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 Walchle’s heart.
It’s Friday at Nebraska Elementary, but it’s not just any Friday. Not by a long stretch.
It’s not every Friday that a portion of the school’s gym becomes a little makeshift store for the students, who range from kindergartners to fifth-graders.
It’s not every Friday that students can bring the money they’ve 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 couldn’t buy Dad a cookbook of tailgate recipes for football weekends, but this past Friday they could.
It’s a Friday that Walchle lives for.
“This is my baby,” she says.
For 30 years Walchle has served on Nebraska’s PTA board.
During that time she’s also run the school’s Santa Shop, which is set up each year for the children to buy bargain gifts for their family members during the holiday season.
She’s also seen six principals come and go and is now on her seventh. She’s seen kids grow up and has run into them outside school as adults.
She’s 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 she’s become a fixture at the school, even long after her three children have come and gone.
So why does she keep coming back?
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 couldn’t 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 wasn’t long until a teacher asked Walchle to join the school’s 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, ‘You’re going to be the vice president.’ ”
While volunteering on the PTA, Walchle has done a multitude of jobs.
She’s 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 school’s 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 shop’s 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 who’ve taken their passion to their duties in the PTA to the same heights as Walchle.
“It’s a place where everybody knows your name,” said Shari Ranney, referencing the theme song to the sitcom “Cheers.”
Ranney has served on the school’s PTA off and on for 20 years and is currently the board’s president.
Her children, like Walchle’s, also went to Nebraska and have long left. Yet, she still stays on, and was even a recruit of Walchle’s years ago.
“Vicky was like, ‘What’s 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.
“We’ve had a lot of great parents,” Walchle says.
So why does she come back?
It’s those great parents, those great teachers she always remembers, and it’s those kids she always remembers.
The kids she sometimes runs into years later when they’re adults at a McDonald’s, or her church, both of which happened recently.
It’s 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 it’s because the school administrators always ask her to come back.
“I always say I’ll be here until you get tired of me or I get tired of you,” she says with a laugh, adding that she’s never tired of the school.
She doesn’t commit to coming back in 2014, and instead just laughs when asked if she’ll be here.
It’s almost a laugh telling you that of course she’ll 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 they’ve bought for their family, that might be the wrong question.
It should be: Is there anywhere else but here where she so belongs?