“We are blessed.”
Cindy Pennington’s sentiment pretty much sums up her life and those she loves and cares about. Pennington serves as executive director of the Arc.
Pennington is blessed she has a 93-year-old mother who enjoys visiting from Decatur to enjoy Golden Eagle football and seeing other things around campus. She’s blessed that her older sister, Kathy, who was diagnosed with melanoma, is healing from surgeries and on the road to recovery. She’s also blessed to have an extended family consisting of hundreds and hundreds of Arc clients and their families.
A life of caring for others
A teacher at Thames Elementary in Hattiesburg for the past 37 years, Pennington grew up in Decatur in Newton County, “a tiny hole in the wall.”
A town of about 2,000 people and home to East Central Community College, Pennington said she wouldn’t give anything for small town living.
“If I had it to do over, having seen what it was like, I would still grow up in a small town,” Pennington said. “You just learn so much about relationships and taking care of people.”
Pennington started teaching when she was 21 and taught for 15 years before heading back to nursing school. But at the same time she was in school, she was also working two-thirds of a teaching contract.
“I was going to Forrest General, where I had a scholarship, but God shoved me in this door and said this is where I intend you to be, so this is where I’ve been,” she said.
“It’s been a blessing, because when I was in nursing school I truly grieved for being around people with disabilities. I know that sounds crazy, but I had taught 15 years. I didn’t quit teaching because I disliked teaching and I wasn’t unhappy.”
She explained that when she went to college, she wanted both teaching and nursing degrees.
“I never could get it out of me, so I went back to nursing school after 15 years,” she said. “Then they had a case management position here (Thames Elementary) they wanted me to take and it was like, ‘Oh God, I couldn’t have written a better job description.’ That’s the way it goes.”
For many years, Pennington worked as a home health PRN. She also worked in geri psych.
“I didn’t have a geriatric bone in my body, but fell in love with it,” she said. From there she went into home health and even admitted that she loved working in wound care, “which is probably the grossest of gross.”
Although she lived in Hattiesburg, she started her teaching career at Runnelstown in Perry County, staying there seven years.
“I absolutely loved it,” she said, “but felt it was time to grow and I needed to be in the city. I was ready to get into a bigger school system, so I came and got a job here my eighth year.
And then came involvement of an extracurricular kind.
Pennington babysat for Patti Bomboy, Sue Gallaspy and others. “Some of those people that had little bitty 4-year-olds who are now 40-something,” she said. “I babysat them.”
At the end of the year they told her about a summer camp – Adventures – that wanted her to work and she was on board.
“It was just a leisure camp that had one little bus,” remembers Pennington. “I think it was a 15-passenger bus and we went all over town. We also had a couple of classes.”
Turnover at the camp from summer to summer was pretty significant, which prompted Bomboy to ask Pennington why she thought that was.
Pennington had ideas for a couple of things that could be done a little bit differently. And for her ideas, she was asked to be camp director.
“I guess because I had an idea, I was asked to be the director of Arc,” she said. “So, the moral of the story is ‘Keep you mouth closed when you have an idea or you’re going to be the director of camp or an organization. I’ve been here close to 30 years as the director. Just the reality of hearing it. I can’t believe I’ve done it that long.”
All of that was around 1990.
And her adventures with Adventures and the Arc began.
Pennington remembers an old white bus “that nobody else would have had. It was trashed. We’d fill it up and off we’d go. We got involved in a lot of different summer activities.”
They went from having about 12 to 15 participants in 1988 to close to 200 these days.
“We have about eight buses that operate in the summer,” she said. There are also about 75 volunteers as well as University of Southern Mississippi nursing students who partnership with the Arc. Camp staff includes 40-plus.
Sometime in the mid-90s Pennington was asked to attend a board meeting, which quickly became “you are on the board of directors.”
“And then, I’ll never forget, we were in a budget analysis meeting with the United Way. They posed the question, ‘Well, how are y’all ever going to have revenue?’ I think the only thing we’d ever done was have a car wash and that ended when somebody drove in with a truck with their cow trailer attached to it, which was a little bit too much for us to wash.”
It was then they started thinking seriously about what they needed to do to sustain themselves as they continued to grow. “We knew we had to find a way to grow and find revenue,” Pennington said.
“We went from a little house on South 23rd Street where we would put down mattresses at night to sleep, then the next morning pick them up so they’d have a play area and an eating area. We just started seeing needs and with needs we finally got a vision. And you know, it just developed into ‘We want more, we want better and we’re going to find ways to do it.’”
Since then they’ve received an Asbury grant, which was used to build the Arc house on Bonhomie Road.
