The Arc of Southeast Mississippi – which provides community-based services to individuals with intellectual disabilities and their families – has been active in Hattiesburg for nearly 70 years, and director Cindy Pennington said that long-standing success, along with crucial community support, has positioned the organization toward a strong and vibrant future.
“The Arc has been here almost 70 years, and it started with Abbie Rogers, who was a pioneer with the local Civitan Camp and with the Mother’s Day Out program,” Pennington said. “She lived by the Ryans – Sonny Ryan, who had a daughter with a disability – and she worked hand in hand with that family. The Ryans and other families here in town started The Arc. So, it’s been here quite some time, but we’ve grown over the years from having a small little house to our current campus.”
The original facility was on Dearborne Street, and the organization later relocated to the Hattiesburg Avenues. The Arc was located at that facility for a long time, but its continued growth forced officials to seek a new home, which was eventually found on a sprawling campus on Bonhomie Road.
“We started growing, and I thought, ‘gosh, we need a bigger facility,’” Pennington said. “We wrote grants, and we are able to have a campus that is debt free because of grant money, and these are fabulous facilities. Our donors – they are incredible – and they help us keep the lights on.”
The organization is able to host a number of programs – including the Rise and Shine Adult Day Program, Respite at The Arc weekend programs and Summer Adventures – because of those generous donors and annual fundraisers, including the annual Golf Ball Drop. The ball drop celebrated its 16th year in 2020 and happened on Nov. 2 at Canebrake Country Club.
“With COVID-19, we’ve had to scale back some of our fundraisers, but we’re lucky to have so many people who are gracious with their resources and give willingly to us,” Pennington said.
A registered nurse and former special education teacher, Pennington started her career with The Arc in 1988. The Decatur native was initially involved with the Summer Adventures program as a teacher, and she later became the director of the summer program. Her service also included time on the organization’s board of directors, and she has now been director of The Arc for 20-plus years.
She said the organization continues to prosper despite the pandemic and its unique strain on fundraising efforts and its limitations on some programs.
“For the first time in my 32 years, I didn’t get to spend my summer with the Summer Adventures program … we had to cancel it due to COVID,” Pennington said. “We serve a very vulnerable population, and many of them have pre-existing medical conditions.”
The organization’s only full-time program – Rise and Shine – has continued during the pandemic, but its operations have been limited. The program allows the organization’s clients to spend weekdays at The Arc campus, and they participate in enrichment activities while also sharing time together.
“Typically, they’re really embedded in the community; we like to do a lot with Southern Miss … and we like to help with the United Way annual fundraising campaign,” Pennington said. “Of course, that’s been limited due to the pandemic, but we want them to be out in the community for people to see them as a vital part of our community. Also, we want them to learn that the community extends beyond their house and beyond The Arc; we want them to know the world.”
Clients in the Rise and Shine program come to The Arc in the mornings, and they leave in the late afternoons after a full day of events ranging from arts and crafts to devotionals and group sing-a-longs. That program currently has about 50 participants, according to Pennington.
The director said The Arc operates a number of other programs, including a licensed after-school child care program and the Mother’s Day Out program, which functions as a support group for mothers who have children with disabilities. The organization also sponsors theme-based social events called “Buddy Parties” and other fun activities such as the annual “The Arc Idol” contest, which allows clients to show off their numerous talents.
“One of the things that’s really been missed is our respites, which is when they come on Friday night and spend the night, and they go home on Saturday night,” Pennington said. “That gives their parents a rest and opportunities to get out and interact with their peers. During the respites, we have fun going out to a football game or something like that, and on Saturdays, we may go to Southern and to tailgate at the football games. It’s just a lot of activity and a way for them to be part of the community.”
Pennington is supported in her work by a staff of about 40, including many part-time employees. She credits those employees with the continuing success of The Arc’s programs.
“We have a wonderful staff here, and they truly care about people and love what they do,” Pennington said.
One instrumental staff member is Pam Hughes, who is program director for Rise and Shine. She has worked at The Arc for about 10 years and has headed the program for two years.
“I enjoy creating a welcoming spot for people with disabilities,” Hughes said. “I love to be around people I can help, and, even though this job is very demanding, I’m happy to be here. I love the people and the work we do.”
Like Pennington, Hughes said The Arc family is part of her extended family. In fact, Hughes brought her children to the campus many times while they were growing up, and they became close friends with the clients.
“Her children are different people because of their time here,” Pennington said. “They’ve learned compassion, and I’ve watched her older son grow from being a little boy playing with them to becoming a caregiver. It’s a family job, for sure.”
Joseph Garretson is one of the clients at The Arc, and he said the family aspect was important to him and to his well-being.
“We’re surrounded with people like us, and we’re friends,” Garretson said. “We can help each other, and I’m grateful for a program like this one. The staff is amazing, and they treat us like people. I’m respected as an individual, and I feel like they are my family.”
Kerry Camille Helveston, a longtime client at The Arc, said “Miss Pam” and other staff members enrich her life and make her happy.
“I’m thankful for Miss Pam and others,” said Helveston. “I’ve made a lot of friends here.”
Pennington said she is grateful for clients like Garretson and Helveston and for every moment spent at The Arc, and she said she has her mind set on bright horizons for the organization.
“I love these people more than life itself,” she said. “This is like another family. People say ‘you’re going to be given a star in your crown for what you do,’ but I don’t see it. I get so many blessings from them, and I’m taught so many life lessons. Of course, I’m grateful for many things – my church family, my family, and, especially during COVID, my health – but these people make every day brighter.”