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Different is good

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By Travis Jenkins

Some people branded Cynthia Furr and her teaching methods “unconventional,” “not normal” and even “weird.” That obviously provoked a strong reaction.

“She told me ‘they think I’m different…isn’t that great,’” her sister Sharon remembered.

Cynthia (who was known to most as Cindy) is gone, killed in a car crash along with her baby McAllister (Mackie) in 2009, but the love of the arts, English and literature she brought to her Winthrop classroom and the “it’s OK to be different” philosophy she had her students embrace live on through the CindyMackie Foundation.

After her sister and niece died, Sharon Furr founded the CindyMackie Foundation, which has given out over $115,000 in scholarships and grants throughout the Carolinas to students, teachers and schools in the area. The presentations, like Cynthia was herself, are different. There isn’t a formal ceremony at a banquet with oversized checks being handed out. Sharon Furr and the CindyMackie board of directors (Andi Owen, Laura Oliphant, Missy Jennings, Cathy Jones and Jean Furr) launch the best sort of sneak attack possible. One day each year, the group shows up unannounced at a series of schools with checks and certificates in hand to surprise all of that year’s recipients. Friday was the day and the first stop was the Chester Academy of Teaching and Learning.

Reading Intervention Teacher Melinda Abercrombie has applied for and received CindyMackie grants before, but was still surprised when Sharon Furr and crew showed up in her library, the CindyMackie Literacy and Performing Arts Center. That the school has a nice, functioning Center at all is a testament to what the foundation has achieved. In 2010 there wasn’t furniture, wasn’t a reading area and there really weren’t even any books. Four grants later there are shelves filled with books, a performance stage, indoor and outdoor reading areas, a teacher’s research library and artwork hanging on the walls. A picture of Cindy and Mackie hangs in the Center and the room is actually named for them. The ability to enhance learning options for students will be paid for with the newest grant.

“We’ll be expanding the research portion of our library so boys and girls can come in to research articles and recent news and things going on in the community,” Abercrombie said.

There will also be more books. Anyone who thinks young people living in a high-tech age don’t embrace the old-fashioned joy of reading a book have obviously not visited the ATL school. Abercrombie said before the CindyMackie grants built up the library, students would be excited when book fairs came to the school, then disappointed when they left. Now, all ages of students relish the opportunity to spend part of their lunch break in the library with a book. A number of students came in during the check and certificate presentation, plopped down in a chair and started reading.

The group then headed toward downtown Chester to the Arts Council office. Council Director Lauren Medlin didn’t know what was coming, but a story was concocted to make sure she’d be in her office at 9:30 a.m. She was thrilled to see the CindyMackie brigade come in through the front door. The arts council has a scholarship program in place and subsidizes 30 percent of the cost for all children taking art classes, but recently lost a grant that helped pay for it all. Thanks to CindyMackie, there won’t be an interruption. 

“This will change lives,” said Medlin, who noted that no child who is interested in art will be turned away now because they can’t afford it.

Art classes are concentrated in the summer, but are held year-round in a number of disciplines and are taught by professional artists.

The surprises continued into the evening, with a stop to present a scholarship to Kyle Smith (a 12-year-old York County boy studying the flute, marimba and steel drum), another at South Point High school in Belmont, N.C. to present a higher education scholarship to aspiring singer Madeline Bame and the last in High Point, to present a check to the “Drama Kids of the Triad” group.

Sharon Furr said her sister inspired young people to pursue their dreams and creative visions and was an educator at heart. All of those things are embodied in CindyMackie.

“These are the things Cindy was doing in her life as a teacher and aspiring artist,” she said. “She propelled children and students alike. She gave them empowerment and encouraged them to become something extraordinary. This is just a way of paying that forward. It’s a little tiny grassroots effort. It’s one sister saying ‘we can’t forget everything that she did.”

She said that education sometimes tries to get kids to work “inside the box.” Her sister, being different “colored all outside the lines” and didn’t really acknowledge the box’s existence. Her methods were effective and inspirational, though.

“We’re just trying to give a little piece of Cindy to these people,” Sharon Furr said.

CindyMackie gives away all the money it raises in a given year. The foundation is the result of the work of only a few people and it doesn’t go about handing out funds in a traditional way. In all those respects, it’s very different from other foundations. Cindy proved, though, that different is good.

To see video of the two local presentations, go to https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5kAhQ56E8zc or search “Chester News and Reporter” on YouTube.