3 Inspired People

Stories Carmen K. Sisson | Photographs Whitten Sabbatini

MARGARET COPELAND, STARKVILLE

Photographed by Whitten Sabbatini.

Photographed by Whitten Sabbatini.

She is indoors at the moment, but she won’t stay. Perched on the edge of her chair, she’s ready to fly; and when the time comes, four walls and a ceiling won’t stop her.

Then again, nothing stops Margaret Copeland. Wild things must be free, and she has dedicated her life to this premise.

As a little girl, Copeland wanted to save African elephants, but as luck would have it, elephants were not particularly prevalent in Mississippi. So she began in her own backyard, trying to make things better for the animals she found there.

Every creature, from the creepy-crawlies to the “flutterbies,” is a link in the chain of life, she says. And she loves them all, especially birds.

The vivacious 70-year-old has spent the past 35 years as a member of the Oktibbeha Audubon Society. She edits the Society’s newsletter, is a board member of the Strawberry Plains Audubon Center in Holly Springs, volunteers with the Center’s annual Hummingbird Migration Celebration, and has volunteered with the Noxubee Wildlife Refuge.

Last year, the National Audubon Society presented Copeland with the Volunteer Callison Award — a nationwide distinction given to only one person annually. In February, the Mississippi Wildlife Federation named her conservationist of the year.

Her greatest pleasure, though, lies not in receiving but in giving, exposing others — especially inner-city children — to the wonders of nature and the importance of habitat conservation.

The question is not whether one person can make a difference, she says — the question is whether you can make a difference for one.

“We all say we want to save the Arctic Refuge, but how many of us can go there?” she asks. “It starts at home. What are you doing in your yard to make a difference forever?”

LUBERTA TAYLOR, COLUMBUS

Photographed by Whitten Sabbatini.

Photographed by Whitten Sabbatini.

Luberta Taylor doesn’t just tell stories; they bubble out of her, infusing every muscle, every limb, with raw energy.

As her swirling hands paint pictures in the air and her body rocks to and fro, powered by a rhythm only she can hear, it’s easy to assume the story has taken over, sweeping its creator along for the ride.

But Taylor knows exactly what she’s doing, and she maintains tight control over even the wildest narratives.

There are secrets to a good story — some she’ll tell and some she won’t. It must fit the audience, it can’t be too long, and there must be a slow build, spiking to a crescendo and carrying listeners back down at the very moment they want to be taken over the edge.

Taylor discovered her flair for storytelling when her three daughters were born, but looking back, she always used narrative to make her world, and the world around her, better.

She and her seven siblings grew up on Southside, and she remembers being called “trash.” Then they moved to Sandfield near a garbage dump. Taylor quickly learned that spinning tales for her peers silenced the taunts and made her leader of the pack.

As a math teacher at Columbus High School, she continued using storytelling to reach even the toughest students. It made her a better teacher, she believes. Math, like everything else, was a story waiting to be told.

Her faith-based children’s stories are inspired by her life, but she says everyone has a gift — the trick is unearthing it. If you listen to what tugs at your heart, you’ll find what you seek, she promises.

“I’m no one special; I’m just very animated,” she says. “For me, life is a story, and we’re journeying through the story.”

PATTY HUDGINS, CALEDONIA

Photographed by Whitten Sabbatini.

Photographed by Whitten Sabbatini.

You hear him before you see him, metal walking sticks click-clacking against the ground, growing faster as he approaches the barn. A miniature horse, barely taller than the child, whinnies a greeting; but the boy keeps walking, eyes fixed on the pasture where a full-sized steed blows a soft hello.

In this space, nothing else exists — no sisters, no crutches, no disability. Just a boy and his horse.

That’s exactly what Patty Hudgins had in mind when she founded R.I.D.E.S. — Riding to Improve Development, Esteem, Strength and Spirit — on her family farm in Caledonia.

The former art and special education teacher hadn’t touched a horse in 30 years, but within 30 minutes of volunteering with a therapeutic horseback riding program in Texas, she knew she wanted to start a similar charity.

“There was a child with cerebral palsy who didn’t talk,” she recalls. “He was sitting in the barn when volunteers brought out the horse. The horse walked right up to the child and put its head in his lap, and the expression on that child’s face was just a miracle. I knew then that this was my calling.”

A decade has passed since Hudgins founded R.I.D.E.S., and she’s seen a lot of miracles. Children with all types of disabilities benefit, she says. Muscles grow stronger. Children grow calmer, more confident, more independent. Many have spoken their first words in her pasture.

There is a bond between horses and humans, she explains. And for the young riders, they are suddenly head and shoulders above others, controlling a 1,000-pound animal.

“It gives them the message that they’re important and have value and worth,” she says. “It’s very gratifying to know you’ve helped a child who a lot of people said would never do anything.”