Everybody who knows anything about me knows I was born and raised in the Smoky Mountains of East Tennessee. Even though I left to follow my dreams the day after I graduated from high school, my family and my mountains are where my roots are and where my strength has always come from, especially during hard times.
I’ve always thought of everyone in my family as My People. It’s just the way we were raised — everybody is important and everybody takes care of each other. And it goes a lot farther than your kinfolk. Your neighbors are your family ’cause they take care of you, too, and I’ve always thought of everybody in my mountains as part of my family.
Then, last November, my precious Smoky Mountains were filled with not just smoke but massive fires that swept through and did lots of damage. And when the smoke cleared, I realized that it was more than just me saying, “everyone in the Great Smoky Mountains is my family.” They really are My People. I hurt and grieved and prayed right along with them, and because I’m one of them and they are part of me, I knew that I had to do something to get my people through these hard times and see them land on their feet on the other side. That’s what families do. That’s what neighbors do. I knew that my people had helped me out through the years — been there and helped see me make all my dreams come true. And I was going to do everything I could to put their dreams back on track, too.
Part of why the people in the Smokies are my people is that when someone needs help, everybody steps up to do their part. And a whole lot more. I got with my great folks at Dollywood and the Dollywood Foundation, and together we came up with what we thought would be the best way to help those nearly a thousand people who had lost everything with “a hand up” and help them get back on their feet. I asked lots of my friends to help us raise the money to make this happen, and the response was just overwhelming. Thousands of individuals, businesses, and organizations from around the country and around the world donated so we could provide families with $1,000 every month for six months. We helped over 900 families each month and we gave the final check — which was for $5,000 — on Friday, for a total of $10,000 given to each family.
I’m as proud of being part of this, helping my people, as anything I’ve ever done in my life. And our next step is to continue to look at what’s ahead for everyone and our long-term recovery here. We are partnering with the Mountain Tough Recovery Organization, which leaders of Sevier County and the cities of Gatlinburg, Pigeon Forge, and Sevierville formed to address some of the longer-term needs for residents affected by the fire, like housing, employment, and counseling. And we’ll get there, because that’s what us mountain folks do.
People still ask me every day how they can help, ask is there is still anything we need. That’s easy — come see for yourself. Bring your family and have the time of your lives. Take a hike in our beautiful mountains. Make memories at the great attractions here, eat some of our great cookin’. You’ll find it as hard to leave my mountains as I do, but I’ll tell you my secret — once you make the Smokies part of your life, the mountains will live in your heart forever.