Let’s start 2012 off feeling great with a new SHINE post. Well, maybe you need to down that bloody mary first if you had a raucous New Year’s Eve. I promise I won’t shout or slam any doors.
As you regulars know, my goal with the SHINE posts is to feature everyday folks who are doing extraordinary things. Today, I’m shaking it up a bit. (It is the start of a new year, after all!) Headlines often highlight shallow and vapid celebrities, so why not turn the tables and shine a light on a few who are using their fame and fortune for good.
You probably know Dolly Parton from the worlds of music and film. If you live in the South, you’re probably also familiar with her Gatlinburg, Tennessee, amusement park called Dollywood. And I’ll bet over the years you’ve heard a few jokes about her ample bust or various nips and tucks. Jokes which, no doubt, Dolly would laugh at herself. She’s been quoted as having said, “You’d be surprised how much it costs to look this cheap.”
That may be on the outside, but inside Dolly has a heart of gold. In 1996, she started the Imagination Library, a foundation that mails one new book per month to kids from birth until they go off to kindergarten. She started the program to benefit the children in her rural home county because she wanted to foster a love of reading in children who otherwise might never have a book of their own. When a new book arrives on their doorstep, it creates an opportunity for parents to read to their children and maybe start a conversation. “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.”
Fifteen years later, the foundation now reaches 700,000 kids each month, and they’ve expanded to 1,600 local communities including Canada and the UK! The kids call Dolly the “book lady” and that’s all right by her.
The South Bronx is notorious. It is the poorest congressional district in the country, nearly half of the residents live below the poverty line, and the high school drop-out rate is almost 50 percent. But if you think that this is a place bereft of hope and joy, you’d be wrong because here you’ll find the DreamYard Project, which sends actors, dancers, painters and poets into underserved and underfunded South Bronx public schools and shows the kids a positive way to express themselves. Program participants have been able to envision a different kind of future – one that takes them to college and on to a fulfilling career, and even the White House. (Ten students were invited to perform at the First Lady’s daylong celebration of poetry in May.)
It was Caroline Kennedy’s love of poetry that got her interested in DreamYard, and the kids have kept her coming back. She regularly visits the arts center, helping the students with their poems and attending open mic performances. “They’re incredibly gifted and disciplined and dedicated to figuring out where they stand in relation to the world and who they want to be,” she said in a recent O Magazine interview. But Caroline Kennedy doesn’t just show up, pat the kids on the back for some face time and leave. In this time of budget cuts, she’s helped raise one million dollars in grant money to keep the program running. She also asked several students to assist in selecting work for a new children’s poetry anthology she’s editing. They got the opportunity to work with her in her publisher’s office a few times a month. Talk about career shadowing!
Here’s a poem written by a fourth grader (age 9) in the program:Despair By Charlos Do Fourth Grade, PS 46 From the DreamYard Newsletter, December 2010 It doesn’t matter who you are Or your culture We are all connected as one Like two cable wires glued tightly together. Cause I know that sometimes you feel Like you don’t fit in. Day after day your heart might feel stepped on You are worried about saying the truth. It is locked inside you like a jar with a lid. Until you speak it, it will stab you right in the heart. People in your school might tease you And shatter you into a million pieces Like pieces of glass exploded on the classroom floor. Like ten million vases breaking into fragments. Like your flesh is slowly tearing off your body. You feel different from the whole world Until you learn… You go home with raindrops upon your face, Sliding slowly down your cheek. Your mom says to you that day– She sings to you, “If you’re different, it makes you unique.” She sings, “There’s no one I know that can compare.” It changes your life And your scared spirit will fly away, Evolve into the great, mighty person you’ll be tomorrow. You’ll never feel shattered again, You’ll feel INVINCIBLE.
It’s difficult to talk about the non-profit organization Oceana without mentioning actor Ted Danson. He was an integral part in its founding in 1987, when, walking along a stretch of Santa Monica beach, he saw a sign reading: Water polluted, no swimming. “Trying to explain that to my kid was hard,” Danson remembers. “It got me questioning a lot of things.”
Oceana is the largest international organization working solely to protect the world’s oceans by stopping pollution, promoting responsible fishing, protecting marine life, and preserving coastal areas. For two decades, Danson’s second job has been to spread the word about the crisis in Earth’s oceans. He sits on Oceana’s Board of Directors. He’s written a book (Read an excerpt here) and he travels around the globe talking to everyone from the media to Congress to conferences. “Ocean conservation is rewarding because you absolutely can make a difference… the oceans are incredibly resilient.”
Coming up next on SHINE: Naomi finds the healing power of plants through Therapeutic Gardens.