Volunteering changed the course of Mary-Lou Dunn’s life.
The Searcy native had planned to become a college professor.
However, her older sister, a member of the Searcy Junior Auxiliary, suggested that Dunn volunteer during her final year of high school with the auxiliary’s mom’s day out program for children with disabilities. “I remember walking up the sidewalk and thinking, ‘What did she get me into this time?’” Dunn said.
By the end of that school year, Dunn had decided to pursue a college degree in special education.
The work provided “the opportunity to really, really make a change in somebody else’s life. Besides that, they were just neat people and fun to be around,” Dunn said.
She developed a relationship with the Junior Auxiliary’s program that she has maintained for more than four decades.
Dunn, 64, taught special ed for seven years in Searcy’s public schools and served on the Sunshine School’s board throughout those years before she committed to the Sunshine School of Searcy full time. “The Sunshine School is a place that takes a hold of you and won’t turn you loose,” she said.
Dunn has now served as executive director of the nonprofit school for 34 years.
When Dunn started volunteering, the school was a part-time program with about 12 kids participating. But it has steadily grown into a state-certified school that provides nearly seven hours of five-day-per-week instruction during the school year for children and adults of all ages who have developmental disabilities.
The school teaches a wide range of skills, from feeding oneself and socialization to job training. The school also offers physical, speech and occupational therapies.
Dunn now oversees a full-time staff of 25 that serves 70 students.
Dunn’s duties include hiring, firing, ensuring that payroll is done correctly, setting a board-approved budget and managing the paperwork associated with using state and federal funding.
Since the staff is small, Dunn also teaches, manages the part-time bus drivers and fulfills other as-needed responsibilities.
“It’s kind of ‘the buck stops here.’ Ultimately, I have to know that things are being done to satisfy requirements in the right way,” Dunn said.
Dunn has led the organization in average annual revenue growth of 5 percent for the past three years. She also moved the school into a new $1.6 million building in 2011 that has been about 86 percent paid for with private contributions.
Her goals are to pay off the 14 percent still owed on the new facility, making the school debt-free, and finish out her career in 2018 after her 40th anniversary as director.