SPRINGFIELD, Ill. — Anita Hayes isn't like most school volunteers. For starters, she's 90 years old.
The woman who Ball Charter School students affectionately call "Grandma" started volunteering when the school opened in 1998. Hayes said she has no plans to stop anytime soon.
"What I do is an easy thing," Hayes said. "I don't know what I'd do if I didn't have that school and those children."
Ball Charter, 2530 E. Ash St., is Springfield's only charter school. It is governed by an independent school board and has "looped" grade-level classes, meaning students have the same teacher for first and second grades, third and fourth grades, and so on.
For the past 10 years, Hayes has volunteered with Erin Willenborg's first- and second-grade class. Three days a week, she does everything from arranging desks in the morning to helping groups of struggling readers.
When Hayes started volunteering in 1998, it was a way to cope with her husband's death, Willenborg said. She had never volunteered at a school and had no teaching background.
"She was lonely, and she really had no purpose anymore," said Willenborg. "She decided to volunteer, and ever since then, that's what's kept her going. It kind of helped her overcome that."
It hasn't always been easy. About two years ago, Hayes stopped coming to the school for a period of time, Willenborg said.
"The kids were devastated," their teacher said. "She wouldn't answer the phone, she wouldn't tell us where she was."
It turns out that Hayes had suffered a stroke. But what happened afterward was nothing short of miraculous, Willenborg said.
"All that whole time she was gone, she taught herself how to speak again by reading children's literature out loud in hopes that she could get back to the classroom," Willenborg said.
Now, there are no traces in Hayes' speech or movements that would suggest she had a stroke. She's back to doing what she loves best, which is mentoring first- and second-graders.
"You see so much progress during those years, and that's what rewards me," Hayes said. "My children all tell me this is what keeps me young."
The Springfield School Board this week recognized Hayes for her volunteer work. During Tuesday night's board meeting, she received a standing ovation from everyone in the room.
Three of Hayes' great-grandchildren attend Ball Charter, and two others used to before moving on to high school. Hayes said she likes the charter school because it provides students with individualized attention.
And the students don't mind some of Hayes' attention, either, said Willenborg.
"She's an inspiration to me," Willenborg said. "I can't say enough about her. She's a true teacher."
Information from: The State Journal-Register, http://www.sj-r.com