In the 17 years of changes at Prairie Ridge High School, a constant has remained for faculty and students: Gail Penn.
Penn, the faculty secretary at the school, has made a reputation of going above and beyond the standard duties of a secretary to help any staff member or student any way she can. In fact, she is just as likely to be seen at a sporting event or play as she is behind her desk.
“She has been at Prairie Ridge since Day One and is adored by everyone who meets her,” said Jeanine Stantesly, a teacher at the school. “She’ll go to games and plays just to see the kids perform. I’ve seen kids who just don’t connect with anyone, but they connect with her.”
While she has made a mark on the school, Penn’s reach extends far outside Prairie Ridge’s walls.
Seeing the need for more basic necessities for the homeless in the area, Penn was a pioneer for a Cary-Grove PADS site at Cary United Methodist Church. What started as a service that provided food and shelter for a handful of people on a weekly basis has evolved into a program that serves roughly 50 people during its weekly opening during the fall and winter months.
The shelter, which runs from October through April, requires volunteers to man shifts from 6:30 to 11 p.m., 11 p.m. to 3 a.m. and 3 to 7 a.m. every Saturday into Sunday. While Penn’s involvement in the organization has diminished, she has been thrilled to watch it blossom.
“I was on the ground floor helping to get the program started, and it was really the first time I had a role like that,” Penn said. “We had some challenges from the community, but there were several people in the church that wanted it and it finally it happened.”
Moving on from PADS did not put an end to Penn’s charitable work. She remains active in the Cary-Grove Food Pantry, her church choir and animal shelters. Penn’s energy to dedicate her time between all the organizations and before and after school has impressed many, but it is what she worked through that friends such as Stantesly truly appreciate.
Penn is a breast cancer survivor and refused to miss helping and working at the school while battling the disease, Stantesly said.
Stantesly said Penn would come in early to make sure everything was set for the day, down to making a pot of coffee, before leaving for chemotherapy treatment and then coming back.
“Some of us get a cold and want the whole world to know we’re sick,” Stantesly said. “But she never, ever mentioned a word about it. She didn’t want to burden anyone about it.”
For Penn, working and volunteering through the disease was her medication.
“It’s what kept me going,” Penn said. “It was nice to be able to come and do the things I love.”
After overcoming the disease, Penn said her passion for volunteering is as strong as ever. Whether there is a reason for her to ever slow down remains to be seen.
“I haven’t found it yet,” she said.