You may have seen Charlie Penn on Friday nights at Wildcat Stadium.
He smiles and proudly leads the football team onto the field waving a large black flag.
Charlie is well-loved junior at Richmond Hill High School. Despite living with developmental delays, he has never had reason to not embrace life. And the community, schools and his peers have embraced him.
His parents, Dina and Chuck Penn, could not be more grateful for their decision to move to Richmond Hill in 2005.
“It takes a village to raise a child. We are so glad we picked this village,” Dina Penn said.
Despite never receiving an official diagnosis for their son, Charlie’s parents knew he needed to be in a special-needs program.
“It is incredible how they have treated him and nurtured him. It was a lot more than I expected,” Chuck Penn said.
He reflected on a time when special-needs children were ostracized and excluded from school classrooms, extracurricular activities and sporting events.
That is no longer the case, thanks to the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, which mandates that children with disabilities get the same educational opportunities, to the extent possible, as their general-education peers. And Bryan County Schools has opened up social opportunities for these students.
Since 2005, Charlie has benefitted from countless teachers and administrators within the school system.
“From the get-go, I’ve been more than pleased; it has been very gratifying,” Penn said. “The way kids treat him in the classroom is incredible.”
The RHHS special-education program has been an asset to Charlie’s growth over the past three years. As a group, the students travel weekly to McDonald’s off Highway 17 and First Baptist Church of Richmond Hill. These weekly trips allow special-needs students to learn life skills. Whether it is cleaning tables or dusting pews, Charlie and his classmates have benefited from these opportunities.
Dina Penn said it goes beyond just a simple weekly assignment. McDonald’s hosted the RHHS special needs children and their families for a special appreciation night.
“It is so heartwarming,” she said.
While attending Richmond Hill Middle School, Charlie was named homecoming prince in both seventh and eighth grades. He was nominated and voted on by his peers. This display of kindness and acceptance amazed his family.
Now at Richmond Hill High, Charlie has helped journalism students sell ice cream in the digital-media café. By all accounts, Charlie is quite the salesman.
“This is just another example of how they find ways to include him,” Penn said.
Head football coach Matt LeZotte did something that again caught the Penn family off-guard. He asked Charlie to help lead the cheerleaders and football team onto the field at Friday-night home games. The Penn family has seen Charlie’s excitement and is grateful he continues to have these opportunities to thrive with his peers.
Charlie is gregarious. He is a typical high-school junior. He loves the outdoors and spending time at the family hunting camp in Midway.
“He has a way of making everyone feel special,” Dina Penn said. “He will find something about you he loves, and (it) is so endearing.”
“It has extended my work career as a surgeon at Fort Stewart,” Chuck Penn said. “We aren’t going anywhere until he is 21. Our biggest challenge is how to keep him involved when he gets out of high school. He is so involved and so engaged. He is happy. When he graduates, a big chunk of that is provided by these kids. How will we provide that for him?”
The Penn family believes Charlie’s infectious kindness and love of life has played a role in his acceptance in Richmond Hill. And the school community is grateful for Charlie, too.
“Charlie embraces life and loves all that he does,” said Bryan County High School Principal Crystal Morales, who worked with Charlie in elementary school. “Bryan County school students and teachers have been so blessed by Charlie every day. Words will never be able to describe the impact he has on others.”