Finding Fulfillment through Service

By Brad McEwen

Having lived in Albany for the better part of 30 years I’ve had the distinct pleasure of crossing paths with a number of impressive people that I’m proud to call my friends and neighbors—folks that embody the goodness that I feel percolating beneath the surface of my community and who give me hope for a better tomorrow.

In fact, I often say that Albany’s greatest treasure is its people and it’s folks like Wallace and Jennifer Bonner—a local couple with a heart for service and earnest desire to help others—that inform that opinion.

I recently sat down with the Bonners to discuss their feelings about this community, their views about service and to learn a little more about why many believe they are such a blessing to Albany and Dougherty County.

On paper it’s easy to understand why the Bonners are so highly thought of. Both Wallace and Jennifer are very involved in different community and civic groups—including both having served on the board of Flint River Habitat for Humanity and Wallace being an active member and past president of the Exchange Club of Albany. 

They are both highly active at Porterfield United Methodist Church, which they joined in the mid-1990s when Jennifer returned to her hometown with the husband she had met while at Presbyterian College, and both are very involved in mission work.

Professionally Wallace, a real estate attorney with Moore, Clarke, DuVall & Rodgers PC, and Jennifer, a preschool teacher at Porterfield Day School, are also well respected and both have sterling reputations based on the passion and dedication they exhibit on a daily basis.

In his practice Wallace is known for his kindness, his compassion and his attention to detail, traits Jennifer was eager to share on behalf of her always humble husband.

“I always hear from people—if it’s first-time, young home buyers or a widow buying their first home, or an older couple buying their first home, or if it’s someone who’s recently widowed and they’re having to sell a place that they really didn’t want to, or somebody that’s having to move—I hear from all different aspects about his compassion at the table,” she said. “It’s not just signing papers. He wants to be sure that they understand everything. He has a very caring way and a lot of people leave very happy because he takes care of them through that process.”

Similarly, when sharing some of the high regard Jennifer has earned in her profession it was Wallace who spoke on his wife’s behalf as she tried to downplay any compliments she might receive.

“I’ll brag for Jennifer because she won’t brag for herself,” Wallace said admiringly. “She’s really, really, really good at what she does. Her kids have a great, great time and her parents love her and it’s pretty neat to watch somebody who enjoys their job so much who does it so well.”

By any reasonable measure it’s easy to see why their friends and neighbors have a deep affection for the Bonners, but what’s on paper isn’t the whole story.

The true depth of their character was revealed to me not just through what they are involved in, but through the reasons behind those actions.

Throughout our conversation it became quite obvious that Wallace and Jennifer feel an intense call to service and that their desire to do for others and give what they have is deeply ingrained in who they are and greatly informs how they view the world around them.

For Wallace that sense of service and being an active member of a community goes back to his time growing up in Forsyth and spending time in his dad’s pharmacy.

“I had it modeled for me very well,” he said of the lessons he learned as child. “My dad had a small pharmacy on the square in Forsyth. If you look at professions that are trusted lawyers don’t fall high in that group but pharmacists do. They are very high always.

“I worked for my dad and I was in the pharmacy a lot and he treated everybody well and everybody was important because they were our customers. It didn’t matter their station in life or anything. They were all our customers and they were his people. That’s the way he felt about them.

“And I guess I feel that way about people who trust me enough to do work for them. If they’ve entrusted me with doing something for them, help them close on a house, or sell a house or whatever, then I want them to feel like I cared about it, because I do.”

Like Wallace, Jennifer also grew up in a household where service was important and nearly constant.

“My parents were very community oriented and involved,” she said. “As a child I sat on the floor for a lot of meetings out at what was known then as the Community Center out on Wildfair Road. I know the phone number because it used to sit on a little piece of paper by my parent’s phone.

“They were always very supportive of the community and our schools and I’m very happy doing that too. I don’t know any other way to do. I get a lot of joy out of that.”

That service mindset also extends to the couple’s three daughters, who, just like their parents, are also very involved in the church and spend time giving back to the community. Wallace and Jennifer shared that they have made it a point of doing the same things for their daughters that their parents did for them and that they consider themselves blessed to live in a community where they can do that.

“I think it’s important to instill in your children an understanding of community,” Wallace said. “You know this is not an impersonal place to grow up. People still know people here. If we go out to eat our children are going to see us interacting with people that we know because of work or because of school or because of associations with different civic things. So I think it’s a good place for them to grow up and see that.

“And structurally it’s a good place to raise children because it’s still in many ways a small town. It’s not a commuter town. I can’t imagine trying to raise a family in a place like Atlanta. I mean how would they ever know about community if their dad or mom was commuting two hours a day to a job that seemed impersonal and very far off? I don’t see how you could ever ingrain in them that kind of sense of what community is like.”

“I feel like we’re all called to love and serve,” added Jennifer. “I certainly feel that way about myself. And you can do that right here.

“I don’t see that this place is bad. I see things that come out like it’s number one in crime or whatever, but it’s also the number one most generous. And I just see the generosity—the generous hearts, known and anonymous. People are just very compassionate and generous here. I think it’s proven. I see it.”

Indeed the Bonner’s love of their community and the people that call Albany home was evident throughout our visit. Even though they freely admit that Albany is not a perfect place and that it certainly has its share of issues, it didn’t take long for me to see the deep affection they have for the community where they have spent that last 21 years living and raising a family.

“I think Albany is a welcoming community,” Wallace explained. “I’m always interested in historically why are things the way that they are and I think Albany has this interesting history of having had the naval air base here, and then having these big industries that have been here over time and having big hospitals and things like that. And that brings people in.

