“Grandma Shirley” went back to school in August. Elementary school.
On the first day of class, she was in her usual spot at Garfield Elementary’s drop-off zone offering hellos and hugs. She does it every morning of every school day, and has for about 10 years. Not surprisingly, many students begin the day in the embrace of the 82-year-old. She also hugs some parents who walk their kiddos to class.
“Sometimes, they need it, too,” she said.
“Grandma Shirley” – so named by former Garfield principal Jessica Mele – is Shirley Keith. She’s a volunteer extraordinaire with kind, blue eyes tinged with sadness. More on that in a moment.
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First this: even in these cynical times, it’s hard not to feel good about Keith’s contributions. She’s a positive presence who opens car doors as parents deliver children to school. After warmly greeting students, she volunteers the rest of every day in the Garfield library. This is her 16th year there.
Keith calls her volunteering “a real blessing,” adding: “What would I be doing if I wasn’t here? I just couldn’t sit home and do nothing.”
That choice benefits children who are extra shy or short on friends because Keith is ever mindful of them.
“Maybe what I do makes them feel like they’re not alone in the world,” she said.
Sadly, Keith often felt alone growing up in Fresno. She didn’t have a happy childhood, and her early adult years were turbulent, too.
So, when she started working in the office at Fresno High School in the late ’60s, she had extra empathy for students in need of a kind word. There was the troubled boy with nowhere to go during lunch. Keith had him sit next to her desk.
“He just needed someone to talk to,” she said.
Another boy talked to Keith about the kind of chaotic life that many teens experience. His mother had cancer; and he was feeling pressure to join a gang as life crashed down on him.
Keith’s counsel: “Honey, you need to be sure you’re always there for your mom. Stay away from the gang.” Years later, she found out he made the right choice.
Other students came her way during a 30-year career at Fresno High – 29 of them as the registrar. Then in 1997, Keith’s world fell apart.
Her husband, Lin Keith, died suddenly. Their courtship had started on a motorcycle run to Reno (he drove; she sat behind him).
“I’ll miss him until the day I die,” Keith said. “He was so good to me.”
She retired when her husband died, which gave her lots of hours to fill. Keith volunteered at the Fresno Police Department and at Saint Agnes Medical Center before starting at Garfield when her grandson, Michael Crayne, entered kindergarten there. He’s now 20.
On the first day of this new school year, Keith was up at 4:30 a.m. By 8 o’clock, she was at the drop-off zone as students and parents began arriving.
“Hi, Grandma Shirley. I’m in second grade,” a boy said as he walked confidently to class.
Students had changed over the summer, and Keith noticed. “Oh, your hair grew,” she told one girl. And to a boy in a “First Grade Rocks” T-shirt, Keith said: “I remember when you were a little kid.” The boy didn’t appreciate the humor as much as his parent.
Some parents asked about Keith’s summer vacation.
“Oh, it was fine,” was her simple reply. Actually, she was busy volunteering every weekday at the Betty Rodriguez Regional Library in east-central Fresno. That’s where I met her.
On the second day of school, Keith celebrated her birthday, which did not go unnoticed. One first-grader brought her a bouquet of flowers. Keith said she felt like crying but didn’t. Instead, she got busy with her work in the library.
She’s wonderfully honest about what it means to be “Grandma Shirley” to Garfield students and parents.
“I don’t do it just for them,” she said. “I do it for me, too. I feel like I’m accomplishing something.”
Doug Hoagland is a freelance writer in Fresno. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.