While writing a weekly column about a small town in a rural community, I’ve learned to keep my ears open for possible leads. I also ask former subjects of stories for hints of anything or anyone they might know who would be good to write about. This story came as a result of a lead from a former teacher at Norwell High School, Terri Worden, whom I had interviewed and written about last year. She thought what high school math teacher Penny Gay did with her summers was interesting. I think so too. She and her husband are amazing. Could you do what they do to help people?
“We both give a lot of time,” said Penny Gay. “That’s why we’re together.”
Penny Gay of Monroe is referring to the sacrificial living that has been a part of her and her husband’s lives. Penny Gay, math teacher at Norwell High School, and husband, Bill, have been married since 2007. During much of that time, they have served with various groups as volunteers.
While growing up, Penny Gay attended Pleasant Dale Church of the Brethren. The denomination’s Christian teaching of helping others in crisis created a strong desire within Gay. Over the years she traveled to Nicaragua and Peru for mission work.
After graduating from Adams Central High School, Penny Gay attended Huntington College. Gay chose to become a teacher and majored in Physical Education with minors in math, health, and world history.
Gay’s first teaching assignment was in Middlebury, Indiana, where she taught middle school math for five years.
In 1993 Gay decided to return to her roots and accepted a position teaching eighth grade math at Norwell Middle School. This job continued until 2005-2006 when Gay was approved for a one-year leave of absence. “I wanted to do mission work,” she said.
In 2005 Gay combined her desire to tell people about God with her teaching skills by serving as an instructor at the American Indian Christian Mission in Show Low, Arizona. “I taught fifth grade and wrote curriculum,” she said. “It was a stretch for me, but I’m glad to have done it.”
Upon returning to Wells County in 2006, Gay was offered a position as math teacher at Norwell High School. She accepted the position and began teaching geometry and algebra, a position she holds today. She currently teaches seven classes daily.
Gay’s motivation as a teacher is simple. “I always liked school and hope to convey to students that same enjoyment,” she said. “I also want to teach traits like responsibility, working hard, and treating people the way they would like to be treated.”
In addition to teaching full-time, Gay coaches a girls basketball team at Adams Central High School. She also teaches girls junior varsity softball at Norwell High School. Gay believes it is easier to accomplish her teaching goals via sports. “I can impress to students a hard work ethic easier at basketball practice than in class,” she said.
Between teaching and coaching, Penny, whose maiden name was Beer, stayed involved with her church’s missions trips. It was during one of her trips that Penny met Bill. In 2007 they both were serving as volunteers in Mississippi with separate groups as part of relief efforts due to Hurricane Katrina.
Bill Gay, a self-employed carpenter, was serving as a long-term project coordinator. It did not take the couple long to get to know each other. After meeting in March, Penny and Bill married in October 2007.
Since then, their volunteer efforts have not flagged. The summer before their marriage Bill Gay traveled to Arctic Village in northeastern Alaska to work with residents of the village, who are Athabaskan Indians, on the development of gardens. The village serves as Ground Zero for a national global warming station. According to Penny, Bill Gay was concerned about the residents’ location for reasons other than global warming.
“The people eat a lot of meat from animals which they catch,” she said. “That’s not healthy for their digestion.” She added that Bill taught the people how to begin growing seeds in greenhouses, then in June transplant them to the ground. Despite a short growing season, the residents of Arctic Village grew cabbage, lettuce, broccoli, cauliflower, peas, and tomatoes.
Penny Gay joined Bill in summer 2008 and each of the two summers since to assist with the work. It is not easy living in Arctic Village. The town is located 215 miles northeast of Fairbanks. After flying to Fairbanks, the Gays complete the trips on a bush plane. Electricity for the residents of Arctic Village is supplied from diesel generators. Two buildings have running water–the school and washeteria (laundry $5 a load, showers $5 each).
Temperatures in the summer averaged 60 degrees with snow occurring a few times. Each summer, the Gays, who choose not to use electricity, have lived in tents and cooked their food outside over open fires. “The mosquitoes were awful,” said Penny Gay. “I learned to appreciate a comfortable chair.”
What about the wild animals Alaska is known for? “We saw evidence of bears and wolves,” said Penny Gay, “but we camped within the town’s limits and the people kept the animals away.”
Plans are for the Gays to return to Arctic Village in 2011. They hope to obtain grant money to purchase more greenhouses for residents. Already fundraisers through the Pleasant Dale Church of the Brethren and others in the area have provided some funds for this purpose.
Penny Gay admitted she and Bill have considered moving to Alaska. Careers such as theirs are needed around Arctic Village. A couple of factors prevent the migration north. “We want to stay close to family,” said Penny. “And the weather in Alaska has been recorded as low as 70 below in winter. That’s something we’re not ready to deal with,” she said.
Reprinted with permission of Ossian Sun Riser