“If you’re a community that’s bringing people in, and of course I left off the Marine Corps base, but if you’re constantly having an influx of people that keeps you from being a closed community I think. It makes you accepting and welcoming and interested in who’s come to town. To me I think that’s kind of who the people here are. I have never felt like it’s a real closed community.”

To help illustrate their feelings about Albany, Wallace and Jennifer pointed to what the experienced in the aftermath of the two January storms that ravaged the community.

Despite their own involvement—Jennifer spending weeks delivering needed materials and lunches to area workers, and Wallace spending countless days with chainsaw crews, working from sunup to sundown to clear fallen trees and debris from area yards—the couple downplayed their role and instead offered praise for local residents and volunteers for the kindness, compassion and love that was displayed during that trying time.

“I think that the response of our community after the storms made me proud of living here,” said Wallace. “We were involved a little bit and helping, but it was just so incredible to see the way nobody relied on, in my opinion, the city, state, local, national government. There was a grass roots level of neighbors helping neighbors and churches doing what they could do.

“I mean I heard the stories about the line workers that came in and said how impressed they were with the community that existed here. And I heard other people coming in and being a part of that and seeing how people just picked themselves up by the bootstraps and tried to help out. A lot of class and racial barriers were cut through during that time and broken down. And that made me proud of being here.

“If you want to say this is the Good Life City, that was the example of what the Good Life City is. That particular snapshot in time, the very best in Albany came to a head. It was a finest hour kind of thing for our town.”

Jennifer elaborated saying that during that time it felt as though the entire community was involved in mission work.

“I mean this in a good way, but it felt almost like being on a mission trip,” she said. “Because when you go on a mission trip, whether it’s to Nashville, Tenn. or Miami, or another country, or you know, Effingham County, wherever you go on a mission trip, you don’t question a whole lot of stuff, or the people—what kind of people they are, or what lifelong decisions they’ve made. You’re there to build that ramp, to love those children, to build that well, to teach those hygiene lessons, whatever you’re there to do. And you do it and you have a good time doing it. You love and you serve and you don’t question who you go and do that for. And that was how it was after those storms.”

The couple’s mention of mission work and church involvement became another important theme of the time I spent visiting with the Bonners. In fact, the couple, who returned to Albany after living in Athens and Macon so that Wallace could accept a job offer, credit their acceptance at Porterfield, where Jennifer had worshipped growing up, as being one of the most significant reasons they decided to stay in Albany and start a family.

“We’ve been really pleased being here,” Wallace explained. “I think this is common for just about anybody who moves anywhere, but certainly the people that we’ve known who have moved here have been happy. It’s all about what you make out of the situation. We immediately came back and got connected back into our church.

“You know I view that in many ways as the anchoring event for us as far as happiness in Albany. We found a church where we are happy.

“It’s funny to think about, we got married at Porterfield; we baptized three babies at Porterfield—we’ve confirmed two of them now—and we were there and buried Jennifer’s father. So that’s why I say it’s a focal point for us.”

The church has also been an important piece of the couple’s professional life as Jennifer has served in numerous capacities within the church following a meeting with Porterfield’s then minister shortly after moving back to Albany.

“They wanted me to come work with them in their youth ministry and I told them I was not their girl,” she said with a laugh. “And they hired me just a short time later. It was a good thing. I ended up working at the church in youth ministry for a few years and then in children’s ministry for a few years also. I was there about seven years.

“Then I was home full time for 11 years and now I’m teaching preschool there. This will be my fourth year teaching preschool at Porterfield.

“I was a parent for 16 years writing them these nice notes, ‘thanks for helping us raise our girls through the preschool and everything.’ I left there one May on a Friday, teary-eyed that I wouldn’t be pulling up there anymore after 16 years of straight doing it, but by August I was pulling up every day and not leaving. And I was happy.”

Having known Jennifer and Wallace for a couple of years now, it’s hard to imagine them being anything other than happy to be honest. In every encounter I’ve had with them I’ve been greeted with beaming smiles and genuine affection—not because I play some special role in their lives, but because that’s how the family embraces the world.

Both Wallace and Jennifer are optimists and both have a knack for seeing the goodness in humanity. After talking with them I started to attribute that attitude to their general view of living a life that is blessed.

“I think it’s something that has been in both of our hearts always and it goes back to what was modeled for us,” Wallace said. “If you’re privileged—which we know that we ARE incredibly privileged AND incredibly blessed—the expectation is that you give something back. And I don’t mean that in some high platitude kind of way, it’s just kind of something that I know and it’s something that I want to pass along.”

Jennifer is also succinct in summarizing that outlook.

“I’m Pollyanna,” she said with an earnest smile. “I like look for the good. I’m very hopeful and optimistic. I’m an encourager. I look for the good and I like to celebrate that. I like to celebrate whatever there is. Find something good to celebrate and to look forward to, something good. You get down in the dumps, go do something for somebody else and you’ll feel better.

“There’s a lot of joy to love and serve. There’s a lot of joy.”

When I left the couple’s home--after a very informative, nearly two hour visit—that sense of joy and love was palpable. I left fully understanding why so many in this community count the Bonner family as an asset and I felt inspired to introduce them to a wider audience.

In fact, as I set out to write this feature there was no question in my mind that highlighting people like Wallace and Jennifer and the good things they are doing in this community is exactly what Beyond the Bank is supposed to be about.

Without so much negativity in this world, it truly is a pleasure to learn a little bit more about great people like the Bonners.

Connect with Brad – 229.405.7212 - brad.mcewen@abtgold.com - @BradGMcEwen