Thelma Schneider fought back happy tears while a chorus of several hundred "grandkids" wished her a happy 90th birthday Friday.
Jefferson Elementary School's "Gramma Thelma" began at the school as a volunteer for the Foster Grandparent Program of Southern Oregon, sponsored by the Rogue Valley Manor, in 2006.
For information on the Foster Grandparent Program of Southern Oregon, visit www.retirement.org/rvmcs/fostergran.htm.
Well into her 80s by then, and having just lost her husband, the Medford resident wasn't one to sit around and watch TV.
Schneider often arrives at the school before the principal, teachers or even maintenance staff on most days, and is one of the last to leave.
Assigned to kindergarten teachers Tina Bastian and Melanie Gaut, Schneider cuts out paper for art projects, organizes projects, ties tiny shoes, doles out Band-aids and helps students learn to recognize and write their names.
Her signature gift to each of about 90 kindergartners at the end of the school year is a memory book.
During Friday's assembly, Principal Tom Sherwood asked first- through sixth-graders to raise their hands if they remembered their kindergarten memory books. Nearly every student's hands shot up.
Schneider said the hugs she gets and the gratitude of students was plenty thanks for her work.
"I love all of them so much. It was really nice for them to sing to me today," said Schneider, who was presented with flowers, cards, gift cards, cake and lots of hugs on Friday.
"My only birthday wish is to do this for as long as I am physically able," she said.
"I've traveled all over the world but this is my favorite place to be. I just love being with the children. I feel so lucky to be able to be here every day."
Setting an example for good attendance, Schneider has missed only one day in nearly eight years.
Jefferson parent Emily Macleoud, whose three children have all bonded with Gramma Thelma during their kindergarten year at Jefferson, said Schneider adds a special warmth to school for the youngest of students.
"She always gives all the kids a hug and makes sure they all know that they're special," Macleoud said.
"The students are very lucky to have Gramma Thelma."
Over the last decade, Schneider has volunteered at the local genealogical library, other area schools and at the Red Cross, where she was on duty as a receptionist during the events of 9/11.
Bastian called Schneider indispensable and hard working.
"I can't tell you the energy she has or the time and devotion and love she gives. This school and the kids are her whole life. She lives for coming to school and helping these kids," Bastian said.
"Without her, and I'm not saying this to be nice, I would be here until 7 o'clock at night and coming down on weekends. She does so much for us and she won't ever take a break. She's always ready for the next thing we need her to do."
Bastian's student Ty Paulson, 6, marveled at the number of candles Gramma Thelma would be eligible to blow out on Friday.
"She's 90 years old!" said the kindergartner, sporting a dinosaur backpack and inspecting the day's lunch offerings.
"She's the one that gives us our homework and she cuts stuff out and gives us hugs. So she's really, really nice," he said.
Unsure of why Gramma Thelma remained in kindergarten when all her students moved on, the boy shrugged his shoulders.
"She's just never gonna finish kindergarten," he said. "But I love her. She's really kind and very sweet."
Buffy Pollock is a freelance writer living in Medford. E-mail her at email@example.com.