‘Daystar is the best thing that ever happened to Cairo’

Carolyn Ponting isn’t going anywhere.

Ponting, 84, lives in a cozy ranch house in Cairo. She is one of a small number of people who have chosen to remain in the small southern Illinois city. Cairo has seen dramatic population loss and economic decline since the early 20th century and the drop-off in riverboat traffic on the nearby Ohio and Mississippi rivers.

“The funeral home will have to come and get me before I go anywhere,” she says with a laugh.

Recently, Ponting suffered a fall and broken ankle. For a while it looked like she might have to leave her home after all, maybe find a place in an assisted living facility in Cape Girardeau or Sikeston. Fortunately for Ponting, Daystar Community Program was there to help.

Ponting needed a way to keep that broken ankle elevated, and she knew exactly who to call.

“I called (Daystar director) Sherry Miller and asked for a recliner,” she says.

Daystar just happened to have a very nice recliner, given to the agency after the town’s only remaining doctor passed away recently from COVID-19.

“When I saw that recliner I just started crying,” Ponting recalls.

Daystar, founded in 1978 by the Poor Handmaids of Jesus Christ, is one of the agencies that receives funding from the annual Catholic Service and Ministry Appeal.

“Daystar is the place as far as helping people in this area,” Ponting says. “It is the best thing that has ever happened to Cairo. When you live on a fixed income, a place like Daystar is a real blessing. They truly have kind hearts and don’t look down on anyone. They treat everyone the same.”

Ponting, a retired bank teller, and the first woman to serve on the Cairo city council, lost her husband 50 years ago. He was killed while serving in the Vietnam War. She never remarried.

Ponting and Sherry Miller share that sense of loss. Sherry lost a daughter in a car accident and a son was severely injured in Iraq.

“I’ve always admired Sherry,” Ponting says. “She has had hardships most people could only imagine. I don’t know if I could ever smile again if I went through what she has gone through. But look at her. She is always smiling!”

Ponting smiles at Miller and says, “I picked you to try to follow your path, even though I am a Methodist.”

This year Miller, who the locals lovingly call “Sister Sherry,” is celebrating her 30th year as director of Daystar. Like Ponting, she says she isn’t going anywhere. There is too much to do, she says.

“Sherry runs herself ragged,” Ponting says. “If anyone knows the Lord, it is Sherry.”

Sherry smiles again. “These are my people,” she says. “I love helping people like Carolyn.”

Cairo and the surrounding Pulaski and Alexander counties are some of the poorest areas in the United States. The city lacks a grocery store, a drug store, a gas station, and now a doctor.

“That really set the town back when our one doctor died,” Ponting says.

And yet in the midst of all that poverty, Daystar shines like a beacon. Daystar’s soup kitchen, run by Tim Petty, serves as many as 200 meals a day.

“Nobody goes hungry in Cairo,” Ponting says.

While Cairo has been in decline for a century, that decline sped up during six years of racial unrest in the late 1960s and early 1970s, which began after a young soldier home on leave was found hanging by his T-shirt in a jail cell. The police claimed it was suicide, but some in the local black community suspected a lynching, and decades of racial resentments heightened during the Jim Crow era boiled over.

For the next six years Cairo intermittently erupted in serious of sniper attacks, fire bombings, protests, marches, and boycotts. Incredibly, only four people died during the six years of racial unrest. When the violence finally subsided, the city looked like a ghost town as most white residents and the remaining jobs left the area.

Ponting said the strife that the community went through made it stronger.

“We went through the strife together and came out stronger,” she says. “I think people here really love each other. You can’t find any better people than in this community.

We’ve gone through hardships and gone through them together. That’s made it easier in these tough times. You don’t have to look no farther than Daystar. They are the most giving people. You are treated right and if anybody was ever treated wrong I don’t know about it. Couldn’t have picked anyone better.”