Jenny Pendleton has ideas. She wakes up in the middle of the night with them. And most of them revolve around finding ways to keep children from going hungry.
“Kids don’t have a choice in their situation,” she said.
Pendleton grew up in South Bristol, one of only six children in her class at South Bristol School. While things weren’t always easy, she remembers the joys of growing up by the water.
“We had so much freedom. We’d get on a bike, pack a picnic, be gone the entire day,” she said. “Just being carefree kids. No cellphones. We’d spend as much time as possible down by the water.” She described sitting on the swing bridge in South Bristol and riding it “for hours.”
“During Halloween we would start at the school and walk the whole island. In winters the bus would drop us off at the ice pond and we’d skate until dark and walk home with frozen feet,” she said.
“Kids today have no idea what freedom really is,” she said.
Pendleton attended Lincoln Academy and, after spending a year and a half working at the “very posh” Gasparilla Inn and Club in Boca Raton, Fla., she returned to Maine for cosmetology courses at Headhunters Academy in Portland.
Pendleton had wanted to be a hairdresser since she was a 5-year-old cutting her doll’s hair. She said she likes seeing the difference between the beginning and the end. And she loves talking to people. She brainstorms with her clients. They help her ideas evolve and take shape.
“It’s the best job ever,” she said.
It took a few years for her to become established as a hairdresser in New Harbor, and Pendleton subsidized her income with other jobs. She was a waitress at the Samoset Restaurant, another job she loved.
She worked the first two winters after she finished school packing shrimp in South Bristol, a job she loved less.
Pendleton described layering on sweaters and coats to head to the docks at 10 or 11 p.m. She worked outside in the wet, cold, and snow until 3 or 4 a.m. But she made the money she needed to start her own business.
She has owned that business, Coastal Cuts, for the last 31 years. She built a room onto her home and many of her clients watched her children grow up out the window of her home-based salon.
One of the inspirations for Pendleton’s activism was Patti Dee, a head waitress at the old Samoset Restaurant who started an annual Easter egg hunt at the restaurant over 35 years ago.
Pendleton has helped with the event almost every year since and still makes sure that kids in the Bristol area have something to look forward to during holidays. The Easter Bunny and Santa Claus have continued to visit the New Harbor fire station, despite the pandemic, handing candy and toys through windows as families drove past.
Eleven years ago, when Pendleton was a volunteer at the New Harbor Food Pantry, she wanted to find more ways to help kids. She asked the teachers at Bristol Consolidated School for their thoughts. “I had no idea how much extra help some of these families needed,” she said.
Pendleton started Caring for Kids by holding a yard sale out of the basement of her home, selling her own kids’ outgrown clothes to raise money. She put out a call and friends and neighbors brought more stuff. Renys donated clothing racks; the Miles in Motion Thrift Shop gave her extra coat hangers.
“I found volunteers by reaching out to friends and family and just said, ‘Can you help me?’ Nobody’s ever said no. When you tell people you’re doing it for kids, they volunteer,” she said.
Pendleton has had 35-40 regular volunteers step up to help since she began Caring for Kids. She’s trying hard to stay all-volunteer — although she said it’s getting tougher with the amount of work needed to run the small thrift shop and two food cabinets that are also part of the organization. “This could be a full-time job,” she said.
Pendleton works three full days a week at her salon and watches her grandkids on Mondays. But Fridays are reserved for the kids who need her help.
She spends the day at the New Harbor fire station, boxing up food for the 16 families she helps feed. She said it has been a tough time to figure out how to stay safe and still get stuff to kids and families. “I have to really, really think outside the box,” she said.
Her most recent innovation is recruiting school bus drivers to deliver weekend snack packs to schoolchildren. The snack program had been halted when COVID-19 hit, and she has been trying to figure out how to make it work ever since.
“We’ve learned a lot since then. We know we can handle things safely now,” she said.
Pendleton still has goals. She wants the food cabinets at the New Harbor and Bristol Mills fire stations to be open and available 24/7 so families in need can have access whenever is most convenient and comfortable for them.
And she worries about the families she has fallen out of contact with since the pandemic began. There were some she helped through the school that she doesn’t have a way to get in touch with. She wonders if the kids are OK, if they have enough, how she can help.
That’s what keeps Jenny Pendleton up at night. That’s what drives her.
For more information about Caring for Kids, go to caringforkidsinbristol.org
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