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South Carolina /Lowcountry News

July 6 - Penn Center Celebrates a Milestone By Looking Ahead

Category: South Carolina / Lowcountry News

July 6, 2012 – In April, 1862 Penn School opened its doors. This April, Penn Center began a three-year celebration of its 150th anniversary.  Celebration events are still being developed and will include public presentations, music, festivals, an even better Heritage Days, and return visits by notable leaders of the Civil Rights movement.

Yet, Penn Center is not just celebrating its past. Its  board of directors recently adopted a strategic plan that will guide its path for the next decade. “At several points since our founding as Penn School, our leaders have faced changing times and reinvented the institution. We are following in their footsteps," said board chair John Smalls, “and we have good news to share.”

Penn’s board and staff are excited that the Open Society Institute, one of billionaire George Soros' philanthropies, has  awarded Penn Center a two-year grant of $350,000 for general operations and to kick start implementation of the plan. "The stars are truly aligning," said Walter Mack, Penn Center’s executive director.

Penn’s leadership is putting the plan into action immediately. “It’s a time of change, and one of them is that after 26 years at Penn, I’m retiring, though I’m  staying for the remainder of the year to assure continuity.”  The board is actively seeking Mack’s successor, as well as  recruiting several new board members,  to strengthen its own capacities.

Penn Center is a nationally important site in African American history, so recognized by its designation as a National Historic Landmark. It was founded in 1862 by Unitarian Laura M. Towne and Ellen Murray, as Penn School, to educate enslaved Sea Islanders even as the Civil War was being fought. It operated as a school until the early 1950s when its campus became Penn Center, a retreat and conference center where civil rights leaders, including John Lewis, Andrew Young and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., held strategy sessions and trained community organizers from throughout the South.   Today, Penn Center continues to provide enrichment programming for St. Helena’s children and their families, to counsel owners of heirs property, and to welcome visitors to its museum and campus, located on Martin Luther King, Jr. Drive on  St. Helena Island.

“Though we're nationally important,” said Smalls, "we are not nationally known and it’s no secret we've had our financial struggles. Yet, Penn has great opportunities, if we can seize them. This planning process has illuminated the actions required to reach an exciting future, we are blessed with funding from the Open Society Institute to fuel our transition and the start of our next 150 years.”

Visit www.penncenter.com for information about upcoming events.
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