Mary-Lou Dunn is reaching several milestones in her life this year.
She celebrated her 70th birthday on March 3, and on June 30, she will leave a job she has had for 40 years.
Dunn will retire as executive director of The Sunshine School in Searcy, a school that began in 1965 when the Junior Auxiliary of Searcy offered a mother’s-day-out respite program for families with special-needs children.
Tributes have come her way during the past several months. The most recent: Dunn has been named the 2018 Junior Auxiliary of Searcy Charity Ball Queen.
“We are so excited to be honoring Mary-Lou as the 2018 Junior Auxiliary of Searcy Charity Ball Queen,” said Natalie Horton, president of the Junior Auxiliary. “The Sunshine School has always been near and dear to the heart of our service projects, and we wanted to do something to recognize the years she has devoted to leading this school and the impact she has had on the students, teachers and our entire community.”
Earlier in the year, the United Way of White County honored Dunn with its Lifetime Achievement Award.
“Mary-Lou Dunn has given her heart and soul to serving clients, both children and adults,” said Pat Downs, executive director of the United Way of White County.
“Under her guidance and training, her staff has that same love and caring attitude. The Sunshine School was one of the original partner agencies with the United Way of White County,” Downs said.
“She is always willing to make a United Way presentation to the industries, clubs or any function. Every time I hear her speak, I just want to turn my pockets inside out,” Downs said. “She and her staff have made such a difference in our county. When you walk in the door, you feel unconditional love from Mary-Lou, the staff and the clients. I’ve seen tears roll down the checks of grown men when I have taken them for a tour of The Sunshine School.
“Mary-Lou has been a blessing in my life and the lives of everyone who knows her. God has truly blessed us through her service to our county. If the world had more people like Mary-Lou in it, it would, indeed be a better place.”
Dunn was born in Searcy, a daughter of the late Circuit Judge Elmo Taylor and Nancy Lee Yarnell Taylor. Dunn’s two older sisters, Nancy Lee Taylor Sturm and Mildred Taylor Wilbourn, are deceased.
“I was born and raised here,” Dunn said.
“My great-great-grandfather, Israel M. Moore, was a Quaker from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He traveled west and settled here in White County. He donated land, laid out and named the original streets in Searcy for the streets he knew in Philadelphia — Arch, Race, Market, Vine and Spring,” she said.
“My grandmother, his daughter, Nettie Moore Yarnell, was born the last year of the Civil War and lived to be 96. I remember her. Can you image what she experienced? The first car, airplane, telephone — all the changes in technology and in culture, too,” Dunn said.
“I remember a story about a time when my mother, who was a grown woman, went somewhere, and my grandmother found out that she had gone out unaccompanied,” Dunn said, laughing. “She thought a woman should never go out alone. She was a true Southern lady.
“My family has been here a long, long time.”
When asked about the unusual spelling of her first name, Dunn said, “I started hyphenating my name because people were starting to call me just ‘Mary.’
“I did not want to lose the ‘Lou.’ I wanted to be called ‘Mary Lou,’ so I hyphenated it. It’s a good old Southern name.”
Dunn graduated from Searcy High School in 1966.
She graduated from State College of Arkansas, now the University of Central Arkansas, in 1971 with a Bachelor of Science in Education degree with an emphasis in special education. She received a master’s degree in special education from Harding University in 1976.
“Growing up, I wanted to be a teacher, a college professor. I wanted to double-major in English and biology and wanted to teach on the college level. I held on to that aspiration until my sister, Mildred, talked me into volunteering at The Sunshine School,” Dunn said.
“I was a senior in high school, and she was already in the Junior Auxiliary of Searcy. She was determined to get me to volunteer at The Sunshine School,” Dunn said.
“I volunteered, and that changed my degree plans,” she said.
“I did teach before I came here as director. My one and only teaching job was at McRae Elementary School [in Searcy]. I taught special education there for seven years. I taught 15 boys with no [teacher’s] aide. It was wonderful. I had the best time,” Dunn said.
“I was on the board at The Sunshine School for those seven years. I came here as director in August 1978. In August of this year, 2018, I will have been here 40 years. My effective retire date is June 30,” she said.
“It’s time for me to retire,” she said, adding that she has no definite plans about what she will do then.
“I know I will volunteer … somewhere, probably not here, at least not at first. I don’t think it would be fair to the next person who takes this job,” Dunn said.
“I thought about volunteering at the humane society, but then I thought maybe not — I would be like one of those little old ladies who has 25 dogs,” she said.
“So it’s still open as to where I might volunteer,” Dunn said. “There’s CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocates) and the Literacy Council. There are just a lot of opportunities for volunteers in Searcy.
“I am totally committed to this community for what it has given to me; now I want to give back. I know I will continue working with Special Olympics. Students from The Sunshine School have been participating in Special Olympic games since at least 1972. We do everything now. We participate in basketball, baseball, bocce. They like to be involved.”
The Special Olympics Arkansas Area 6 Spring Games will take place April 21 at Harding University in Searcy, followed by the Special Olympics Arkansas Summer Games, which will be held May 24-26, also at Harding.
“We still need volunteers of all stripes,” she said. “All you have to have is a desire … we will be glad to find a job for you.”
Dunn said she might write a book after she retires.
“I am toying with the idea of writing a book, a memoir,” she said. “There are so many good stories I could tell … so many stories of courage of overcoming difficulties. These students are heroes every day.”
When The Sunshine School first opened, it was housed in a converted army barracks on land leased from the Searcy Public Schools. Seven special-education students attended the school on a half-day basis.
The school grew and, in 1975, moved into a new building on South Sowell Street. In August 2011, the school moved into its present location at 901 Airport Loop.
“We are in the seventh year in this building. It still meets our needs,” Dunn said.
“We had a major fundraiser to build this building. A local Realtor, Letain DeVore, donated the land. That was huge. It jump-started the project, which cost $1.6 million. So many people supported us. All we lack today is $160,000 to pay it off,” she said.
“The whole community supported us, from two little girls who had a lemonade stand to those who could contribute $100,000,” she said.
“We are a private, nonprofit organization,” Dunn said. “We serve students in several public schools in the area. We meet all the qualifications of a public school; our teachers are all certified. There is never a cost to a family for a child to come here. The children in the pre-kindergarten and the adults all receive Medicaid services.
“We rely heavily on donations, and we do apply for grants when we can. We are a United Way agency. The United Way of White County means a lot to us.”
The Sunshine School currently serves 70 students, from kindergartners to adults.
When a student graduates, he or she may go to work at Newhope Specialized Industries Inc., which serves as an employer for adults with developmental disabilities.
“Newhope gives our students an opportunity. They do piecework — assembly, sorting, labeling, bagging. Newhope also operates a thrift store,” Dunn said.
“Searcy is unique in that there are a lot of services for individuals with handicaps,” she said. “A lot of communities don’t have that.
“The Sunshine School operates two group homes for adults with disabilities, one that houses eight men and one that houses seven women. Our goal for all our students is for them to be able to live as independently as possible.”
Dunn said she looks forward to retiring, but she will miss the students and the staff.
“Without my staff, nothing I have done would have been possible,” she said. “An administrator is only as good as the people working with her.”