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North Charleston principal, councilman gets job at Walmart to help low-income students

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darby hallway.jpg (copy)

Principal Henry Darby's earnings from his new job at Walmart go toward helping low-income students and families that need the extra support to buy food or pay the bills. File/Grace Beahm/Staff

North Charleston High School Principal Henry Darby doesn’t get much sleep these days.

The principal and longtime county councilman recently took on a third job, this one less conspicuous than his other positions.

Three nights a week, Darby heads to the Walmart Supercenter off Centre Pointe Drive near the Tanger Outlets to stock shelves from 10 p.m. to 7 a.m.

He gets off work with just enough time to make it back to the school’s campus before the morning bell.

The principal didn’t decide to pick up another job this August to supplement his own finances. Instead, his earnings go toward helping low-income students and families needing the extra support to buy food or pay bills.

Many students at his school live in poverty, Darby said. "I decided to get another job because the kids, they really need help."

Nearly 90 percent of North Charleston High students last school year lived in poverty, according to data compiled by the S.C. Department of Education.

Some of the money has also been put toward helping students pay college tuition. Other funds have been used to help purchase things to boost teacher morale, Darby said. 

Cynthia Solomon, store manager of the Centre Point Drive Walmart, said that in her 16 years working with the company Darby was the first principal she knew of who took on another job as a Walmart associate. It was also the first time she'd heard of someone donating all of their earnings to help others.

"The work ethic that he has just to come into work after his other two jobs is just really remarkable to us," Solomon said. "His dedication and coming in and doing the job it requires every night is really very impressive." 

Ever since he was a teenager, Darby has worked three or four jobs. During his time as a teacher, he worked several odd jobs, including at the airport and a glass factory.

Growing up, Darby visited elderly living communities with his mother where, at 6 years old, he learned how to comb and braid residents’ hair.

"Because of my work ethic, this is nothing new to me," Darby said. "This is just a part of my lifestyle."

He was elected to County Council in 2004 and was reelected in November. He was named principal at North Charleston High in 2017.

To date, he’s donated more than $2,500 to families, or about half of his earnings so far. He'll donate the rest after taxes are due. 

Current students at the school aren’t the only ones eligible to receive help. Former students are welcome to reach out as well.

Elizabeth Bowens, the school's parent advocate administrator, said she and other employees sometimes have to rein Darby in. 

Bowens and the district social worker and the Communities in Schools representative try to exhaust all of the resources already available to students and their families before letting Darby step in with his Walmart funds.  

"His heart is so big. This is his community. He’s grown up here, he still lives here. These kids are like his kids," she said. 

There truly is a schoolwide commitment to ensuring all students have what they need, Bowens said. Teachers have gotten involved, too, she said, like one educator who repairs students' bikes for free so they can make it to school or work on time. 

"We try to embody a whole circle around our kids and make sure they're OK. They have to have a safe space. And we want our school to be a safe space," she said. 

Trevor Strawderman, an executive director for the district's secondary learning community, said he initially thought Darby was joking when he said he wanted to get another job.

"I didn’t even see that it was physically possible," Strawderman said. 

Still, he said, Darby manages to juggle his responsibilities with grace. 

"Being the principal at North Charleston High School, it’s not a job to Henry. It’s a calling," Strawderman said. "He’s the epitome of service before self."

When he first got the job at Walmart, Darby was working five nights a week.

"Then I realized I wasn’t as young as I used to be," he said with a laugh. He’s been working three nights a week since late September.

He admits he was reluctant to be interviewed about it. He tried to keep his new job a covert endeavor, without much success.

During Darby's first night on the job, a student recognized him.

Still, Darby said it's OK that people know about his position. He’s not ashamed of it.

He even hopes it might inspire some students he knows who feel working at Walmart is beneath them.

"If some of them could see that if a principal could work at Walmart, why can’t they?" he said. 

Part of the reason Darby wanted to give back to his community was because of the people who helped him throughout his life growing up.

After his father died when Darby was 3 years old, members of his church community pooled their money to purchase him a suit.

And when his mother passed when he was 17, Darby's aunt, uncle and cousins helped him. 

"I can say that people really helped me to get to where I am today," he said.

He implored others in the community to give back in whatever way they can.

"I wish that those of us who are born of poverty and we had to struggle and we made it to at least the lower middle class, that we will look back to help others," he said. 

Contact Jenna Schiferl at 843-937-5764. Follow her on Twitter at @jennaschif.

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