Henrietta Penney

Henrietta Penney, 77, clinical director of Alpha Autism Services and Vista Academy, is the 24th nominee for Kelowna Top Forty Over 40.

Henrietta Penney didn’t start attending high school until she was age 40.

She earned her first university degree in her late 40s.

She graduated with a Master of Science of Education when 52.

And the 77-year-old continues to work today as the clinical director of her two companies, Alpha Autism Services and Vista Academy.

“I’m an anomaly, for sure,” Penney said with a laugh. “People ask me all the time: When are you retiring? But, I have no intention of retiring. I already do what I love, so I don't have to retire to do it.”

Because of family circumstances, Penney quit school after Grade 8 and later went on to marry, raise three children and work at a grocery store for 20 years.

“I had lived a lot, but I wanted to get into education and that meant going back to school at 40 with a combination of regular classes, night school and home study in order to get my high school,” she said.

A bachelor degree from the University of Waterloo followed and then the masters from Niagara University in upstate New York.

She had a fulfilling career as a behaviour consultant, with a specialty in autism, with the teaching hospital of McMaster University in Hamilton and The Behaviour Institute in Toronto.

Ironically, in 2001, at 61, Penney actually moved from Ontario to Kelowna to retire.

“I was here one day when the doctors I worked for in Toronto at The Behaviour Institute called me up and convinced me to take a job training autism behaviour consultants,” she said. “I commuted back and forth to Toronto for six-and-a-half years and trained 2,500.”

Once back in Kelowna full-time, Penney set up two companies of her own: Alpha Autism Services and Vista Academy.

Alpha accesses and clinically helps children with autism, Asperger’s syndrome, Rett’s syndrome, pervasive development disorder and childhood disintegrative disorder and their families.

Vista Academy is the small kindergarten to Grade 3 school she runs in her home near the Kelowna Golf and Country Club for six children with autism who can’t be in regular classrooms right now.

“It’s all one-on-one, unique, customized services for children with autism and their families,” said Penney. “I use the applied behaviour analytic, the clinically-proven way to teach children with autism.”

The practice is complicated, but, generally, all tasks are broken down into observable and measurable pieces for children and detailed data is kept on what works and what doesn’t for future progress.

“Every child will make gains,” stressed Penney. “The goal is helping children learn how to learn. But, because of the many variables with autism, gains will be different for every child.”

Autistic children generally have sensory issues that leads to anxiety and over-stimulation when they face anything new or unknown. As such, most of their learning with Penney is done one-on-one in a calm setting.

“My dream is to get a transitory program from pre-school, where there tends to be more funding for autism, to regular school, where there tends to be less funding,” she said.

“Services for autistic children and their families have come a long way, but they are still limited in Kelowna.”

It’s not all work for Penney.

She enjoys her family of three grown-up children and seven grandchildren. And she’s a figure skater who will compete in an adult interpretive music event on March 4.

Editor’s note: Every week in this space with Top Forty Over 40 we profile a business person over the age of 40 who is having a great career and giving back through mentoring and volunteering.

The series is presented by BDO Accountants and Consultants, Kelowna Chamber of Commerce and The Daily Courier. If you know of a deserving over 40 you’d like to nominate, send an email to TopForty@KelownaChamber.org.

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