FORT WAYNE – The kids who bring plastic butter containers filled to the brim with pennies and maybe a few nickels are the ones who absolutely melt Vicky Walchles heart.
Its Friday at Nebraska Elementary, but its not just any Friday. Not by a long stretch.
Its not every Friday that a portion of the schools gym becomes a little makeshift store for the students, who range from kindergartners to fifth-graders.
Its not every Friday that students can bring the money theyve saved or earned from their folks and buy Mom a brightly-colored coffee mug.
Or Little Brother a toy slingshot, or maybe Little Sis a toy mock Academy Award statue.
A week ago Friday they couldnt buy Dad a cookbook of tailgate recipes for football weekends, but this past Friday they could.
Its a Friday that Walchle lives for.
This is my baby, she says.
For 30 years Walchle has served on Nebraskas PTA board.
During that time shes also run the schools Santa Shop, which is set up each year for the children to buy bargain gifts for their family members during the holiday season.
Shes also seen six principals come and go and is now on her seventh. Shes seen kids grow up and has run into them outside school as adults.
Shes even taken young mothers interested in the PTA under her wing at times and helped them through their first year in the organization.
Walchle been here for so long shes become a fixture at the school, even long after her three children have come and gone.
So why does she keep coming back?
Multitude of jobs
She was nervous. Make that very nervous.
She was certainly more nervous than the girl, who was actually looking forward to her first day of school.
The same couldnt be said for Walchle, who walked her youngest daughter, Yvonne, to Nebraska Elementary that day roughly three decades ago.
Those nerves quickly evaporated when teachers began greeting the two almost immediately.
Oh my gosh, I walked through the door and everyone was so nice and so sweet, Walchle says.
It wasnt long until a teacher asked Walchle to join the schools PTA, which she readily accepted without knowing much about what she was getting into.
Once she agreed to be on the board, she was given a bit of another bombshell.
I asked, OK, what do I do on the PTA board, Walchle says. Then they said, Youre going to be the vice president.
While volunteering on the PTA, Walchle has done a multitude of jobs.
Shes helped set up or run carnivals or various fairs, played roles in programs designed to get students to read more and events that get parents involved in their kids lives.
She also inherited the schools Santa Shop.
Every year, on the Tuesday night the week the Santa Shop is to run, Walchle and a team of her helpers load all the goods they plan to display for the children into the gym.
That way, the kids can come in that Wednesday morning to browse and pick out what they might want to buy.
The shop is open for students to make purchases that Thursday and Friday.
I love seeing their faces, Walchle says of the shops reveal every year. I love watching them smile.
Those smiles are one reason Walchle stays at Nebraska.
The other is the rest of the people who make up the school – some whove taken their passion to their duties in the PTA to the same heights as Walchle.
Its a place where everybody knows your name, said Shari Ranney, referencing the theme song to the sitcom Cheers.
Ranney has served on the schools PTA off and on for 20 years and is currently the boards president.
Her children, like Walchles, also went to Nebraska and have long left. Yet, she still stays on, and was even a recruit of Walchles years ago.
Vicky was like, Whats your number? says Ranney of the time they met and she agreed to be on the PTA.
And even now, Walchle is helping recruit people for the board.
She listens to young mothers say things she remembers saying 30 years ago.
She sees them stress out about the same projects she stressed out about during that time, as well.
She always reassures them that they are doing fine.
Weve had a lot of great parents, Walchle says.
So why does she come back?
Its those great parents, those great teachers she always remembers, and its those kids she always remembers.
The kids she sometimes runs into years later when theyre adults at a McDonalds, or her church, both of which happened recently.
Its because of those kids who came running into the gym this past Friday, all itching to buy those gifts for their mom and dad or brother or sister.
Some of them hauling in little plastic butter containers full of pennies they saved, maybe with a few nickels sprinkled amongst them.
And its because the school administrators always ask her to come back.
I always say Ill be here until you get tired of me or I get tired of you, she says with a laugh, adding that shes never tired of the school.
She doesnt commit to coming back in 2014, and instead just laughs when asked if shell be here.
Its almost a laugh telling you that of course shell be here, especially in this gym right at Christmas time.
Will she come back?
Watching her smile as the kids come to her with the gifts theyve bought for their family, that might be the wrong question.
It should be: Is there anywhere else but here where she so belongs?