Later after attending a basketball game at Presbyterian Christian School where the Arc’s Ryan Hendley’s brother played, the kids wanted to shoot the ball after the game.
“I was, ‘No, No, No,’” said Pennington. “The coach came out and said it was fine, they couldn’t hurt anything.”
“We had never really watched collectively how they could dribble, and shoot, so we said, ‘Boy, what if we had a gym? We want a gym.’ And I kept listening to that. I thought if we really wanted it, then let’s get out and get it. That’s kind of the way I was brought up. If you want it, you work for what you have. I learned that from my daddy.”
Pennington explained they wrote another grant for the multipurpose building, complete with a gym and way to build programming.
“You see needs, you see what they want and most importantly, you see people who have asked, ‘Where do you get your vision?’” Pennington said.
She said it’s by sitting and listening to their clients. “They really do have a voice and they really do have a choice,” she said. “They are really like us. They have things they like and want to do and you know, I’ve just listened to them, and I want this for them.”
As far as the pottery they make, Pennington said she wasn’t sure they had been exposed to ‘we want a pottery emporium,’ but we had seen and admired what Mustard Seed (in Jackson) has done. I wanted something where a lot of them could be involved doing something and be successful. And it has taken off. They are proud when they put a piece out. You turn it over and see where they’ve written their name across the bottom and the top and know how proud they are.”
The Arc Showstoppers Showchoir is another undertaking that has taken off.
“Really, our intention was to do one showchoir performance a year,” Pennington said. “It’s exhausting to prepare and get it all done. After the spring performance clients immediately started asking when showchoir was starting again. And we were just catching our breath. But we heard what they were saying to us and that’s why we do two a year.
“It would be easy to say we’re doing one. but it’s not right. I’m really very humbled by what we’ve done and it’s not me. By me being in the leaders’s seat, I have the opportunity to see all the people who have pulled together as a team. We’ve had some excellent parents, strong community leaders and United Way. We are in a great community that all pulls together and I’ve just been privileged to be the leader in this, to see everything happen. I feel very blessed by it, but more importantly, I’m thrilled for them.
When parents move from here from other cities – like Jackson, the Madison area or the Coast, – parents tell us they don’t see there the type of things the Arc here is doing.
“You know, sometimes I think we take for granted what is here,” Pennington said. “There is so much to offer and that’s what life should be like for them. It just takes more -- more people to orchestrate things for them and more people to teach them about different things that are out there.”
“I’ve been there. I’ve done this almost 40 years. I can remember. They were good at puzzles and a lot of them were good at swimming, they were great at watching TV and sitting on the couch. But today, they are different, because we’ve taught them beyond those things. But back then, that was pretty much all there was. They weren’t put out in the community as much. They didn’t have things offered to them. They would love beach ball or balloon volleyball, but we have to teach them. They would love so many games, but they just have to be taught. A lot of these kids can watch something on TV or see here and there and then just go out and play it. But that doesn’t just happen. We’ve got to teach them.”
Pennington said they now have disc (Frisbee) golf at the Arc home as well as other things with even more ideas in the works.
Pennington has written a grant based on Dr. Seuss book, “Oh, the places we would go....” if they had certain things like covered walkways and other benefits. And before long another new adventure, but that’s a story for another time.
“They are probably the easiest population in the world to satisfy,” said Pennington. “What I love is their simplicity. They are just....happy. They enjoy a lot of simple things in life that we all ought to pay attention to.
The annual Golf Ball Drop, which occurs Nov. 6, is one of those things that keeps Pennington awake at night. “I just keep waiting on balls to sell, sell, sell.”
In the Drop, participants pay $100 to buy a golf ball for the chance to win $20,000. A helicopter drops all of the purchased balls out of a bag onto the green at Canebrake Golf Course. The ball that goes in the hole or is closet to the hole wins its owner the money. Only 1,000 balls are sold each year.
“The need to sell more balls nags at me because we need to sell more,” she said.
“We always approach fundraisers with the concept of what our cuts would be if we don’t raise the money and those would be programming cuts. We don’t want to cut anything they have going. They are all excellent programs and the clients deserve to have those. It’s hard. We hope and pray it will be a successful fundraiser so we can keep things going at the level where they are. Unfortunately, the world revolves around money.”
Pennington said she was dreaming when they wanted a bigger building, dreaming when they wanted a gym. “If you don’t dream and you don’t have vision, you are kind of at a stale place and you need to re-evaluate,” she said.
For Pennington, “The Arc is the happiest place on earth. If there was a happier place, I’d be there. We are truly blessed.”