Known to many as the “Voice of the City,” receptionist Carmen Sumner is City Hall’s go-to person for all of Lincolnton’s government related inquiries.
“I have phone calls with people all the time who have questions and don’t know who to call,” she said. “They say, ‘I don’t know if I’ve called the right person,’ or ‘Maybe you can help me because I don’t know who to call.’ Sometimes, I have to say, ‘You know, that is a great question. Hold on, and let me see if I can find that for you.’ It’s my job, and it’s my pleasure. If it makes your life easier, I am glad to do it.”
While Sumner has only served as the city’s full-time receptionist since June 2013, she has enjoyed living in Lincolnton for the past five and a half years with her cousin, Catie Patton.
“I moved over here five years ago with my cousin Catie, who moved when she got a job with Actavis,” she said. “When she moved here and had established a job and gotten a house, she went to me and asked if I would like to be her roommate. At the time, I’d had a job for over eight years, and I had just been laid off — that was in 2008. So, it was perfect timing for me to move.”
When Sumner was unable to initially find work, she began volunteering for various organizations around the county, such as the Coalition Against Child Abuse, Red Cross and the YMCA.
“I got to meet lots of wonderful people through my volunteering,” she said. “Everywhere we went, people were so nice and friendly.”
“Then I had a couple of surgeries, so that put me out of the field of work, and when I started looking for jobs again, I went into vocational rehabilitation,” Sumner said. “It actually helped me since I had had surgeries for a hip and joint replacement…so they helped me to try and find work.”
It was through vocational rehabilitation that she learned of the temporary receptionist position at City Hall.
“The receptionist was going to be out, and they had been getting a temp person,” Sumner explained. “They said that they would like to have someone that would still be a temp, but that they could call as needed so they wouldn’t have to train someone every time.”
After accepting the temporary position with the city, Sumner began her training in October 2012.
“It was wonderful,” she said. “Everyone was so nice; it’s like a family atmosphere. They were so accommodating, and I got to meet so many citizens. I am definitely a people person, so I just thrived in it and loved it. But it was only temporary, and then the person came back.”
However, with the former receptionist nearing retirement, Sumner was asked to come back as a full-time receptionist the following May.
“I learn something new daily, which I love,” she said. “I love to learn, and I have learned that I work with the best group of people.”
Prior to relocating to North Carolina, Sumner spent the first four decades of her life as a Virginia native.
“Catie and I are from a little town called Galax that’s about two hours from here, right past the North Carolina border,” she said. “We compare Lincolnton to our hometown, except now we have Belk. Our (hometown) just had a Walmart, so we were moving up in the world.”
Although her parents still reside in Galax, her siblings have also moved on, her sister now living in Raleigh and her brother living in Atlanta.
“We’re a very close-knit family and have reunions at least twice a year,” Sumner said. “We kind of grew up with that sense of closeness and the small town atmosphere. We were blessed to get to come to some place else like that, only just a little closer to big cities like Charlotte.”
While Sumner feels she has been thoroughly blessed throughout her life, she has endured significant hardships due to her juvenile rheumatoid arthritis, which has led to two knee and two hip replacement surgeries.
“When I was five years old, I was diagnosed with JRA, which is juvenile rheumatoid arthritis,” she said. “That presented so many obstacles for me all my life, needless to say. But, I was blessed with a great family who thinks that anything is possible. So if it was anything physical and I would say, ‘Oh, I can’t do that,’ they’d say, ‘Of course you can.’ And it didn’t matter if it involved picking me up and carrying me, pushing me, pulling me, rolling me — and my friends are the same. There’s nothing I’ve missed out on.”
With the support of her parents and friends, Sumner attended Radford University, where she received a bachelor’s degree in psychology.
“I’m a people person,” she said. “I’ve always liked people, and I’ve always enjoyed figuring out why people think the way they do. So, I’ve always been a people watcher. Due to my life circumstances, I used to have to be very sedentary because I cannot physically move easily. But, I turned that into a positive. You get to learn a lot by watching people. It’s one of the most interesting things that I have ever learned from, and it has taught me so much about how to get along. What I really learned, I guess, was that I always wanted to help people, which is why I went into psychology to begin with.”
After realizing she would need to continue her education to practice in the psychology field, Sumner instead opted to pursue a related job in the medical field, working alongside her mother with cardiologists in internal medicine.
“I was over all of the dictation procedures and handling,” she explained. “We had four offices and 10 doctors, and I was the one in charge of all of that. It was very interesting, and I did that for over eight years. But, I also got to do other things as far as working in the office and getting to be with the people. So really, my mom taught me the importance of being there for people, to help people by doing anything you can.”
Sumner has found her mother’s philosophy is upheld by the citizens of Lincolnton on a daily basis.
“I’ve always had employers that have helped me, just like the city and vocational rehab were very helpful in that,” she said. “Things that I couldn’t do physically — they make gadgets to help you do them. You have to think outside the box — that’s what my life has taught me.”
Sumner calls the devices that allow her to maintain an active lifestyle “Carmen-Friendly.”
“One thing that technology has done is that it has helped handicapped people,” she explained. “For example, my Prius has a push-button start so I can drive myself to work. Another one of the gadgets that I love that helps me unlock the doors at City Hall is a key holder, and the key actually screws into it. Soo, I can actually use that, because it gives you the strength to turn. It’s wonderful. And even before I came to work, vocational rehab came to my house and evaluated it to make my life there easier.”
Despite her “Carmen-Friendly” gadgets, there is one obstacle she has yet to defeat.
“One of my many obstacles that I’ve always faced growing up are the stares,” Sumner said. “I get lots of stares because of limp and disability. Some days, I’m not in the mood for it, and I just want to stick my tongue out at people. But I have not had any stares since working for City Hall. Everyone is just exceptionally kind. The little kids, I don’t mind, because little kids are so honest. They just think I have tiny hands.”
While Sumner has faced several challenges with her disability, she refuses to let it define her.
“I guess it doesn’t define me, but I hope it’s made me a better person for lots of reasons,” she said. “It’s taught me to be patient, happy and appreciate all the little things, and I love that.”