After more than a year of searching, Penn Center announced the selection of a new executive director Tuesday.
Michael Campi of Conway was been picked by board of trustees of the Penn Center National Historic Landmark District on St. Helena Island.
“I understand we have some relationships to rebuild and some to rekindle but I really believe that as we begin our marketing and spreading the word, we're going to bring a lot of people to Beaufort County to see what this Penn Center is about,” he said.
Campi, 53, started the job June 17 and said he has been spending the last five weeks meeting locals, attending events and tackling a “very large learning curve.”
That includes transitioning to an organization with a strong emphasis on history and community building from, most recently, psychiatric residential treatment facility Willowglen Academy-SC. He has spent three decades working for non-profit organizations.
The 151-year-old Penn Center traces its roots to a school for freed slaves founded in 1862. The center was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1974. It also served as a community center and was used by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. as a retreat for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Today, it has a museum and focuses on education, cultural awareness and community building initiatives.
It also includes learning about the history and culture of the Sea Islands, which Campi had previously visited but never lived on. He estimated he is the first white executive director of the center in about 50 years.
“This will not be without its challenges,” he said. “I don't think I need to learn Gullah to be accepted by the community but I do need to be culturally sensitive... . I think it’s more about outcomes than the color of one's skin, and I intend to give Penn Center the outcomes we need.”
Campi said his initial work is to sort out what the needs of both the center and the community are.
Those range from the financial stability to fix up the center and expand existing programs to establishing an Angus cattle farm with previous director Walter Mack, who has returned to the role of director of land programs. Mack has been a mentor, Campi said, and vital in introductions around the community.
With his background of working with special needs children and adults, Campi is also considering whether additional programming along those lines would benefit the community.
Keeping Penn Center relevant and responsive to needs — locally, nationally and internationally — will be key to the organization’s continued success, he said.
Campi is temporarily staying in the Retreat House on campus that was built for King but completed after his death.
“I feel like I’m the torch bearer and it's been passed to me,” he said of the symbolism behind his lodging and mission.
Campi has been married to his wife, Coleen, for 15 years. He has two grown daughters and 7-year-old twins. He proposed to his wife on Marsh Walk in Hunting Island State Park, and promised they would one day make the Sea Islands their home.
Coleen Campi, who breeds champion Labrador retrievers, and the twins will be moving to the area in the near future.