Pathfinder founder inducted into Circle of Service

By Syd Hayman Published October 27, 2016 at 12:00 a.m.
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PHOTO BY: Mark Buffalo

Joan Zumwalt of Jacksonville holds her award for being inducted into the Arkansas State Independent Living Council’s Circle of Service. She received the honor Oct. 18 in Little Rock. Zumwalt started Pathfinder Inc., a Jacksonville-based company that provides skills training and sheltered living for people with disabilities.

JACKSONVILLE — Joan Zumwalt was moved by the needs of six children.

It was the early ’70s, and Zumwalt, who has lived in Jacksonville for more than 50 years, had been approached by a woman who had just earned a special-education degree and needed help organizing a facility to teach six preschool children in need.

Through grants and much coordinating, Zumwalt began Pathfinder Inc., a Jacksonville-headquartered corporation that provides skills training and sheltered living for those with disabilities.

For her years of service, Zumwalt was inducted into the Arkansas State Independent Living Council’s Circle of Service on Oct. 18 in Little Rock. It was the inaugural induction for Circle of Service, which honors those who advocate for the needs of people with disabilities.

Also inducted were state Rep. Mary Broadaway, D-Paragould; state Rep. Julie Mayberry, R-Hensley; and Maura Lozano-Yancy, Glen Hersey and Sybil Ward, all of Little Rock. The Independent Living Council is a nonprofit that promotes independent living for people with disabilities.

“It was a great honor, and I [am] very humbled and thankful for anytime that the disabled exposure is recognized; it is part of our goal,” Zumwalt said. “Even though they chose me for the recognition, it’s really the individuals that need the services.”

Today, Pathfinder Inc. serves more than 1,650 clients — both children and adults — and has about 28 locations across the state. Zumwalt is now chairwoman of the Pathfinder Board of Directors.

The teacher who sought Zumwalt’s assistance years ago also wanted Zumwalt to view other facilities then.

“She asked me to go to Conway with her, and she showed me a facility there that offered no activities, no training,” Zumwalt said. “The only thing they did was sit in a room and look at four walls.”

Zumwalt became determined to offer more for the community. Pathfinder Inc. first assesses clients to determine their disability and what therapy to apply. The organization provides outpatient services, case management, psychiatric evaluations, crisis intervention, an autism academy and more.

“We have been very fortunate in leadership since then,” she said. “In this service, you can’t pay people enough money to do what they do. They have to have the dedication and the love of those disabled adults and children. In the beginning, it was only preschoolers, those six kids.”

Like the Independent Living Council, Pathfinder’s goal is independent living.

“That’s a goal, of course, that we all try to reach,” Zumwalt said. “We have a lot of transportation, which has been central to our success and growth. Many, many families do not have transportation facilities [to allow them to] bring their children or their adult children to and from Pathfinder. We have about 190 vans and buses, and we go all over.”

Sha’ Burke-Stephens, executive director of the Arkansas Independent Living Council, said the reason Zumwalt was chosen for the Circle of Service was because of her years of service and vision for services for those with disabilities.

“Joan, out of everybody, had the most years, 45 years of advocacy,” Burke-Stephens said. “She is the epitome of what a servant leader looks like. She is an awesome lady. She really is.”

One case that Zumwalt said will always stay with her is of a 9-year-old girl who lived in Searcy. At the time, Pathfinder had geographical boundaries and didn’t yet serve White County.

“She had never been out of the upstairs of the house she lived in,” Zumwalt said. “Her father was an alcoholic, and her mother was mentally disabled. We went to get [the girl], even though we wouldn’t be funded by any agency.”

Zumwalt said Pathfinder discovered that the girl was not born with disabilities but had never been outside of her home her whole life. After two years, she was able to function better, Zumwalt said.

“There are stories like that in our growth,” she added.

Many of Pathfinder’s services are funded by Medicaid, and donors also help provide funding, Zumwalt said.

“We have come a long way from the time when that young woman took me to Conway to see the facility. … We’ve grown a great deal,” she said.

Burke-Stephens said Circle of Service inductees work with various aspects of the disabled community. The inductees were diverse because there’s not just one disability, she said.

“With this being the inaugural Circle of Service, we’ll continue those efforts, and this will also help us branch out into the underserved areas,” Burke-Stephens said.

Zumwalt said communities across the state need to continue to be diligent for the needs of people with disabilities.

“I’m just very pleased to be affiliated with the Independent Living Council, and [it’s] been 45 years with Pathfinder from the very beginning, when we first organized,” she said. “It’s always been my favorite charity. I believe in its mission and its goals for the community of disabled people.”

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Staff writer Syd Hayman can be reached at (501) 244-4307 or

Staff Writer Syd Hayman can be reached at 501-244-4342 or

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