Building for the future: 3 retired women in 60s and 70s still teaching youngest generation

By Bruce McLellan | Living 50 Plus

Edith Garner sat beside 4-year-old Adam Vargas and told him they would read a book together.

“Talk to me,” said Garner, a volunteer at Maxine Ellison Decatur Youth Enrichment Learning Center. “What’s your name?”

Adam looked at her silently.

Garner, who spent a quarter century with Decatur City Schools and has been a regular volunteer with the center for the past 10 years, wasn’t discouraged.

She oinked like a pig. Vargas laughed.

She asked, “When you’re hungry, what do you do?”

“Eat,” Vargas replied.

She asked him to help her count cows on a page in the book “On the Farm,” and he did: one through five.

“Very good,” she said. “Give me five on that.” She gave him a soft high-five.

The ice was broken.

“You make children feel comfortable,” Garner said, “and once you can make them begin to feel comfortable with you, they begin to kind of open up and begin to start sharing with you. It’s just a technique you use when you work with kids for so long. You just know what to do with them. It just comes natural.”

Garner is one of three women, all in their 60s and 70s, still putting their teaching skills to use through the Youth Enrichment Center, which has used several sites over its 36-year existence but this year moved into a renovated building of its own on Vine Street Northwest.

Maxine Ellison, namesake of the center and its founding director, Stella Marshall and Garner spent more than 70 years combined working in Decatur City Schools. They have another 80 years of volunteering with the center, all while overseeing three to four biological children each, along with numerous grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

All three women said they’re motivated to help others learn.

“I was called by God to be a servant for Him, and it was in the field of teaching,” said Ellison, who also has taught Bible classes in the community. “I know this without a shadow of a doubt: I’ve been called to be a teacher. I love it.

“I feel that everybody, whether young or old, whoever they are, they can learn.”

Garner, 69, who spent two decades working in special education at Decatur High after beginning her career as an elementary school teacher’s aide, said she became a teacher because of her uncle, Leo “Big Buddy” Pointer of Decatur.

“What motivated me to do special education and then to teach is because I had an uncle who had a disability — and just being at home with him,” Garner said. “At that time when he was growing up and I was growing up, there were not a lot of facilities for people with disabilities as we have now. …

“My heart always was (with) working with kids who had disabilities or had learning disabilities.”

Even now, she often gravitates toward the kids at the center who are struggling the most.

Marshall, 73, spent 19 years working as a cafeteria custodian at Brookhaven Middle School. That pales to the time she has spent at the center — all 36 years it has been open.

“I love kids,” she said. “I love seeing smiling faces, and I love seeing them proud of accomplishing things. … They just sometimes need that extra push.”

Providing manpower

Ellison’s philosophy is for the center to provide one-on-one instruction that kids might not get anywhere else.

“All kids don’t learn at the same pace. That’s why you need more one-on-one,” Ellison says. “One-on-one helps you focus in on that one child.”

She says Garner and Marshall have helped give her the manpower to provide individual enrichment in any area where the center’s students have shortcomings. 

“They were like that missing piece to fit in wherever it was needed, especially Stella Marshall,” Ellison said. “Without her, I would say there would be no Decatur Youth Enrichment as far as the quality of the program. … Some people look at quantity. I look at the quality.”

The center had a weekly reading program this summer, but its primary mission since 1986 has been to help kids from 5 years old through middle school with homework. Sessions are held Monday through Thursday, from the time the school day ends until … whenever.

“When we first got started doing this,” Marshall said, “a lot of kids there came from large families … and they just enjoyed one-on-one attention. We first started at Carrie Matthews (Recreation) Center, where they closed at 5 o’clock, and sometimes we’d have to go by their parents’ house and get permission to take them on home with us so they could finish their homework.”

The center also has had a choir and has annually taken its students on field trips that have included places such as New York City and Detroit, and even a side trip to Canada. At one time, the center averaged about 70 students yearly in its choir and the after-school program. Now the number will likely be closer to 35 as the center begins its first school year since the pandemic.

Learning to achieve

With their decades of providing instruction to youngsters, Ellison, Marshall and Garner have developed concepts and philosophies that they’ve found work.

Ellison, who says she’s in her 70s and spent 28 years in Decatur’s school system as a teacher and parenting coordinator, tries to help children achieve and feel a sense of accomplishment.

“I hope you don’t think that child is going to do well if all he or she is experiencing is failure,” Ellison said. “The child is going to give up. I don’t care who you are. That’s all of us.

“When a person starts experiencing success, that changes that child’s whole outlook on what he’s doing in class. … Success means that they’re able to perform in the classroom — maybe not up to par where others are, but have a feeling that hey, I did it. I passed my spelling test. I was able to stand and finish my reading that I was given.”

Marshall says it’s important to make sure kids know what the letters of the alphabet look like.

“They’ll come in there saying I know my ABC’s. It’s the nursery rhyme, but they don’t (recognize) one letter from the other,” she said. “So parents, … be sure if you’re teaching your child the alphabet, make sure they know the letters, not just repeating the nursery rhyme.”

Garner says interpersonal skills are equally important as academic lessons.

“I tell them if you can learn how to read and learn how to get along with other people, you can do just about anything,” she said.

Marshall said the rewards to the volunteer for working with the center sometimes aren’t immediate.

“A lot of kids they’re adults now. And they run across you and they say, ‘Hey Mrs. Marshall.’ They say, ‘You don’t remember, do you? You helped me with my math and did this and did that.’”

Satisfaction, she said, is seeing former students “growing up and becoming … responsible adults and living a prosperous life.”

Garner will spend the next year in Washington, D.C., helping son Andre Garner and his wife with their 2-year-old and infant. But eventually she’ll be back in Decatur and back at the center. She’s not ready to relax.

“It’s important to stay active because it keeps your mind alert. It keeps you motivated to want to do and to keep going and keep doing. I’m not the type of person that can sit down and do nothing. I have to have something to do or be doing something.”

And hundreds of Decatur kids are better for it.