83-year-old Kids Klub assistant has been with organization for 29 of 30 years


Of Child Care Network Inc.’s 30 years of existence, Shirley Smith has been a part of all but one of them.

She had only been retired for a couple of months in 1990 when she asked a former co-worker about an opening with the Wee Care infant and toddler program.

Then three years later, she moved to the Kids Klub program and has been there ever since.

After turning 80, she went from working five days a week to three.

Now 83, she still has a strong desire to be around kids.

“If you’re going to make a positive impact, it means a lot because some of those kids just need somebody to be positive for them because they live in such a negative environment,” she said. “I think it’s very, very important. Some of these kids would have absolutely nothing if they weren’t able to come in the morning or after school. To them, their whole day is made that way.”

The Seymour woman had worked for a telephone company in the city for 17 years when she retired at 52.

“I didn’t have my 20 years in. I wasn’t 55, but the telephone company gave me those years so that I could get the benefits I needed,” Smith said. “That was a fun job, too. I enjoyed that.”

A woman she worked with at the telephone company, Barb Decker, had moved on to serve on a Day Care Task Force that led to the creation of Child Care Network.

“Her and Marsha Goecker got together. They were both very child-oriented. They were like me. They loved kids. They wanted to help them. They wanted to make sure they had what they needed,” Smith said. “They decided to go all out and ask for grants and do whatever else had to be done to start this program, and they did it.”

Smith filled an opening with Wee Care, which served kids 6 weeks old to 3 years old at a home on Third Street. She had raised her own children, but it was her first time working with other kids.

When she switched to Kids Klub in 1993, she worked as an assistant with elementary-age boys and girls. She started at Seymour-Redding Elementary School and later served about 20 years at Immanuel Lutheran School.

Now, she is willing to work at any school and help with whatever tasks needed.

While the site directors come up with the activities, Smith said she is ready and willing to help the kids along the way. That’s especially true with games.

One time, second graders taught her how to play euchre.

“Every morning, we had a euchre party,” Smith said. “In the afternoon, we had little frosted shredded wheats. We had a little bowl of them. We were having a party and having fun. That was a lot of fun.”

The kids at Immanuel also liked to play rummikub and different card games.

“Some of them are really, really smart,” she said.

Kids also are extremely funny, Smith said.

A kindergartner in the Kids Klub program had behavior problems and was asked to leave. A year later, he came back, saw Smith and said, “Do you remember me?” She responded, “How could I forget you? Yes, I remember you.”

“He said, ‘Well, you know I got fired, don’t you?’ I said, ‘Yeah, I sort of remember that,’” she said. “This kid, I just love him. He’s always coming up with something.”

Smith said she calls the boy “Sweetie Pie,” and he wrote her a letter last year.

“He says, ‘You may be old, but you’re sweet,’” she said, smiling.

Sometimes, it’s not until years later when kids realize the impact Smith made on their lives.

She said there was one boy from Immanuel who often went “nose to nose” with her. Years later when she was working at Seymour-Redding Elementary School, he came in to see her.

“He came and gave me a big hug, and all of the little kids are looking, and I said, ‘It’s OK. I know him, guys,’” Smith said. “He had joined the Marines, and he had his little Marine Corps uniform on. I’m going, ‘Wow!’ I just love him. He’s just the greatest kid.”

Kate Garrity, executive director of Child Care Network, said Smith always means business and doesn’t let kids get away with anything.

“They are expected to follow the rules, and she will make sure that they do, but those kids still love her,” Garrity said. “You do not hear, ‘Ms. Shirley is mean.’ Those kids love Ms. Shirley, and not every adult can be firm and have the kids still love them. She just has that perfect balance of getting the kids to be able to respect her and do what they are supposed to do but still think that she’s wonderful.”

Smith also said Kids Klub makes an impact on parents because while they work, they know their kids are involved in a program that’s offered before and after school and it’s a fun, educational, safe environment.

“This is absolutely the greatest program as far as kids go,” she said. “To me, if I had a child in that age group, I would be so happy to know that my kid is happy going there, No. 1. And No. 2 that I’m comfortable because I know they will call me, I can call any time, I can go there any time and see what’s going on. I think it’s a wonderful program.”

Smith isn’t working with Kids Klub this summer, but she said she’s ready for the new school year to start in August so she can be back in the classrooms.

Even being diagnosed with chronic lymphocytic leukemia a couple of years ago hasn’t kept her away from the job she loves.

“I love it. I just love being with the kids. They are so much fun, and most of them are just sweet and ready to give you big hugs,” she said. “Kids are great judges of character, and I think if a child likes you, you’re a very, very fortunate person.”

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