fire. Because of the incredible amount of money raised, the last check was increased to $5,000, meaning the total received by each was $10,000.
The funds were raised through donations, more than $9 million coming from a telethon Parton held. So successful was the campaign that Parton still had more than $3 million left after the checks were dispersed. She gave that money to the Mountain Tough program to help further the recovery effort.
Stacia West, a professor in the University of Tennessee’s College of Social Work, is overseeing a study that looks into how effective the fund has been in helping people and how it figured into those recipients’ recovery efforts.
She and her team of two graduate students surveyed by email 100 fund recipients who volunteered, asking them questions about their situation and how the money figured in.
“I just stood out there with a sign at the check center (during one of the check-giving events), asking people if they wanted to participate,” she said.
She got contact information on more than 300 recipients, of whom around 100 answered the survey anonymously.
With the year anniversary of the fire nearing, a preliminary report on findings was released Thursday. Another survey of those responding to the first survey will be sent out in December, and the complete report including those second responses will be released in February.
Although West cautioned that the report is preliminary at this stage, she said she is finding several results of interest.
First, the recipients were grateful to receive checks as opposed to in-kind donations or money with strings attached.
“Having someone dictate what you can use money for is dis-empowering,” she said.
“The research affirms what we experienced over the six months of distribution,” said David Dotson, president of the Dollywood Foundation. “First and foremost, providing direct monetary assistance allows the recipients to make their own choice about what they need to assist in their recovery.”
Among other data, the preliminary report showed how the family-budget spending of those affected changed greatly because of the fire.