0204toywhitleyI sat at Toy Whitley’s kitchen table eating her country ham biscuits, deviled eggs, and 14-day pickles, while she spun tales that had me alternately in tears and goosebumps.

She likes to say “You can take the girl out of the mountains, but you can’t take the mountains out of the girl.” Her roots in Madison County run deep and wide. She lives part of the year on Bear Branch, within two miles from where she was born, in a cabin she and her beloved husband Ed built some thirty years ago so they could always come home to their mountains. The other part of the year she lives in Gainesville, Florida, where she began a journey some forty years ago that had such a profoundly positive effect on so many lives, the echoes will likely continue for generations.

In fact, her journey was about generations: generations, and community, and the blessings of giving and receiving. We first heard about a woman named Estoya (Toy) Whitley shortly after she received the Steven L. Tunnick Award for Outstanding Achievement in Intergenerational Programming from Generations United (www.gu.org) at their international conference in October. What did this woman from Bear Branch do to deserve such an honor?

It all started in the 60s when she was teaching at the PK Yonge Lab School at the University of Florida in Gainesville. Toy and Ed had been college sweethearts at Appalachian State, later teaching together at Appalachian State, when Toy had the opportunity to teach at the University of Florida. Toy arrived in Gainesville with her husband thinking that all the world was pretty much like the community they’d grown up in. She was surprised to find that upon meeting new folks in Gainesville, people invariably asked “Where are you from?”—a question she’d never heard before. “At home,” Toy grinned, “We all knew where we were from!”

And while she was in a new community—one she concluded was one made up of people who were pretty much all from somewhere else—still the value of community was one she brought with her from her beloved mountains, a value she deeply cherished. She wanted the children she taught to get to know the people around them, to learn what they did and why, and to value and honor all members of their community. For example, when the maintenance crew was fertilizing the university grounds, she’d take the children to meet them, to learn from them what they did, what role the fertilizer played, and how the maintenance crew was contributing to the beauty of their surroundings.

One day they found a building under construction a short walk from the school. She took the kids over to meet the builders, to learn about construction and to see what was being built. When she learned it was to be a nursing home, immediately she sought the woman in charge, and said when it was up and running, she’d like to bring the children by. “Are you for real?” the woman asked. “You want to bring children here?”

“You’re going to have people here, right?” Toy replied. “Well, I am going to bring little people.”

She was eventually given against-my-better-judgement consent. For the first few months they walked on eggshells, not wanting to wear out their welcome.
But the loving connection between the residents of the nursing home and the “little people” soon became evident, and they were ultimately welcomed with open arms. Many of the children she taught did not have grandparents in the area, and Toy knew what unconditional love and wisdom the older people could offer, and she knew that love would be reciprocated. She also gave children credit for a depth of understanding most adults do not expect. “We tend to sell the children short.” she said, and proceeded to give many examples of the acceptance and understanding offered by the children in her care.

The children were, of course, briefed about the constraints of people of advanced age. There was plenty of planning, talking beforehand with the children, with their parents, the staff at the nursing home, and with all involved. While she was aware that the rhythm and movement of children in a nursing home was potentially disruptive, still “you’ve got to let them be children. You don’t want to take little adults down there…you would defeat your purpose”. From the outside the limits set, the careful planning. and the structure was invisible, but nonetheless the interactions were carefully orchestrated to make it a good experience for all.
Yet much of the success was due to the wide open hearts of the children. The children loved to play with one of their “grandmothers” who had a wooden leg…a clumsy one that frequently fell off. (This was long before the days of well-designed prosthetics). While an adult might have been tempted to caution the children not to mention the wooden leg, the children took it all in stride. Their “grandma” even taught them a song they liked to sing with her:

Said the thousand legged worm
as he wiggled and he squirmed,
Has anybody seen a leg of mine?
If it can’t be found,
I’ll have to hop around
on the other nine-hundred-ninety nine.

When her leg sometimes fell off, they’d just fetch it and help her screw it back on while they all sang the worm song. No biggie.

One day when elderly Grandmother Morgan was sitting in her wheelchair teaching songs to the children on the floor around her feet, Toy Whitley noticed urine leaking from the chair and pooling on the floor. She wanted to go take care of it, to clean it up. When they all left, a little boy went up to her and gently scolded: “Mrs. Whitley, you could have hurt her feelings. You know she can’t control her bladder!”

Once, after she had not accompanied the children to the nursing home for several days, (graduate students, faculty, parents and others would sometimes take the kids), one of the children filled her in on what she’d missed as they were walking to the nursing home: “Now Mrs. Whitely, Grandma Sampson talks to herself in the mirror, but it’s perfectly all right!” Such is the simple, accepting, unconditional love between the very young and the very old.

