COLUMBIA — Students at Shepard Boulevard Elementary School look at Barbara Wyatt's hands and wonder if she is all right.
They don't understand why her hands look different from their own, why her hands have blue veins and pale skin.
"That's how oxygen gets to my hands so I can wiggle my fingers," she said to the children.
Wyatt, 82, enjoys explaining the difference between young and old. She has as many as 100 "grandkids" who call her Grandma Barbara.
Wyatt has taken part in the Foster Grandparents program at Shepard Elementary School for more than eight years. This national program allows seniors to volunteer and interact with children in the community.
The program, coordinated through Central Missouri Community Action, has been partnering with the Columbia Public Schools since 1980. Shepard has used foster grandparents for nearly 10 years.
This year, Wyatt works with the kindergarten and first-grade classes at Shepard, but she has worked with third and fifth-graders as well.
"This program is so needed,” she said. “Kids need us so much, and seniors need kids, too.”
Tracie Downs, a Shepard kindergarten teacher, said the class likes having Wyatt around.
“With Grandma Barbara, my kindergartners know that it's not just their teachers and parents that want them to do well in school,” Downs said. “They have another grown-up who shows kindness and cares about their learning.”
Wyatt often helps students with their writing skills. She demonstrates how to write the letter C — around and open — and a lowercase A — around, up and down. She encourages the children to sit on the carpet with their legs crisscrossed and hands in their laps.
But reading to the children is Wyatt's favorite task in the classroom.
A picture frame proudly displayed on her shelf at home reads,“Our favorite storyteller” and holds a picture of her reading to a class. It was given to her by her students.
Downs said Wyatt’s positive attitude and willingness to help enable her to build a bond with the children.
“The kids always enjoy having another adult in the room, and they enjoy telling her things and listening to what she has to say when it is share time,” Downs said. “They think she is my grandma.”
Wyatt values family after husband's death
Wyatt shares a house with her son, Randy, his wife, Sherry, and her grandson, Chandler.
She said sharing a home with her family has been the best thing that’s happened to her. However, she prides herself in having her own place within the house — downstairs in a basement apartment.
The small windows shine light on her potted plants, a computer that is seldom used and pictures of her deceased husband, William “Bill” Earl Wyatt.
“That’s his chair right there,” she said, pointing to a maroon leather armchair in the corner. They were married in 1949, and her husband died almost eight years ago.
“He was a very quiet listener and very good at that,” Wyatt said. “He let me do the talking. He said I have a gift of expressing myself.”
Wyatt has three children, Deborah, Randy and Frank, and eight grandchildren. For 30 years, she worked as an office manager for an ophthalmologist in Columbia. She has been retired for 11 years.
After her husband died, she said, she wanted to feel needed.
"It makes me feel like, I wonder what I was put here for — there must be something I can do a little different than someone else would." Wyatt said. "What can little ole' me do to make it better?"
Now, Wyatt spends her time not only volunteering at Shepard, but also singing in the choir at the First Baptist Church, going to her grandson's sporting events, solving Sudoku puzzles in the newspaper and staying connected to her family and her friends.
Hardship turned into positive experience
She values family connection even more after what she described as a low point in her life. When her daughter became pregnant as a teenager, Wyatt said she took the news very hard. The baby was put up for adoption.
Years later, Wyatt received a phone call from a man looking for his birth mother. She invited the man and his three children to her house for Christmas so he could meet her daughter, his birth mother.
“They brought their musical instruments along, Wyatt said. "We had the greatest time together getting acquainted with her son, who now we are still in touch with.”
“That was the lowest part of my life, and you see how it came right up and was used to be a glorious day full of joy.”
It's this attitude — finding the positive — that Wyatt said she tries to apply to her life. She said she often finds joy in her students and family.
Ann Gilchrist, program director of the Foster Grandparents program for Boone County, said Wyatt goes above and beyond the requirement of the program. She volunteers more than 20 hours a week when only 15 is required.
"She is truly the epitome of what this program is about," Gilchrist said.
Wyatt said many students recognize her outside the classroom.
“It gets me coming back just to be in the grocery store and a kid says, 'Hi Grandma Barbara. Mom, Mom, come look. This is Grandma Barbara. She’s at my school,'” Wyatt said, imitating the high-pitched voice of a child.
Working with kids is rewarding, she said.
“Kids are so open and honest, so real,” she said. “They are just a beautiful slate waiting to learn about how to do things."