<bt>When Louise Pennington learned she was the recipient of the 2005 Barbara Varon Volunteer Award, the first thing she did was try and give it back.
“I asked them to consider others and told them I would give them names of the people that were more deserving than me,” said Pennington. “I guess they decided not to.”
“I never knew anybody to do so much for one person,” said Irene Rodriguez, Pennington’s close friend and neighbor for 10 years. “But she doesn’t want you to do anything for her. That's the kind of person she is.”
Pennington, an 35-year resident of the Yorkville Cooperative near Fairfax Circle, has devoted the better part of her life to helping people. An active member of the Fairfax community, Pennington has served as president of the civic association at the Yorkville Cooperative and serves on the Community Action Advisory Board, a division of Fairfax County Family Services.
But Pennington conducts her life of service mostly outside the traditional venues of volunteer organizations and charities. She works directly with people: shoveling snow from someone's driveway one day, helping a neighbor move furniture another.
Many of Pennington's neighbors do not have cars, said Rodriguez, so Pennington will drive them to and from doctor's appointments or pick up their prescriptions from the drugstore. She will pick up children from school and look after them while their parents work.
Pennington also acts as a translator and advocate for neighbors who do not speak English, accompanying them to the health center. She visits people in the hospital, and once, went every day to take care of a neighbor who had cancer, said Rodriguez.
"If someone needed a bed, or if someone needed a wheelchair, they could telephone her," said Rodriguez. "Most of the time, she would take it out of her own pocket and buy it for them."
According to Rodriguez, Pennington advocates strongly for children, seniors, and the handicapped.
"Kids, along with the elderly and disabled, are part of my fold, I guess," said Pennington, who herself has health problems stemming from childhood polio.
AT YORKVILLE, Pennington has organized community events such as culture celebrations in 2002 and 2003 to celebrate the diverse nationalities of the cooperative's residents, as well as a "Sweetheart Day" on Valentine' Day.
"I wanted to let everyone know we were glad to have everyone here as neighbors," she said. "It's really nice working with a lot of people."
Pennington also likes surprises. One of her neighbors loved turtles, so when Pennington found a large stuffed turtle at a yard sale, she dropped it on the neighbor's porch.
"I stuck it under a chair facing the door and it scared her," said Pennington. "She asked me if I did it, and I said no."
Delphia Smith, who lives in Tennessee, remembers Pennington as a good neighbor who used to help her with furniture and groceries, she said.
"We didn't go sit and talk a lot, but when we needed each other's help with something, we sat down and talked about how to get it," said Smith. "She was a good neighbor. We would call on each other."
Several years ago, Yorkville resident Ai Che helped Pennington with a major project: delivering food to elderly or disabled Fairfax residents. Food For Others would distribute from their office, she said, but many senior and disabled residents were not able to take advantage of the service, so once a week she would drive packages of food to the residents who needed it. She continued the food deliveries for two years, occasionally assisted by neighborhood children.
"She is very fine with people," said Che. "If people in the community have any problem, she can help us a lot."
Supervisor Linda Smyth (D-Providence), who nominated Pennington for the Barbara Varon award, said she began to count on Pennington to show up at her office on behalf of a neighbor, friend or even a stranger in need.
"When I see something wrong and I know it's wrong, you better get out of my way," said Pennington.
"That's when she turns up here," said Smyth. The supervisor nominated Pennington for the award because, in her words, Pennington "memorializes all the things Barbara [Varon] had done and stood for."
Before the Barbara Varon award, said Smyth, Fairfax County did not have a way to honor outstanding citizens. Varon, who died in 2003, was chairman of the Fairfax County Electoral Board. Varon immigrated to the U.S. from Germany, said Smyth, and had a deep appreciation for her citizenship that most people took for granted.
"It's awesome, all the things [Varon] has done," said Pennington. "There is no way in the world I could ever match her kindness and generosity."
Lilyan Sperow helped decide which of the nominees became the winner of the award. She said Pennington was a unanimous choice and epitomizes everything Varon stood for.
The reason Pennington spends so much time and energy helping people is simple, she said.
"This is my secret: when they look back at me and smile, I think, I bought that smile," she said. "It was handmade, just for me."