1990 Dolly launches 'The Buddy Program' in Sevier County, Tenn., to tackle local dropout rates
The program launched in 1991 as an effort to decrease the dropout rate in Sevier County. In the early 1990s, there was a dropout problem in Sevier County schools. Over 30% of all students never graduated a decision which not only crippled their own lives but made it increasingly difficult for Sevier County to prosper.
Research conducted by The Dollywood Foundation identified seventh and eighth grades as the two key years when children made conscious decisions about finishing school. The Dollywood Foundation started exploring ways to address this problem. After a few months of discussion, Dolly proposed the Buddy Program.
In 1991, seventh and eighth grade students were invited to a special assembly in the newly built Dolly Parton Celebrity Theatre at Dollywood. A very special guest would lead the assembly, none other than Dolly Parton herself. Dolly told the students that day she wanted each of them to choose a Buddy and if they didn’t have a Buddy she would find one for them. She went on make a very special announcement: she offered to personally give $500 to each and every student in the seventh and eighth grades if they graduated from high school. However, there was one additional requirement: each student’s Buddy must graduate as well and they had to sign a contract to pledge to do everything they could to make sure both graduated.
The program was a great success and ultimately the dropout rate for those classes plummeted to 6%. More importantly, it served as a catalyst for the community to rally around a number of initiatives to keep children in school. These children are now the new generation of leaders in Sevier County and all proudly recall that special moment when they graduated from high school and Dolly Parton handed them a check for $500!