“If I only have a small amount to give, then I will share that small amount. I want to make sure I share whatever I have, whether it is large or small. That is my mission.”
Irene Smith Howell was born on a farm in rural eastern North Carolina in 1928. She married Gordon Reece Howell in 1943 and they have five children.
Mrs. Howell’s compassion for children led her to open a day care business in 1954 in Kinston. In 1968 she operated the first integrated day care center in the area. Her work expanded to caring for children with disabilities following the birth of her grandson, Sean, who was born blind and with intellectual disabilities. This experience served as the inspiration to establish a residential care facility for those with severe disabilities. She established the Howell Child Care Center in LaGrange in 1970 and opened the first private residential facility in North Carolina to receive ICF/MR funds.
This first center expanded into 26 intermediate care and group homes for individuals with intellectual disabilities throughout North Carolina. Mrs. Howell and her husband, Reece, oversaw the operation of all 26 centers until they sold the corporation in 2004. Her corporate philosophy is, “Love, Care, and Education” and the centers are recognized nationally as an outstanding service model with a warm family touch. Mrs. Howell remains connected to RHA Howell Centers and visits the center in LaGrange weekly.
Mrs. Howell has received many accolades for her ground-breaking work in the care of persons with disabilities. Most notable of these is the Order of the Long Leaf Pine presented by Governor James Martin in 1989 and the Distinguished Service Award from the American Association on Mental Retardation in 1993. East Carolina University presented Mrs. Howell with an Honorary Doctor of Letters degree in 2004; and in 2006 North Carolina Wesleyan College gave her an Honorary Doctor of Laws degree.
In 2004, Mrs. Howell made a $1,000,000.00 gift to the College of Education to support the Irene Howell Assistive Technology Center. The purpose of the center is to better prepare special education teachers and professionals from a wide range of fields in the use of assistive technology with individuals who have disabilities. It will also support outreach efforts into communities to provide training and support for the use of assistive technologies in homes, schools, and residential programs.
The College of Education at East Carolina University thanks Mrs. Howell for her generous gift to establish the Irene Howell Assistive Technology Center. As stated during the conferring of the Honorary Doctor of Letters degree at ECU:
East Carolina University honors you for your distinguished career as the founder of Howell Centers, Inc. and as a public servant.
You are recognized as an outstanding North Carolinian with a tale of vision, perseverance, risk-taking and hard work resulting in twenty-six intermediate care facilities and group homes for citizens of North Carolina with intellectual disabilities thereby deepening the meaning and significance of public service.
East Carolina University thanks you and embraces you for being the extraordinary citizen that you are, for your dedicated and effective commitment to the people of North Carolina and for your eloquent deepening of the meaning and significance of public service.
For all these personal qualities and accomplishments, East Carolina University is honored and proud to confer upon you the Honorary Doctor of Letters degree at this celebration in your honor of the eighth day of May, 2004.