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A tribute to organizational skills and a hectic schedule. A monument to the job of being a community organizer, mom of two, perfectionist. An art piece in the style of a Tetris game that’s gotten out of hand. A visage I have to look away from, for fear of being sucked in and unable to escape its colorful, fastidious clutches.
“My type A personality certainly helps in this job,” Jennings says, seated at her desk in front of that planning masterpiece on the third floor of the Cooperage Project, where she’s the executive director. Running the community art and culture space means keeping track of a revolving door of artists, caterers, sound technicians, performers, farmers, brewers, children, whoever decides to meander in. “It’s a lot of multitasking.” The payoff is evident. “There’s a lot of magic that happens here—well, there’s actually magic happening tonight,” Jennings says, referring to the magic and music event slated for later that evening, for which a DJ booth is already being set up downstairs, “but every day is like, really magical.”
Something tells me Jennings does not believe for one second that what powers the Cooperage Project, or anything run under her helm, is anything close to wizardry. Magic is something that happens for a clueless audience at the final show, and what Jennings does is very much behind-the-curtain work: grant writing, meeting scheduling, Google Calendar coordinating. She refers to herself as a “professional nudge guy.” Someone has to coax the rabbit into the hat, and she’s a good person for the job.
Though she’s part of the same “river family” cohort that created previous Comeback Kid and free spirit Dawn Hyde—her grandparents owned Pecks’ Markets on the New York side of the river, and she grew up in Narrowsburg and Damascus—Jennings is the first to point out that her personality went a different direction. “I was not a go-with-the-flow kind of kid at all,” she says. As early as elementary school, Jennings was color coordinating her clothes. “I’m an old person at heart.” She indicates a ball of yarn and knitting needles on her desk as character reference.
“[In high school], I was like a 30-year-old in a 16-year-old’s body. I dressed like a 30-year-old. I won the cleanest locker every year. I was just, like, a mini-professional… My friends always called me Mom.” Now that Jennings is literally a 30-something-year-old mom and professional, one could say she’s probably right where she was always meant to be.
Jennings graduated from Honesdale High School and went to St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia before eventually transferring to Temple University, where she graduated with a public health degree. She went on to work for ActionAIDS, an HIV/AIDS service organization, and then a food access organization called the Food Trust.
Ryanne and Jim Jennings lived happily in Philly for 10 or so years. “We were two kids, two dogs and a tiny 840-square-foot row home and busting at the seams,” she says. “So we were either all or nothing: either living in the city and finding a way to make that work or coming [here] to the country.”
That was 2016 and serendipitous timing to return to Honesdale for a number of reasons. Not only because Jennings’ former high school tennis partner Doni Hoffman was vacating a job at the Cooperage, but also because the Honesdale that Jennings returned to is not necessarily the one she left. What the Pennsylvania town is blossoming into is much more suited to a civic-minded person. So Ryanne, Jim, Desmond and Maggie (plus the dogs) packed up and came back to NEPA, and Ryanne took up at the Cooperage—coincidentally, three years to the day that she and I sit down to talk.
“It’s been wonderful because, in a city like Philadelphia, any impact that you make feels like a drop in the bucket,” she says. “But here, you can really sink your teeth into projects and see almost instant changes and instant impact and that’s huge.” The Romping Radishes program, a once-a-month event that encourages healthy eating and habits among kids, has grown under Jennings’ leadership. She and her husband are also active members of a number of community projects, including an initiative to make a river trail that would extend from Honesdale to Hawley. The two of them are on many boards—perhaps too many boards, and, would anyone else like to be on some of those boards? Ryanne and Jim Jennings will try to get you to join the board of something.
Speaking of, it’s a miracle to have made it this far in Ryanne Jennings’ life and have said so little about Jim. Since he sported a ‘fro in high school—allegedly—and she bumped the “Pirates of the Caribbean” soundtrack—confirmed—the two of them have been partners in nearly everything. He helps her slow down and loosen up, she says. “We’re a really good team. We don’t fight, ever. We just talk things out.
“And, we’re nice to each other.”
Jim insists that Ryanne can be silly. (Click here to read Jim's story.)
“People see Ryanne in a very professional setting, so not many people see her as an out-and-out mom,” he says. On the night after Ryanne and I meet, she’s booked to dress up as a goofy cook and read to children at the “Night of a Thousand Reading Stars” at Lakeside Elementary School. “Please don’t include a photo of me from that,” she says. Though I’ve seen the photos on Facebook, and let me tell you, they are quite silly.
But there’s a time and a place, Ryanne reminds her partner. “We kind of balance each other out. She really understands what needs to be done before we can have some silly time.”
She also gets him to think ahead. As the comedic magician was performing at the Cooperage’s music and magic night, Jim couldn’t stop laughing, “and she was like ‘Jim, you know you better be careful. If you laugh really loud, you’re going to be brought on stage.’” Which he was.
From the audience, some kids were probably whispering to their parents: ‘That’s Maggie and Desmond’s dad!”
In retrospect, it’s not so strange that either member of the pair thinks of themselves mostly in relation to other people. When I ask Ryanne if she thinks she’s a “community figure,” she says, “kids probably know me as ‘that lady from the Cooperage.’” And, as we walk down Main Street toward the park Friday afternoon, Ryanne and Jim holding hands talking about how she found her wedding dress at Salvation Army, and me running a few paces ahead with a camera, I do feel a bit like I’m trailing two local celebrities.