Skip to main content

On November 28, 2016, wildfires in Gatlinburg, Tennessee, destroyed 1,300 homes and left local families in emotional and economic crisis. Local foundations, national relief organizations, and others stepped up to help. But what is the best way to help someone after they’ve lost everything? Money? Clothing? Shelter?

UT College of Social Work professor Stacia West wanted to find out.

Just 48 hours after the fire, Sevier County native Dolly Parton created the My People Fund through her charitable organization, the Dollywood Foundation. The fund provided $1,000 per month for six months to nearly 1,000 families who had lost their home and were eligible for aid. The fund distributed final checks of $5,000 to the families in May 2017 for a total of $9 million in immediate cash assistance.

My People Fund information

“I was driving down the road and heard on NPR that Dolly Parton had created the My People Fund,” said West. “That got me thinking about guaranteed basic income, an alternative idea to means-tested social welfare. It’s where you give families cash to cover their basic needs, and I realized that’s exactly what Dolly was doing.”

Stacia West
Stacia West

West reached out to David Dotson, president of the Dollywood Foundation, and asked him if it would be possible to evaluate the fund’s impact.

“Essentially, when there’s a crisis we want to get people back on their feet,” said West. “But what does that really mean?”

West and Dotson led a team in designing an online survey that included questions on housing, financial impact, physical and emotional heath, and sources of support.

The first survey was administered to voluntary participants in April 2017, five months after the fire. It also included several retrospective questions to understand participants’ situation before the fire as well as demographic and educational attainment information.

Read the full report.


According to the US Department of Housing Development, a family paying more than 30 percent of its monthly income for housing is at risk of being unable to afford food and other necessities.

  • For partnered or married households, respondents reported spending 64 percent of their current income on housing after the fire, compared to 38 percent before the fire.
  • After the fire, the majority of participants stayed in a hotel, motel, or other rental property that they paid for themselves or with assistance from sponsoring organizations.
  • Many former homeowners are now renting their primary residence. Sixty percent are living in apartments, compared to only 10 percent at the time of the fire.
  • All households indicated that their primary residence had been completely destroyed.
  • Nearly 40 percent of respondents did not have homeowners or renters insurance.

Financial Impact

Most families were already financially strained at the time their homes were destroyed. Disruptions in work schedules and costly out-of-pocket expenses were commonplace for many families in the wake of the fires.

  • 70 percent worked full time or part time at the time of the fire. Most had to take time away from work—often unpaid time—to arrange alternate housing for themselves and their families.
  • 74 percent of respondents incurred out-of-pocket expenses related to the fire that were not covered by insurance.
  • Most respondents covered the unexpected expenses with their regular income, savings, or credit cards.
  • Some households reported they are now financially better prepared for an unexpected emergency, but half reported no emergency savings. Of the half that did have savings, 82 percent had more than $1,000.

Physical and Emotional Health

Respondents shared details of their physical and emotional health both before and after the wildfires.

  • Since the fires, over half of the respondents reported feelings of sadness or loss of pleasure in things they once enjoyed.
  • 17 percent reported taking medication to manage depression, and 14 percent reported taking medication to manage anxiety.
  • 26 percent reported health problems before the fire, while 31 percent reported health problems after.
  • 27 percent reported they had developed breathing or pulmonary problems as a result of the fire.

Sources of Support

Respondents reported community resources and social networks were essential sources of support.

  • When asked what type of support was most helpful in the days following the fires, 62 percent said cash donations, 27 percent said item donations, and 11 percent said emotional support.

“The My People Fund, in tandem with traditional disaster response, allowed these families to make their own choices,” said West. “This is powerful insight when it comes to quicker disaster relief and recovery. Ultimately, these individuals have lost time from work and income with no financial reserves. The bottom line? It may be more efficacious to provide cash.”

West’s preliminary report is part of a larger evaluation of the My People Fund. Overall, the respondents continue to face a number of challenges related to housing, finances, health, and emotional well-being. However, many reported that community and social supports have been instrumental in helping them regain stability.

In December 2017, the survey will be repeated to determine the longer-term impacts of participation in the My People Fund. That data will be released in February 2018.

Since June 2017, ongoing support for the community members impacted by the fires is managed by the Mountain Tough Recovery Team. The organization has created a donation page that ensures all funds stay within these communities.

The research was supported by UT’s Community Engagement Incentive Grant, the College of Social Work, and the Dollywood Foundation.

Media coverage: Associated Press, Nov. 17 (ran in 38 outlets)


Tyra Haag (865-974-5460,

Stacia West (615-782-6155,