Englewood resident Kenny Carpenter, 48, has had quite a life, a productive mix of tragic and comic. A shy child, he survived what would seem insurmountable obstacles, but uses his experiences to help troubled students at Northmont High School through humor and empathy.
A Springfield native, Carpenter went into the foster care system at age 9. “My mother had mental health problems and couldn’t take care of me, so I was moved around into 13 different foster homes in Springfield and Dayton, then into a group home, and finally independent living.”
To most of us, that would not be a good start in life, but Carpenter sees it as an advantage, “because it made me a people person and I can fit in anywhere. The experience of living in so many situations gave me strength to work with all types of people and trauma.”
After jobs in every type of restaurant, a friend told him about more productive work with the county. “I applied and worked with special needs adults through the Montgomery County Board of Developmental Disabilities (MRDD) for 16 years.” During that time, he also ventured into comedy.
“A friend was doing standup at an open mic night at Wiley’s so I tried it, practiced and got better.” Now, Carpenter has regular comedy gigs on the weekends, often traveling to Columbus or Cincinnati. “Comedy is a real icebreaker and a release for pain – I use my life and mother, a schizophrenic, in my acts – being funny about serious things really helps.”
Recurring themes come from domestic violence and an eating addiction. “My mom started and always won a lot of fights, and she was starving me – I was malnourished when I was taken from her in ’78, so close to death that I spent two weeks in the hospital. As a result, in foster homes, I stole food – instead of cookies from the cookie jar, I’d take the whole jar. And it didn’t stop when I left foster care. At 35, I weighed almost 400 pounds, so started lifting weights and dieting – now I weigh between 175-180, and use a lot of weight stories in my comedy.”
When the county downsized and Carpenter lost his job with adults, “I knew I wanted to work with kids. Northmont had an opening for a paraprofessional to work with emotional and learning disabilities at the high school, so I applied and have been here for the past six years. I enjoy helping the children, and although I don’t try to make them laugh, the comedy helps – it’s an icebreaker with the kids, and they feel comfortable with me.”
Several times a year, he’s invited to other classrooms to do motivational speeches. “I always add humor, and just talk to them about myself and my experiences, being funny about serious things.”
Susan Webb, Northmont City Schools’ Secondary Special Education Supervisor, says that “Kenny is the best – he brings humor to the students, and a common personality. Many of our students have also had setbacks in their lives, and he relates to that.
“In addition to working with mainly one teacher’s class, he’s spoken to the student body as a whole, and helps students and staff to realize that we never know what others have been through. He’s a role model for students in the classroom and the building as a whole.”
Carpenter’s past problems with food make him acutely aware of food deprivation among students, and Webb noted that he delivers food from the school’s pantry to families, not just for the holidays, but whenever there’s a family in need.
“The kids make me realize how far I’ve come because of the same things they’ve come through,” says Carpenter. “I realize this is what I should be doing.”
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