3 Inspired People

Stories Carmen K. Sisson | Photographs Whitten Sabbatini

Jeanette Unruh, Macon
They are the unloved, the unwanted, the invisible in plain sight. Sometimes Jeanette Unruh’s hands are the first — and last — Macon’s homeless animals will ever know.

Because Noxubee County has no animal shelter or animal control officer, people call Unruh, the unpaid patron saint of dogs. Some dump their animals on her doorstep and drive away.

“I don’t know how many times I’ve walked out to a box of puppies or newborn kittens,” she says. “It’s frustrating, heart-breaking, but when I get an animal that’s mangy and looks like hell, get it healthy and send it up north, and get pictures of it running on the beach or sleeping with a child, it’s heart-warming.”

Last year, Unruh sent 89 dogs to Sweet Paws Rescue in Massachusetts, where they found homes. This year, she has already sent 76. Healthy animals can cost up to $250 for veterinary care and food before adoption. The sick can cost far more.

“They’re emaciated, covered in mange, abused,” says Lois Bourget of Sweet Paws. “They literally would die if she didn’t take them.”

She can’t save them all.

“Calen” was emaciated, eating rocks to survive. She took the puppy to a veterinarian, but he died after surgery.

“There are times when I’m at my lowest, and I think I can’t do it anymore,” she says. “Then I get an email from a past adopter, or they send me a picture. It gives me that push to say, ‘I can’t stop. If I stop now, where will the next Calen be?’ I just can’t look the other way.”

The successes keep her going. Through her efforts, Mississippi State’s mobile veterinary unit now holds community spay/neuter days. In a state where 75 percent of the animals who enter shelters are euthanized, she is credited with saving hundreds. 

Roberta Weeks, Columbus
Language may be a barrier, but when it comes to love, there are no bounds. Roberta Weeks learned that lesson from her mother, and now she carries on her legacy, embracing New Hope’s Hispanic community as a part-time ministry.

It began with a Facebook message. New Hope Middle School teacher Liza Miley needed a copy of a computer software program to communicate with a student who spoke only Spanish.

Weeks immediately responded. She didn’t have the program, but she had something better — herself. The Texas native’s family was from Mexico, and she was bilingual.

She went to the school to meet Miley’s student, using photographs of her children to penetrate his initial resistance. Later, she met his family and others, interpreting at doctors’ appointments and social gatherings. She also helps out at Baptist Memorial Hospital-Golden Triangle and the Columbus Police Department.

But her language skills have proven to be a particular boon for New Hope, which has a heavy concentration of Hispanic residents. At the end of the 2012-2013 school year, Weeks was chosen as the Lowndes County School District’s Parent of the Year.

“Anybody that needs help, I just give my number out,” she says. “My mom taught me to give back when I could, to use the gifts God gave me.”

Miley calls her a “superhero” for her willingness to serve others, especially New Hope’s students. She buys educational materials for them and helps them learn English. She takes them to football games and trick-or-treating.

Despite the accolades, Weeks is uncomfortable in the spotlight, preferring to quietly go about God’s work.

“It just feels right,” she says. “I want them to experience as much as they can. If everyone reached out and helped someone, it would be a better community.”

Andrew Lark, Starkville
Spend 10 minutes talking to Andrew Lark and you may walk away believing you can conquer the world. The Starkville High School art teacher exudes a positivity that belies the challenges he faced growing up in the heat and poverty of the Mississippi Delta.

Art opened doors, he says. Clarksdale was a mecca for musicians, artists, creatives from all walks of life; the constant exposure to these professionals influenced his career. From an early age, he enjoyed teaching, so it didn’t surprise anyone when he chose that path.

In his students, he sees the same passion and hunger he felt as a young man, and he nurtures their talents with hard work and tough love. Nothing worth having comes easily, he teaches. There are no shortcuts. If you want to be an artist, you must live and breathe your passion, making art the nucleus.

He works with students late into the night and on weekends. During the summer, he helps them prepare portfolios for college admissions.

His dedication has paid off, with his students earning countless state and national honors and receiving a yearly average of $600,000 in art scholarships. Some come from troubled homes and go on to achieve higher successes than anyone — except Lark — envisioned.

“We can’t look at where they are right now; we have to look at who they have the potential to be,” Lark says.

He was named state teacher of the year in 2007 and says educating children is his greatest accomplishment.

“I’m eager every day to see what they’ve done,” Lark says. “It’s not a job to me. It’s a passion. I get these unique kids and I want to pass on what God has given me.”