Sally Pinnix developed a knack for organization over 30 years of teaching elementary school while also raising two children to adulthood.
Since retiring from teaching, she has spent a decade putting those skills to work for children with disabilities, organizing events that help ensure they are included in summer camps, after-school programs, sports leagues and more.
Planning fundraisers and conferences for the National Inclusion Project has become like a full-time job for Pinnix. She spent the months leading up to Monday’s Power of Play conference at the Marbles Kids Museum asking for donations, making detailed plans, and rounding up the volunteers who will decorate, check in guests, set up meals and perform countless other tasks.
The conference is just one of several events Pinnix organizes for the national nonprofit, which helps train staff at camp and other recreational organizations on how to include children with disabilities in their activities.
“She realizes what we’re doing is important, and she does everything she can to support that and to communicate that,” says Aron Hall, director of programs for the nonprofit founded by North Carolina native and “American Idol” star Clay Aiken. “She makes other people feel valued, and she’s great at recognizing other people’s strengths and putting them in places where they’ll do well.”
Pinnix also works to organize the group’s largest event, a posh September gala for 500 people, as well as an event in April that pits local luminaries against one another in a dancing competition. But she says this week’s conference is the most important event, one where having every detail covered helps people do the hard work of helping children of all types to make friends, have fun, and learn valuable skills.
“You actually get to see the counselors and the other attendees who are going to be out there day after day carrying out the work of inclusion and making sure it happens every day,” says Pinnix. “To me, this is the real meat of all we do.”
Pinnix grew up in Reidsville, near the Virginia border. She worked as a secretary for the U.S. Department of Labor in Greensboro for a few years after getting a two-year degree from Louisburg College, but wanted a different long-term career.
That desire led her to High Point College, where she studied to be a teacher. After graduating, she taught different levels of elementary school for 30 years in districts across the state, including Burke, Cabarrus and Forsyth.
She taught in Wake County schools for 19 years, most recently at Millbrook Elementary.
Though she worked with children for years, she never specialized in teaching students with disabilities, and her association with the National Inclusion Project developed by accident.
She ran across the group at the Southern Women’s Show, where volunteers were wrapping presents to raise money for what was then called the Aiken Foundation.
Pinnix had followed Aiken’s career since he had been on “American Idol” in 2003. Aiken, who had been a special education teacher, founded the association that year.
The value of giving children with disabilities more opportunities to play alongside other children made immediate sense to her, so she volunteered to wrap presents at another event.
She learned to tie a bow, she says, but she also found she enjoyed talking to people about the foundation’s work.
“You would suddenly see a look in their face like they needed to hear about this, and they’d talk about someone they knew with a disability,” Pinnix says.
Within a few years, she was taking on leadership roles in several of the group’s events. In recent years, Hall has tapped her as the group’s overall event coordinator, though she still works as a volunteer.
Attention to details
As she became more involved in the group’s work, her passion for its cause only grew, particularly after visiting camps where their training as being put to use.
Among the project’s first partners was the A.E. Finley YMCA, where Pinnix met one mother who was used to bringing two of her children to camp, but leaving their disabled sibling at home.
She also visited the Jewish Community Center in Cary, where campers put on a circus show that they later performed at the annual gala that included tumbling, dancing with scarves and comic routines.
“Watching the counselors with them and how happy they were, and to hear parents talk about how wonderful it is to have their children come home with a smile on their face, proud of what they can do, that’s very rewarding,” Pinnix says.
The conference at Marbles this week is a key training component of the group’s Let’s All Play! Program, in which partners are given training and seed money to make their after-school programs, camps and sports teams more open to children with disabilities.
Hall says they focus on changes that don’t require expensive equipment of infrastructure.
“The first thing to change is the approach and the mentality,” says Hall. “We want people to know they don’t need to have a huge influx of capital to make things happen.”
The philosophy is simple: teaching ways to help children who have special needs make a friend, participate and be successful.
Working with 100 programs in 35 states with a full-time staff of four people, volunteers such as Pinnix are crucial, Hall says.
For this year’s conference, Pinnix rounded up donated food from grocery stores and restaurants, as well as items for goodie bags and raffle prizes.
She recruits volunteers, and then strives to give them tasks to suit their skills: decorating for creative types, greeting jobs for extroverts, behind-the-scenes jobs for the more reserved. This year, she’ll be getting help from two young women in wheelchairs.
Once this week’s event is over, she’ll start helping out with the planning for next month’s “Dancing Like the Stars” event as well as the September gala, which runs for two days with a dinner, silent auction and other activities.
Hall says Pinnix is a natural organizer. But Pinnix says her secret is a series of notebooks where she scrawls down the tiniest details. Later, she reviews each page, starring the important ones and making lists.
A core group of half a dozen friends does most of the work, bringing in others for specific tasks.
Their meetings will go for hours while Pinnix records every detail – from the cell number of the Marbles employee who will let them in to set up to the protocol for storing clean ice for drinks separately from the ice that will hold water bottles.
“I’m a paper and pencil kind of person,” says Pinnix. “If I don’t have it down on paper with little stars by it, I’m not organized.”
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Born: April 1947, Reidsville
Career: Retired teacher; volunteer coordinator for the Triangle-based National Inclusion Project
Education: B.A., education, High Point University
Family: Husband, John; children Jennifer and Will; one grandchild
Fun Fact: Pinnix and her husband were childhood sweethearts who reunited after she divorced.
If you’d like to go
The “Dancing Like the Stars” event to benefit the National Inclusion Project will be at 4 p.m. April 25 during the Southern Women’s Show at the N.C. State Fairgrounds. Learn more at inclusionproject.org/news/dancing-like-stars.