The children of the Lab School usually adopted between 12 and 15 grandparents. Toy would check first with the residents and then with their families for comfort level and understanding the impact of the program. Then they drew up “Adoption Papers”—in the language of the children—to formalize the bond that was ultimately sealed with love.

Though there was a limited number of “official” grandparents, when the kids were visiting, no one was excluded. One elderly woman sitting in a corner of the day room beckoned Toy to come over. She took Toy by the hand and pleaded “Teacher, teach them to love me too!”

But today Toy protests, “We cannot teach love. We can only live love, and that’s what we did.”

Witness one grandfather, a retired railroad engineer who had never married, never had children: a white man (in the sixties) whose lifelong racial prejudice melted when he was adopted by two little black boys. Toy made certain to key in on everyone’s talents. With his background in the railroad, he was tickled to get all the kids excited about geography. Sometime later when he had to spend time in the VA hospital, he demanded that he be able to see his grandchildren. These grandchildren of his heart were no less loved than had they been the grandchildren of his flesh.

The gifts constantly pass from young to old and back again. When poultry specialist Dr. Henry Wilson (the head of the poultry division at the university) brought eggs and incubators to school joining the dogs and cats and rabbits and a knee-high miniature horse…all regular visitors to the class (“I never ask…I don’t know how I got by with it!”) one child picked up a chick and placed it lovingly in his 101 year old Grandpa Doc’s lap. He exclaimed with delight, “Honey, I haven’t touched a baby chick in 85 years!”
Again in the 60s, one of the younger grandmas was a fifty some year old African American woman who had been paralyzed by a drunk driver. She confided one day to Toy that she regretted deeply that she had never finished high school. Toy replied “Well, Grandma Queenie, what’s stopping you?” She decided to go for it, and then began a a concerted effort to tutor her to pass her GED. High school students who, as small children, had been part of the program, would give up their Saturdays to come and tutor her. She learned eagerly and well. All the residents were pulling for her, and everyone supported the effort in whatever way they could.

Toy got special permission for her to take her GED orally from a PhD graduate student in counseling as she could no longer write. For her graduation, she wore the blue cap and gown, and her family showed up wearing their best suits, starched white shirts, flowered hats, and a sense of pride that knew no bounds. She was presented her diploma by the Dean of the College of Education and the Director of the Lab School, and was cheered by a community that felt no barriers of age or color. “We need each other. We learn from each other.” Toy then grinned, saying “I’m their peer now. That’s what’s so funny!” And yet she seems as much the 30-some year old woman she was when the program started as the 82 year old woman she is now.

As we began to close, she recalled the first death of a grandparent. Toy had gone to the nursing home early, for some reason, without the children, only to find that a beloved grandma the children had been visiting the evening before—who had been in fine spirits—had died during the night. She realized she’d not prepared the children for this, and had not thought through how she would deal with it.

Toy walked the short distance back to the Lab School very slowly, recalling the deaths she experienced as a child in Madison County. “Thank goodness,” she told me, “when someone died, the whole family was involved. We didn’t call it a wake then, but the neighbors and the family would all come over and sit together all night.” Death, as life, was celebrated in community. So Toy called the children over to a rug in the corner of the room they called The People’s Corner, where they went together to solve problems. She explained simply and quietly that Grandma had died during the night. The children—Grandma’s family—were unphased. Together they devised a celebration of Grandma’s life, of the fun they had with her, of the things they loved most about her.

Over time other schools and other nursing homes became interested, and Toy was flown around the country to give workshops teaching teachers and nursing homes how to weave the generations together. The Today Show went way back in the 70s to report on her work. And this, you will note, was long before Foster Grandparent programs were a twinkle in anyone’s eye. In fact, Toy Whitley has been called the Grandmother of the Grandparenting Programs.

So this is what Estoya Whitley did to earn the Steven L. Tunnick Award. She began weaving a web of love that will likely continue to grow long after her lifetime and her grandchildren’s lifetime, and their grandchildren’s lifetime . . .

POSTSCRIPT: We tracked down John J Ross, now 39 but once a little boy in Toy Whitley’s class, for both 2nd and 3rd grades:

I remember the “adopted grandparents” experience to be extremely rewarding, but those memories are not what I remember most clearly about Mrs. Whitley. In reflecting on the experience, I think the nursing home visits taught us, at an unusually young age, just how rewarding it could be to “give back” and really care about someone who was not part of your family. At that age, for better or worse, most of one’s thoughts and motivations tend to be pretty self-centered, and that experience took us out of that mode.

Every student has a teacher that had a particularly strong impact on his or her life. Mrs. Whitley was that special teacher for me, and I believe she was that teacher for an unusually large number of her students. She took the time and had the ability to recognize the unique gifts of each student, and she knew how to develop those gifts to their highest potential. In addition, and perhaps more importantly, Mrs. Whitley taught her students (in part through her work at the nursing home) how important it was (and how rewarding it could be) to make it a priority to treat others well.

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