Marie Handley started her day last Wednesday the way she has for 26 years: eating breakfast with more than a dozen toddlers, seated in booster seats around her.
On Thursday, she started the next day of the rest of her life, eating breakfast when she wanted and with an open morning ahead of her.
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Handley, a Mount Prospect resident, retired last week as a teacher's assistant at the Elk Grove Township Community Day Care Center.
Located in Elk Grove Village, its children come from Arlington Heights, Elk Grove, Des Plaines, Mount Prospect and Rolling Meadows.
What makes her story remarkable is that she is 88 and only started working at the center after retiring from a full-time career as the manager of Heinemann's Bakery in Chicago.
Township employees threw her a party on her last day, complete with a cake and special gifts.
"She has touched the lives of so many children," says Annette Capuaini, center director. "For so many of our kids, she has been their grandmother figure. She adds so much warmth and caring. She's just a loving person."
Handley began at the day care center in 1986, more than a dozen years after it opened its doors to a handful of children. While its location has changed over the years, its mission as an agency of Elk Grove Township has remained the same: to provide affordable, quality day care to children residing in the township.
For Handley, assisting with toddlers between the ages of 18 months and 2½ years, that has meant doing puzzles, playing house, painting, singing songs, going out to the playground, and her favorite activity: reading.
"I'll miss everyone I work with, as well as the routine and getting up in the morning," Handley said. "But mostly I'll miss the children."
Typically, after starting out with breakfast, she would take groups of four children at a time into some of the activity rooms, filled with different types of toys -- from those that work on gross motor skill, to those filled with role-playing toys.
"They're busy," Handley says with a laugh.
The center is open weekdays for 12 hours, and for most of her years there, Handley worked six-hour days. For the last five years, since undergoing cardiac bypass surgery, she has cut back to working four hours a day.
"We gave her four months to recover from her surgery, but then we called her to come back," says Brent Walker, one of the staff members. "She means that much to us."
Now in her upper 80s and needing cataract surgery soon, Handley and her family agreed it was time to step away. She figures she will have more time to spend at the Frisbie Senior Center in Des Plaines, where she loves to play cards and bingo.
She also spends three days a week exercising at the Northwest Community Healthcare Wellness Center in Arlington Heights.
Even though she has retired, Handley still figures to be working with children. As the mother of four and grandmother of five, she looks forward to the birth of her first great-grandchild next month.