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Cameron Named Distinguished Contributor

Certain people embody the principle that a single individual can impact countless lives. Penelope (Penny) Cameron, of Aurora, is that type of person. Her experiences as a teacher, community leader, elected official, dedicated philanthropist and Waubonsee Community College Foundation Board President have firmly established her legacy of helping others. Because of her commitment to the cause of education and her tireless efforts to raise scholarship funds for local students, Waubonsee is proud to recognize Cameron as its Distinguished Contributor for 2011.

“I’ve always believed in education’s power to open doors,” Cameron said. Armed with a bachelor’s degree in elementary education from Northern Illinois University, she spent five years as a teacher before starting her family.

Cameron’s commitment to education also led to her involvement with the American Association of University Women (AAUW). It was through this organization that Cameron was first introduced to a new trend in higher education in the late 1960s — the community college. In fact, Cameron’s chapter of the AAUW helped pass the referendum that established Community College District 516 and Waubonsee itself.

From that point on, education and politics became two of the defining interests in Cameron’s life. After working on the District 516 referendum, she helped out on a few other campaigns to get more women elected to local offices before being persuaded to run for the Kane County Board herself. “I always took it a term at a time,” Cameron said. The approach worked, as she served on the board for 24 years.

Given that Waubonsee is Kane County’s community college, Cameron remained involved with the institution in a few different ways during her years of governmental service. She took a few computer courses at the college in the early 1980s to help better understand the county’s technology needs. Then, as Kane County’s representative to the National Association of County Officials (NACo), Cameron played an instrumental role in the passage of the Workforce Investment Act (WIA) of 1998. To this day, because of that legislation, unemployed people are able to retrain for free at Waubonsee and other area schools and organizations. 

But even after all of those years of service and impressive accomplishments, Cameron had yet to truly embark on her favorite and most rewarding journey. “My favorite job is raising money for students,” Cameron said.

While Cameron had been helping fund scholarships as a member of the AAUW, Altrusa International and other service organizations for years, it was not until she joined the Waubonsee Community College Foundation Board of Directors in 1999 that educational philanthrophy became her true mission.

While she currently serves as the Foundation board president, Cameron has taken on a variety of roles in her 12 years with the organization, including time as vice president and as a member of the scholarship, membership and special events committees. She has shepherded several scholarships through the Foundation, including the Aurora Republican Women’s Club Scholarship, the Altrusa Scholarship, the Woman’s Club of Aurora Scholarship and the Kane County Republican Women’s Club Scholarship.

“Penny Cameron is a tireless advocate for Waubonsee Community College, the Foundation and scholarships for Waubonsee students,” said Katharine Richards, Waubonsee’s Director of Fund Development. “During the many community events that she attends, Penny does not hesitate to suggest that an organization consider donating a scholarship to the Foundation. She’s quite the saleswoman!”

Cameron says she has discussed possible scholarship donations in a variety of places, including while mingling at cocktail parties, while doing dishes at a friend’s kitchen sink, and while getting her watch battery replaced at the local jewelry store. The reason Cameron is anxious to and able to “sell” Waubonsee is because she takes the time to get to know students, their stories and how scholarships can help give those stories a more solid start and a happier ending.

Of the countless scholarship recipients she’s met during her years with the Foundation, Cameron says, “I may not remember names, but I remember faces and a little bit about each one. Everyone comes with a different little story.”

Cameron remembers the 52-year-old GED graduate who was the first in her family to go on to college. Then there’s the 48-year-old woman who earned a Waubonsee scholarship three years running and had to give Cameron a hug during each year’s Scholarship Fest event to demonstrate her gratitude. Cameron also remembers the mother who was going back to school to re-enter the workforce and help support her three children after her husband lost his job.

Cameron is always looking for ways to communicate these powerful stories and the messages they hold about the importance of scholarships. This includes inviting students to speak at each of the Foundation Board’s meetings. 

“Foundation members hear how appreciative students are and are reminded of the meaning of sitting on the board,” Cameron said.

Such student stories were the impetus for Cameron establishing her own endowed scholarship at Waubonsee seven years ago. She also has an endowed scholarship in her name at NIU. 

With the establishment of these scholarships, Cameron hopes she has proven what it does, or this case, what it does not take to become a donor.

“As a teacher and a public servant, you don’t earn much,” Cameron explained. “But you set some aside, and if you have the mindset that this is what you want to do, it’s possible. You look at the people donating, and not everyone is a CEO. If I can do it, anyone can do it.”