Valley native founds nonprofit helping underprivileged kids

Published 9:30 am Saturday, February 24, 2024

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WEST POINT — Benita Gunnells returned to the Valley on Thursday to speak to the West Point Rotary Club about a local project that’s dear to her heart. She’s well known in the local area after having served several terms on the Lanett City Council and having been the director of the Greater Valley Area Chamber of Commerce. She was also with the Achievement Center in Opelika for 17 years. Benita and husband Jimmy Gunnells are retired and live in the Newnan area.

The project that’s close to her heart is known as Panthers With Passion. As a 1978 graduate of Lanett High, she’s involved with this 501(c)3 nonprofit which seeks to help underprivileged children who have basic needs that are being unmet.

“In 2018 I was made aware that some Lanett City School students were struggling to obtain not only school supplies but some of their basic personal needs such as school uniforms, shoes, undergarments and even food,” she said. “It broke the hearts of me and others in the organization. We knew it was time to take action.”

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Gunnells is chairman of Panthers with Passion. Other board members include City Clerk/Treasurer Deborah Gilbert, Shirley Greenwood of the Lanett Police Department, children’s tutor Trudye Johnson and Barbara Quinton.

Gunnells told members of the club that the late Aileen Love told her something she’ll never forget: “You can retire from a job, but you can’t retire from life.”

That’s keeping her active in organizations like Panthers With Passion.

As someone who has always loved Lanett and its schools, Gunnells said that it stirs her into action when she sees a child in Lanett who is living in poverty. One Christmas season she went shopping for some toys for the kids. One item on a list she had puzzled her. A little girl had written that she wanted something known as “Koatz.”

She went to Walmart and asked the store manager if they had a kids’ game known as Koatz. He told her he’d never heard of it.

Gunnells went back to the school and asked the counselor about it. She showed her what the little girl had written on the shopping list. She knew immediately that what she was asking for was a coat.

Gunnells said she couldn’t help but tear up when she heard that. She walked back to her car and saw five coats inside. They included a heavy winter coat, a raincoat and several light coats.

“I lost it before I could sit down in the car,” she said. “I asked God to help me deal with it.”

For Christmas the little girl more than got her with. Panthers With Passion got her a raincoat with matching boots and a winter coat.

“There are so many heartbreaking situations you see when you get involved in a program like this,” Gunnells said. “We can’t let kids walk around in worn out shoes that are held together with duct tape. You need to look around for clearance sales. I got a $60 pair of shoes one time for $11.”

Gunnells said that Darden’s in downtown West Point had been very supportive. “They donated 300 items for school uniforms,” she said.

“There’s lots of little things people can do to help the people of Lanett,” Gunnells said. “We are proud of our organization and what it’s trying to do. We meet every other week. Local churches, businesses and generous individuals have donated supplies, time, money, discounts or whatever is needed to help. We continue to work to support the students of Lanett.”

Items that are needed for school uniforms include:

  • Shirts: They can be solid white, black, navy, or light tan in color. They can be button-front oxford, polo, turtleneck, blouse-type shirts with long or short sleeves;
  • Bottoms: Pants, skirts, skirts, jumpers, capri-length pants, shorts. Colors can be solid khaki, black or navy. No blue jeans (or denim) material is allowed.
  • Shoes/Socks: Black, white, navy, brown, gray or a combination but not shiny silver.
  • Belts: Pants with belt loops will require a belt. Belts must be plain black, brown, navy or clear with a plain belt buckle that is not oversized. All belts must be buckled.
  • Coats: Individual schools may make requirements for coats and coat storage. Check with the school before purchasing.

“I love the Valley,” Gunnells said. “It will always be home to me.”

Benita and husband Jimmy Gunnells lived in the Cusseta area before moving to Newnan. “I just hope we can get used to the traffic there,” she said.