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Jim and Gee Williams-Stiles: a Labor of Love for Early Childhood Education

A retired Springfield couple is working to make a difference in the lives of local preschoolers.  KSMU’s Michele Skalicky visited the classroom where they volunteer each week to help the children learn.

There’s no shortage of hugs in the Wonder Years classroom at York Elementary when Gee and Jim Williams-Stiles walk in the door once a week. 

As Gee talked to the kids, one little girl with a purple hair tie holding back her dark hair suddenly got up and gave her a hug.  And that wasn’t the only one given that day.

The couple has been visiting the preschoolers at York for eight years.  And the octogenarians try not to miss a week.  Gee and Jim want the kids to know they can count on them.

"We try to be consistent because we want them to have consistency in their lives," said Gee and Jim Williams-Stiles.

The poverty rate at York is high--in 2015 92.8 percent of students were eligible for free or reduced lunch.

Gee and Jim began volunteering at York to honor a friend who taught there who died of brain cancer.  They planned to stay for one year, but they fell in love with the kids.

On a recent visit, the teachers and students talked about what they’ve liked best about the couple’s visits.

York Wonder Years teachers and students:  "The worms, teepees, the medals when they ran the track..."

Puppets that the two had brought were among their favorites, too.

Gee wanted to get feedback so they could start looking ahead.

"You can help us with ideas for next year," Gee said.

The couple brings books for the kids almost every visit.  And they try to expose them to different cultures around the world.  This visit was focused on Australia.

"You all remember where Australia was?    Nope, that's Missouri.  That's where you live.  Where's Australia?  Do you remember?" Gee asked the students.

"And Australia is called Down Under," said Jim.

"Carrie remembered where Australia was.  It is here," said Gee.

The couple brought a koala statue to show the kids what the marsupial looks like.

"They sleep about 18 to 20 hours a day," said Jim.  "Whoa!" said a preschooler.  "Normally in the fork of a eucalyptus tree," said Jim.

In the past, Gee has brought in a ukulele—she learned how to play just so she could play for the Wonder Years kids.  And they’ve brought maracas and danced with the kids around the classroom when it was too cold to go outside.  But this visit, they brought in a digeridoo.  After Jim told the kids how the instrument was used by the aborigines, he played it for them.

"They can make music with them, but they also with these different sounds, and the sound of this one carries a long way like an elephant sound," said Jim, talking to the students.

The couple plans visits around the unit that’s being taught.  Once during a unit on gardens they made stone soup and everyone got to taste it.  At Christmas, they bring in a six-foot-tall animated Santa that talks in both English and Spanish.

Gee and Jim are avid runners, and they run with the kids around the school track—they even pass out medals afterwards that the kids can wear around their necks.

Jim said they love to see the kids blossom—from not knowing their abc’s and not being able to tie their shoes to being ready for kindergarten and for learning.

"We both have kind of poor vision, but we have a vision for children and for education," he said.

Gee said she gets far more from their time at York than what they give. 

The two are huge advocates for education—Jim’s father was an inspiration for him:  he wanted so badly to go to high school that he got up early every morning to do chores, then walked nearly five miles to catch a ride to school even though his father told him an eighth grade education was enough.

And Gee left home at 16 for what would turn out to be an abusive first marriage.  She went back to school at 52—even taking science and P.E. with kids at Kickapoo High School—to earn her diploma.  She was a welfare kid and said that made her want to give back to these children.

Shari Balla, Wonder Years teacher at York, said Gee and Jim’s visits expand her students’ horizons.

"For our children that may not get past, you know, Chestnut Expressway, this opens up their world," she said.

Gee asks Balla for the children’s photos and names at the beginning of every school year so she and Jim can get to know the kids before they arrive for the first visit.

"They have such an ownership of our Wonder Years program," said Dr. Olivia Hopper, York Principal, "and you can see that."

Hopper said Gee and Jim are the only volunteers who come in on a regular basis.

While the kids look forward to the weekly visits, Gee and Jim do, too.  Jim says they’re lots of fun.

"As a matter of fact, don't tell how much fun we're having because they might want us to pay to come and do this," Jim said.

Thanks to a $1000 donation by the Southwest Missouri Office on Aging where Gee and Jim Williams-Stiles volunteered for years, the students in the York Wonder Years classroom now have a reading nook in honor of the couple.

Michele Skalicky has worked at KSMU since the station occupied the old white house at National and Grand. She enjoys working on both the announcing side and in news and has been the recipient of statewide and national awards for news reporting. She likes to tell stories that make a difference. Michele enjoys outdoor activities, including hiking, camping and leisurely kayaking.