Honoree's history rooted in Penn Center

The center recognized Roland Gardner for his contributions to the Gullah-Geechee culture.

May 10, 2011 

  • Located on St. Helena Island, the historic Penn Center was founded in 1862 as a school for freed African slaves. It later became a safe place for Civil Rights leaders, including Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the Rev. Jesse Jackson, to meet and discuss strategies. Today Penn Center is well-known as an African-American educational and cultural institution.

    Details: 843-838-2432, www.penncenter.com

The historic Penn Center on St. Helena Island has played a vital role in the life of Roland Gardner. The son and grandson of Penn School alumni, Gardner learned at an early age the significance of the African-American cultural and educational institution.

He attended nursery school at Penn Center, took his first job after graduate school on the campus and met Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. there. In the 1980s he served as chairman of Penn's board of trustees.

"I've always been a supporter of Penn," Gardner said. "And I got that from my parents telling me how much Penn meant to them."

Gardner, who still lives on St. Helena, said he was honored to hear the center would be recognizing him for his contributions to the Gullah-Geechee culture. Along with Fripp Island's best-selling author Pat Conroy and a fundraising organization called Sankofa Circle, Gardner was recognized May 7 at the center's eighth annual fundraiser, the 1862 Circle Gala and Awards Banquet.

"Although they are honoring me, I still have a lot of heartfelt warmth for what Penn has done in this community," Gardner said. "It was a very humbling and satisfying experience."

CEO of Beaufort-Jasper-Hampton Comprehensive Health Services for the past 30 years, Gardner has helped countless people in the community get the care they need. The health care provider serves more than 19,000 patients at 16 different locations across three counties.

Penn Center executive director Walter Mack said Gardner was honored for his support of Penn and his involvement with rural health care in the Gullah community. Mack said BJHCHS serves many Gullah people at its centers throughout the Lowcountry.

In addition to his full-time job, Gardner is secretary of the national Community Health Centers/Community Health Advocates. He has served as board chairman of the National Association of Community Health Centers and as president of the South Carolina Primary Health Care Association. He has volunteered his time with the March of Dimes, the South Carolina Rural Board, the National Rural Health Association and its Minority Health Committee.

And he plans to do more for the community by bringing a new health center to the Penn Center campus. Gardner said the 10,000-square-foot facility should be completed by the spring of 2012. It will include medical and dental services as well as a pharmacy, laboratory and space for Senior Services of Beaufort County.

"The need for health care on St. Helena Island ... is very critical," Mack said. He said many people in the area are low-income and don't have insurance, but BJHCHS will not turn anyone away.

"I'm very pleased that the committee has selected Mr. Gardner," Mack said. "He has had a long-term commitment to Penn Center."

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