3 Inspired People

Stories Carmen K. Sisson | Photographs Whitten Sabbatini

FRED BELL, COLUMBUS

Photographed by Whitten Sabbatini.

Photographed by Whitten Sabbatini.

If there’s one thing Fred Bell can’t stand, it’s standing still, a fact to which his curriculum vitae attests. It is a lengthy litany of board memberships and awards, titles and honorifics.

At 77, he may be one of the most decorated volunteers in Columbus, but more than anything, he is a cheerleader — for his community, his faith and the organizations he serves.

Some might assume his ability to sell people on the gospel of volunteerism is a by-product of his 40-plus years in the retail industry, including 14 years at Ruth’s downtown, but his compassion was evident even in high school, where he raised money for the March of Dimes.

The former Columbus city councilman has become known as not only a willing volunteer but also a connector, linking people with volunteer opportunities. Where there is a need, Bell usually knows just the person to fill it.

Around Christmastime, he can be found helping the Salvation Army, where he has been a board member since 1983. He rings bells, packs groceries and recruits others to do the same. He helped organize Golden Triangle Crime Stoppers, Helping Hands and the Lowndes County Council on Aging. He volunteers at Baptist Memorial Hospital-Golden Triangle and started a card ministry at Grace Baptist Church, where he serves as a deacon.

“Anything he does, he puts his heart into it and gives 100 percent,” said Grace Pastor Charlie Whitney. “He has a servant spirit, a volunteer spirit. That’s why he can never say no.”

Bell simply calls himself a people person.

“I’ve been here 48 years, and this community has been good to me,” he said. “I don’t have a lot of money, but I do contribute my time. Kindness is something you can’t give away; it always comes back to you.”

EFFIE ANN HOPKINS, STARKVILLE

Photographed by Whitten Sabbatini.

Photographed by Whitten Sabbatini.

Her days are long, her nights all too short. Sometimes it seems like she has just eased into bed when the phone rings. But she doesn’t complain. She simply picks up the keys to her Chevy Blazer and heads out to deliver one of her “babies” into the wide and beautiful world.

Effie Ann Hopkins is not a doctor, nor is she a therapist, teacher or mother-confessor. And yet, in a way, she is all of these things, fulfilling a different role for every Mississippi State University student she meets.

Hopkins, 57, traded the keys to her big rig 10 years ago, leaving a lucrative career as a professional truck driver to take a job as a shuttle bus driver at MSU. The pay was less, but she wanted to make a difference.

That’s why she drives MSU’s blue line all day, then shuttles students back and forth at night with her personal vehicle. That’s why she gives them her phone number and tells them to call whenever they need her. That’s why she teaches them to drive, takes them to the airport, helps them move, listens to their problems.

They talk of homesickness. Drug addiction. Binge drinking. Bad debts. Thoughts of suicide.

Some grow so close, they bring their parents to meet her, invite her to their graduations, stay in touch long after they leave.

“They’re my family,” Hopkins said. “They’re trying to get their education, and I want them to do what they came here for.” She sees it as a ministry and says she intends to do it as long as she is able.

“These children are depending on me, and I can’t let them down,” she said. “Their parents aren’t here, and somebody’s got to step up to the plate and be like family to them.”

CATHERINE PENICK, MACON

Photographed by Whitten Sabbatini.

Photographed by Whitten Sabbatini.

When Catherine “Pooh” Penick gets to Heaven, she has a question: “Why me?”

Why was a quiet teacher chosen to speak to hundreds? Why was she called from her comfort zone, into the Noxubee County Community Work Center? Why did God knock twice and so richly bless his hesitant servant?

Penick, 54, had seen the inmates around Macon, but one day, she noticed their work-worn hands, work-dirty clothes, world-weary eyes. She asked if the prison offered Bible study.

It didn’t.

A year later, she crossed paths with the inmates again. Again, she asked if the prison offered Bible study.

It still didn’t.

Shortly afterwards, at Macon’s First United Methodist Church, she preached a sermon about taking up one’s cross and following Jesus. Before she walked to the pulpit, she penciled a word in the margin of her Bible: prison.

Stepping out in faith, she spoke her calling into existence, and Whole Man Ministries was born.

Nearly a decade has passed since Penick, her husband Ray, and a church friend, Mark Robertson, squeezed into the prison’s hot cafeteria and began weekly worship services. At first, she trembled in fear and had to pray in the car before she could walk inside. But she made it, and when God asked her to build a prison chapel, she helped raise more than $60,000 to do so.

Penick believes the growing ministry succeeded because it was God’s will, but Robertson thinks there’s something more — Penick herself.

“Her compassion and tender-heartedness helps her connect with the prisoners,” he said. Roughly 90 percent attend services.

“We need to listen to that small voice that nudges us in the direction we need to go,” Penick said. “We might start out with baby steps, but at least we are walking and not sitting still.”