Claim:

Country star Dolly Parton gave only her own money and did not ask for others’ donations for victims of the November 2016 wildfires that scorched areas in and around the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Rating:

The August 2023 fires on Maui in Hawaii were the deadliest U.S. wildfires in more than a century. Unfortunately, the mass tragedy brought with it a wave of misinformation and unfounded claims.

One such false rumor began to spread on Aug. 31. On that day, entertainment icon Oprah Winfrey and actor Dwayne Johnson, better known as The Rock, announced the creation of the People’s Fund of Maui. Its purpose was to provide $1,200 per month to victims of the blaze to help them in their recovery.

In a video announcement that was posted across both of the celebrities’ social media accounts, Winfrey and Johnson said they collectively pledged $10 million of their own money toward the fund. Their connection to Hawaii: Winfrey owns property on Maui, while Realtor.com reports that Johnson had a vacation rental on Oahu and had spent time in Hawaii when he was a child.

In the video, Winfrey said that she was inspired to create the fund after reading an article about how country star Dolly Parton also once established a fund to help victims in a previous fire in and around the Great Smoky Mountains.

The mention of Parton’s name in the the video led to a number of false claims from social media users who said that the country music legend had simply given her own money and not asked for others’ donations.

For example, several Facebook users claimed Parton never asked for donations, as did multiple users on X (formerly Twitter):

In a TikTok video (archived) with more than 1 million views, another user said of the matter, “Just one more thing on this Oprah-Dwayne Johnson begging for money thing. When she mentioned Dolly, when she used Dolly’s name to invoke some sort of sympathy in us, did she forget that when Dolly tries to help people, she just helps people? She doesn’t ask the poor people to do it for her. So respectfully, Oprah, keep Dolly’s name out [of] your f*cking mouth.”

However, these users and others who believed their claims got this story wrong. To explain why, we first have to take a look back several years.

In late November 2016, the Chimney Tops 2 Fire scorched 17,000 acres in and around Great Smoky Mountains National Park in North Carolina and Tennessee. More than 11,000 of the acres that were burned were within the park itself. The fire killed 14 people and caused an estimated $2 billion in losses, including about 2,500 buildings that were damaged or destroyed, The Associated Press (AP) reported.

In response, Parton, a native of the Smokies region, pledged $1,000 per month for a period of six months to each and every family that had been affected by the fires. The initial funds were to come from her companies via the Dollywood Foundation, in what was named the My People Fund, a name similar to the later-established People’s Fund of Maui. The monthly amount of money pledged was similar to the $1,200 per month later pledged by Winfrey and Johnson for Maui.

Parton announced the My People Fund in a video message much like the one later published by Winfrey and Johnson:

Parton’s My People Fund was eventually able to provide assistance to around 1,000 families affected by the Smokies fires. With the pledged assistance being originally planned as $1,000 per month for six months, that would calculate to a pledged amount of around $6 million from her companies’ and foundation’s funds. However, thanks to an increased amount of donations to the fund from a telethon featuring Parton, as well as other means of publicity, the final month’s check was distributed as $5,000, totaling $10,000 given each family for all six months.

Parton credited the donations to “thousands of individuals, businesses, and organizations from around the country and around the world.”

In other words, Winfrey and Johnson were simply following a plan that was previously executed by Parton for the Smokies, with the pair even pledging more of their own money up front to the Maui fund.

Further, on Sept. 1, 2023, The AP reported that the Dollywood Foundation had “consulted with Winfrey’s team multiple times” to ensure that the People’s Fund of Maui was successfully established:

Jeff Conyers, president of The Dollywood Foundation, said he consulted with Winfrey’s team multiple times in the past weeks to share the lessons that they’d learned from administrating the fund, which eventually granted $11 million to families who had lost their homes.

“Dolly’s idea was that, ‘Hey, look, these are my people and I want to take care of them and we trust them to know what recovery looks like for themselves and their families in the days and weeks following this immediate catastrophe here,'” Conyers said.

In the announcement, Winfrey and Johnson said they consulted with “community elders, leaders and residents including Hōkūlani Holt-Padilla, Keali’i Reichel, Archie Kalepa, Ekolu Lindsey, Kimo Falconer, Tiare Lawrence, Kaimana Brummel, Kaleikoa Ka’eo, Brian Keaulana, Kaimi Kaneholani, Henohea Kāne, Paele Kiakona, Ed Suwanjindar, Shep Gordon and Jason Momoa.”

