Outside the Penders’ family home, two young neighborhood boys play on their bikes in the quiet lakefront street. Inside, Jim and Kathy Pender fondly discuss their youngest child, Michael.
Michael passed away after a failed heart and lung transplant in 1991. He was 19.
“You have an experience like this, and there’s all sorts of ways to handle it,” Jim said. “One is to feel sorry for yourself and just to shut the world out. Another way is to try to take the tragic event and quietly go out and help other people deal with whatever they’re dealing with — and that’s what we’ve tried to do.”
In memory of Michael, Jim and Kathy set up the Michael Pender Memorial Fund in Cleveland in 1995. For more than 15 years, they have sponsored events in the Family Entertainment Series at Chautauqua Institution in honor of their son.
“I think this experience made us realize that we … gained a great deal of satisfaction by helping others in his … memory,” Jim said.
This season, the Penders are sponsoring two events in the Family Entertainment Series. At 7:30 p.m. Wednesday in the Amphitheater, Rhythmic Circus will perform thanks to the sponsorship from Jim and Kathy Pender and the Michael Pender Memorial Fund of the Cleveland Foundation. The second event, “Passing Zone Saves the World,” will take place on Aug. 16.
According to his parents, Michael loved children and worked at a camp for children who had cystic fibrosis, as well as with the preschool children at St. Christopher by-the-River Church near the family’s Ohio home. In the last couple of years of his life, he talked about wanting to set up a camp for disabled children.
“I think that’s something that stuck with us,” Kathy said. “‘Those were his thoughts … (and we thought) ‘How can we continue with those thoughts when he’s not alive?’ So a lot of things that we do are for families and children — many of those things are for children and families who do have special needs.”
Michael was injured in a boating accident at the age of 8 on New Year’s Day in 1980.
“For 11 years and 41 days, he dealt with the after-effects of the accident,” Jim said.
Michael initially suffered and then recovered from a brain injury, but later developed a heart and lung problem. Despite his various health issues, the Penders tried to ensure he lived a life of normalcy.
“He had a little cart that he drove around (school),” Kathy said. “But … we asked everyone at school to treat him as a normal child and not to give him special privileges. That is really what we tried to do for the most part. He was to just try to be a normal kid as much as he could, even though he wasn’t normal.”
As Kathy explains how more than half of Michael’s class wrote their college essays on Michael and how he inspired them, Jim asks their daughter Katie to bring down the picture of Michael they keep on their bedroom table.
“Because of his lung situation, he looked a little like he had cystic fibrosis — he was small,” Kathy said. “For a while he was self-conscious about that, but after a while I think he just accepted that’s the way he was and everyone else did, too. But it took him a while to realize that.”
The picture Katie brings down is Michael’s senior year picture. The black and white photograph sits in a gold frame and shows a smiling boy on the cusp of adulthood.
“He had a good sense of humor,” Kathy said. “I used to tell him, ‘Michael, they’ll realize who you are. (Your disability is) not who you are, who you are is … your personality, your thoughts.’ ”
Now, three generations of Penders spend their summer in the house that perches on the edge of Miller Park, overlooking the lake.
“(Our) grandchildren have been coming since they were babies,” Kathy said. “What has happened is my daughter and our grandchildren and these families, younger families, have all moved in. So we all go down to the Amphitheater on these evenings and gather for these Family Entertainment Series.”
The Penders affectionately refer to this group as “The Miller Park Gang.”
“It’s a big family thing,” Jim said. “Not only (going) to the Family Entertainment Series, but they’re always out there in the park at night doing something. It’s really nice.”
Kathy said she likes sponsoring the Family Entertainment Series not only because it brings families together, but also because of its inclusivity.
“Family meant a great deal to Michael,” Kathy said. “What I like about (the Family Entertainment Series) is it brings in the community from the outside as well — it’s more inclusive and brings everyone in — and Michael was kind of that way anyway. He was just very friendly (and) outgoing.”
For information on underwriting opportunities at Chautauqua, contact Tina Downey, director of the Chautauqua Fund, at 716-357-6406 or firstname.lastname@example.org.