While trying to explain the allure of working as a school crossing guard, Jan Stiefvater keeps getting interrupted by living examples of why she has spent the last quarter-century doing it.
"Hi, Jan," calls Rich Busch, a 26-year-old man who grew up across the street from Thomas Dooley Elementary School in Schaumburg. He was just a kindergarten kid when he got chickenpox near the end of the school year. His mom, Gloria Busch, recalls how she was scheduled to work at that year's annual Field Day school party, but couldn't leave her little boy home alone. She knew she could count on Stiefvater.
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"I brought out the lawn chairs and they sat right there," Busch says, pointing to the spot in the driveway where Stiefvater kept the itchy boy company. "We're going to miss her."
While making sure that kids cross the street safely in all kinds of weather is all that is required of a crossing guard, Stiefvater, 63, says her gig "is really a community affair." The daughter of legendary suburban football star and coach Bill Beckman, Stiefvater says, "That was kind of in me, the community thing, kind of the old-time, small-town thing."
Stiefvater brings that spirit to her job as a crossing guard.
"She's known about every loose tooth," says mom Julie Alley, as she picks up her daughter, Danielle, 6, whose big gap in her smile for the crossing guard backs up her mom's story. When the Alleys mentioned a desire to vacation in Boston, Stiefvater showed up the next day with travel books, maps and ideas about where to go in Boston.
"She's wonderful," Alley says.
"We look at that job as you sit in your car and cross the kids, but she's impacted our lives in a big way," says Susan McManus, a neighborhood mom for three decades who still swings by occasionally to chat about life even though her daughter just turned 30. "She is part of the 'village' that helped me raise my child and the children I cared for in my in-home day care."
Stiefvater's husband, Scott, retired in 2004 from his career as a teacher at Schaumburg High School. Their children, Becky (now a teacher at Fremd High School in Palatine) and Eric (now a Schaumburg police officer), were young when their Everett Dirksen Elementary School was down one crossing guard.
"Gosh, I'm here," figured Stiefvater, who already was a room mom and active in the PTA. "I'll just help out until they find somebody."
Trained by Schaumburg police, Stiefvater moved to Dooley after a couple of years and will retire from there at the end of the school year. The school will honor her with an after-school ceremony on May 27.
"I know that her being there has made everyone safer," says Principal Marion Friebus-Flaman. "We consider her a part of our school community. A lot of the parents just love her."
That outpouring of gratitude and affection is what community activist Maryann Romanelli of Hinsdale had in mind when she got Illinois to recognize the first Tuesday in May as Crossing Guard Appreciation Day. Romanelli remembers how she thought it would be a snap to step into the job when her local octogenarian crossing guard was sick one week.
"You have a different perception when the cars are coming at you, and you are trying to make eye contact (with drivers) and they are on the cell phone," Romanelli says. "I have to tell you it was one of the scariest things I've done. People driving around you when you are in the middle of the road with your stop sign up. People driving fast on wet roads."
With the emphasis on the increase in fitness and reduction in pollution that comes when kids walk to schools, more and more communities are realizing the value of a crossing guard, says Megan Holt Swanson, Illinois Department of Transportation's Safe Routes to School Coordinator. While her department funds safety improvements such as curbs and signs, a good crossing guard can be a life-saver - and so much more.
"My husband taught this mom in science," Stiefvater says as a woman pulls her minivan into the school lot to drop off her kindergartner.
The crossing guard talks about that boy by name, then volunteers updates on his older sisters. She knows all the kids, their personalities, their families, their trials and tribulations with jobs and health and just about everything ("Sometimes too much," she notes) that goes on around this school.
"I probably could have made a little more money somewhere else, but the money doesn't count," Stiefvater says. "It's what makes you happy, and this makes me happy. You can brighten a child's day, give them a smile."