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story.lead_photo.caption Sally Paine, right, executive director of The Sunshine School in Searcy, reads a book about Native Americans to, from left, Braiden Wortham, 13, Alexa Williams, 13, and Braden Milatz, 14. In addition to her duties as executive director of the school, Paine plans to go into classrooms and read to students. - Photo by Staci Vandagriff

— Sally Paine began her new job as executive director of The Sunshine School in Searcy on July 1. Since then, she has done a variety of things.

“I’ve already cleaned out a toilet,” she said, laughing. “That’s one of those ‘other duties as assigned’ that comes with a job description.

“I am a jack-of-all-trades. You do what you’ve got to do.”

Paine already had a long career at The Sunshine School — she was a teacher for 38 years — before being hired as the school’s executive director. She served as head teacher for several years at the school, which serves infants, children and adults who are developmentally disabled.

Paine is from Atlanta, Georgia.

“I came to Searcy to attend Harding College (now Harding University),” she said. “I graduated in 1978 with a Bachelor of Science degree in special education and began teaching here in 1979. I just stayed.

“It’s been a good fit for me. Being from Atlanta, it was a little bit of an adjustment to live in a small town. Searcy may be small, but it’s close enough to several larger cities that might offer what you can’t find here.”

Paine said she never thought about going into school administration.

“I was so happy teaching that I couldn’t imagine doing anything else,” she said, “but I was encouraged to get my master’s degree in elementary administration, and I did several years later. That degree is also from Harding. It just seemed like a natural progression for my career.

“So when Mary-Lou [Dunn] announced her retirement as executive director, I applied for the job here. They were looking for someone with ties to the community, someone with experience, someone who knew about the school. … I guess I was ready-made for the job. I fit all the qualifications and was hired.”

Paine said she has not made any big changes at the school since becoming executive director.

“If it’s not broke, don’t fix it,” she said, smiling. “Mary-Lou left things in good shape. The biggest thing was moving almost 40 years of stuff out of my room into this office, after Mary-Lou moved 40 years of her stuff out.

“In the past few months, we have had a small staff turnover, which is unusual,” she said. “We’ve had to fill two positions, and we’ve added a few new students. We’re up to 72. … We are pretty full now.

“So there have been no real big changes, just some small changes that have been made.”

Paine said she always wanted to go into education but is not sure what really led her into special education.

“I remember reading a book in high school called Christy, by Catherine Marshall, about a young woman, Christy, who taught impoverished children in the Appalachians,” Paine said. “Then there was another book, Karen, by Marie Killilea, which was about a girl who had cerebral palsy.

“There was just something about those two books that stuck in my mind. I wanted to teach, but I wanted to do something a little different. I chose special education, which was still new in 1975.”

Paine said the mission of The Sunshine School is to offer learning opportunities to everyone.

“Everyone can learn,” she said. “We all learn at different levels.”

The Sunshine School was founded in 1965 under the sponsorship of the Searcy Junior Auxiliary. The school follows the Searcy School District schedule and has classes Monday through Friday from August until June. The Sunshine School is a nonprofit organization funded by state and federal money. Contributions from the United Way of White County are used as a match to generate these funds and to augment services.

“Sally has been very supportive of the United Way of White County,” said Anne Eldridge, its executive director. “She is passionate about The Sunshine School, their programs and the students. I know The Sunshine School will benefit from her leadership and devotion.”

Apart from work, Paine is active in Center on the Square, a community-theater group in Searcy.

“I am directing a very funny play right now,” she said. “It’s called The Cemetery Club, by Ivan Menchell. It’s about three Jewish widows who meet once a month for tea before going to visit their husbands’ graves.

“This is not my first time to direct, but I prefer being onstage.”

The show opened this weekend and will continue for two more weekends; it’s a dinner-theater production.

The Cemetery Club will be presented at 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday and again Sept. 28 and 29, and at 1:30 p.m. Sept. 30 at 219 W. Arch St. in Searcy. Dinner is served one hour before curtain time. Tickets may be reserved by calling (501) 368-0111 or purchased online at

Paine is also active in Arkansas Special Olympics and the Searcy Civitan Club, which is part of Civitan International, a service organization that focuses on helping individuals with developmental disabilities. She is a sponsor of the Chi Omega Pi women’s social club at Harding University and is active at College Church of Christ.

Paine is a volunteer interpreter for the deaf, a skill she has used at The Sunshine School when there have been deaf students in attendance.

Paine said she is still a teacher at heart.

“I love to read to the students,” she said. “I have made it my mission to continue going into every classroom and reading to the students.

“I am a single lady, but I have 72 children, all right here at The Sunshine School.”


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