Shirley Nelson is wiping noses, rolling up pants and giving out hugs before the morning bell rings at South Kilbourne Elementary School.
She’s the first face some students see when they arrive at school each morning, the first one to tell them “hello” and wish them a good day, the first to ask if they’ve done their homework and to make sure they have a pencil with them.
Nelson, a mother, grandmother and great-grandmother who’s old enough to not reveal her age, describes herself as a “middle-aged teenager” of a crossing guard. She patrols the sidewalks and streets outside the elementary school, nestled in a quiet residential neighborhood off Columbia’s Rosewood Drive where a number of students live close enough to walk to school.
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Seeing to it that the kids find their way safely to an education “is important,” she said, “because if you don’t go out there and get a book or go to a class, how are you going to know what’s going on?”
Nelson understands the value of an education well enough to continue her own, even with nearly eight decades of life experience and learning behind her.
After some 20 years working as a leader with area Boy Scouts, Nelson recently took the steps to advance her leadership education. Last fall, the Boy Scout volunteer Nelson earned a leadership certificate with the Boy Scouts, allowing her to better teach and lead other Boy Scout leaders.
“I knew I had to do something more” to help lead the young scouts, Nelson said. She works mostly with parents as scout leaders to get them involved in their sons’ troops and help them improve their programs, she said.
Her grandson and later her great-grandson, who’s now in college, pulled her into the Boy Scouts years ago. But Nelson’s work caring for and influencing children began when she was just a scout’s age herself.
Nelson was 12 when she took her first job cleaning clothes for a pair of children with polio and making sure they had everything ready for school the next day, she said. Later, married to a military man and living in Columbia, Nelson began working in food service in area schools to bring in extra money for the household. In those days, she and others cooked each school lunch from scratch, she said, “and it really made a difference” in the children’s schooldays.
Now she makes a difference every morning and afternoon when she steps off the streetcorner, dressed in a neon yellow and orange vest and wielding a bright orange traffic wand.
Mrs. Nelson always greets them with a smiling face. ... She’s a great start to every day.
Linda Norton, South Kilbourne Elementary principal
“Mrs. Nelson always greets them with a smiling face,” said South Kilbourne principal Linda Norton, who gave Nelson a pair of handwarmers as a Christmas gift. “So that makes a difference. And they know that she cares about them.”
“She’s a great start to every day. ... Every person they encounter throughout their day should be like Mrs. Nelson,” Norton said.
“You get hugs in the morning, so that tells you that your care, your love is going somewhere,” Nelson said.
She has trained most of her kids not to cross the street without her go-ahead. She knows them by name, knows who’s missing from school, whose parents drive a particular car, whose mother just had a baby.
There’s a lot you can do for other people’s kids. You can share your love with them.
Shirley Nelson, South Kilbourne Elementary crossing guard
Siblings Charlotte and Thomas, in the fourth and fifth grade, respectively, at South Kilbourne, live about a 10-minute walk from the school. “I think she’s awesome,” 10-year-old Charlotte said.
They trust Nelson to help them settle their arguments – “Most of the time it’s about my hair and how my backpack keeps slipping off my jacket,” Charlotte said – and to give them a ride to or from their house on days when it is exceptionally cold or rainy.
“I’m a mother and a grandmother and a great-grandmother, too, and to see a child get soaking wet two blocks from school” just won’t do, Nelson said. A nurturing nature is something she can’t suppress.
“(After) dealing with my own kids, there’s a lot you can do for other people’s kids,” she said. “You can share your love with them. ... It’s just a motherly instinct that makes you care.”
Reach Ellis at (803) 771-8307.