In an article on OprahDaily.com from Sept. 3, Winfrey added that she hoped the fund would last longer than just six months:

Dwayne and I put in $10 million to start the fund. We want to continue for as long as we can, certainly as long as six months, giving each family $1,200—not just each family but each individual who is over 18 who has been distressed by this. We hope to make it to six months and even more. So that’s going to depend on your donations and your support.

This story will be updated if more information comes to light.

Sources

Ahillen, Steve. “6 Months after Wildfire, Gatlinburg Area Getting Back on Its Feet.” The Asheville Citizen Times, 26 May 2017, https://www.citizen-times.com/story/news/local/tennessee/gatlinburg/2017/05/26/6-months-after-fire-gatlinburg-area-getting-back-its-feet/335776001/.

Beaty, Thalia. “Oprah Winfrey and Dwayne Johnson Launch Fund with $10 Million for Displaced Maui Residents.” The Associated Press, 31 Aug. 2023, https://apnews.com/article/maui-wildfires-oprah-dwayne-johnson-donations-0e59c2e1dc06b8519c9b453c978ed1b9.

Chimney Tops 2 Fire – Great Smoky Mountains National Park (U.S. National Park Service). https://www.nps.gov/grsm/learn/chimney-tops-2-fire.htm.

Dorman, Travis. “‘Only Fitting’: Dolly Parton Donates $200,000 to Sevier County Volunteer Fire Departments.” Knoxville News Sentinel, 18 Mar. 2019, https://www.knoxnews.com/story/news/local/tennessee/2019/03/18/dolly-parton-donation-volunteer-firefighters-gatlinburg-wildfire/3208229002/.

Friedman, Megan. “Dolly Parton Is Hosting a Telethon to Help Tennessee Wildfire Victims.” Country Living, 5 Dec. 2016, https://www.countryliving.com/life/entertainment/a40773/dolly-parton-telethon-tennessee-wildfires/.

Gabbert, Bill. “After Action Review of the Chimney Tops 2 Fire.” Wildfire Today, 20 Dec. 2017, https://wildfiretoday.com/2017/12/19/after-action-review-of-the-chimney-tops-2-fire/.

Hauser, Christine. “Dolly Parton Pledges $1,000 a Month to Families Made Homeless by Tennessee Fires.” The New York Times, 1 Dec. 2016, https://www.nytimes.com/2016/12/01/us/dolly-parton-tennessee-fires.html.

Knoepp, Lilly. “How Dolly Parton Gave $12.5 Million And Unprecedented Research To Sevier County.” BPR, 24 Dec. 2018, https://www.bpr.org/news/2018-12-24/how-dolly-parton-gave-12-5-million-and-unprecedented-research-to-sevier-county.

“My People Fund Evaluation: Final Report.” The University of Tennessee at Knoxville, 4 Mar. 2018, https://www.csw.utk.edu/wp-content/uploads/sites/92/My-People-Fund-Evaluation-Final-Report.pdf.

“National Park Service Releases Review of Chimney Tops 2 Fire.” U.S. Department of the Interior, 31 Aug. 2017, https://www.doi.gov/pressreleases/national-park-service-releases-review-chimney-tops-2-fire.

Parton, Dolly. “Dolly Parton: I’m as Proud of This as Anything I’ve Ever Done.” CNN, 8 May 2017, https://www.cnn.com/2017/05/08/opinions/my-people-tennessee-dolly-parton-opinion/index.html.

“People’s Fund of Maui.” Entertainment Industry Foundation, https://www.eifoundation.org/peoples-fund-of-maui/.

Venhuizen, Harm. “Wildfires in Maui Are among the Deadliest in US History. These Are the Other Fires atop the List.” The Associated Press, 14 Aug. 2023, https://apnews.com/article/maui-deadliest-fires-us-history-507273968474a03bec332f42d10a018b.

“Victims of Deadly 2016 Tennessee Fire Will Have Another Chance to Pursue Lawsuits.” The Associated Press, 17 Aug. 2023, https://apnews.com/article/gatlinburg-fire-lawsuits-0f35464330ec1cf89ecc30776bc0586c.

Winfrey, Oprah. “Oprah Shares How the People’s Fund of Maui Came to Be.” Oprah Daily, 3 Sept. 2023, https://www.oprahdaily.com/life/a44976155/oprah-maui-fund-intention/.

Zap, Claudine. “Take a Look Inside Dwayne ‘The Rock Johnson’s Hawaiian Vacation Rental.” Realtor.com, 7 Apr. 2022, https://www.realtor.com/news/celebrity-real-estate/inside-dwayne-the-rock-johnson-hawaii-vacation-rental/.

Jordan Liles

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