legacy of toy whitley
by julie parker
sat at Toy Whitley's kitchen table eating her country ham biscuits,
deviled eggs, and 14-day pickles, while she spun tales that had me alternately
in tears and goosebumps.
likes to say "You can take the girl out of the mountains, but you
can't take the mountains out of the girl." Her roots in Madison
County run deep and wide. She lives part of the year on Bear Branch,
within two miles from where she was born, in a cabin she and her beloved
husband Ed built some thirty years ago so they could always come home
to their mountains. The other part of the year she lives in Gainesville,
Florida, where she began a journey some forty years ago that had such
a profoundly positive effect on so many lives, the echoes will likely
continue for generations.
fact, her journey was about generations: generations, and community,
and the blessings of giving and receiving. We first heard about a woman
named Estoya (Toy) Whitley shortly after she received the Steven L.
Tunnick Award for Outstanding Achievement in Intergenerational Programming
from Generations United (www.gu.org) at their international conference
in October. What did this woman from Bear Branch do to deserve such
all started in the 60s when she was teaching at the PK Yonge Lab School
at the University of Florida in Gainesville. Toy and Ed had been college
sweethearts at Appalachian State, later teaching together at Appalachian
State, when Toy had the opportunity to teach at the University of Florida.
Toy arrived in Gainesville with her husband thinking that all the world
was pretty much like the community they'd grown up in. She was surprised
to find that upon meeting new folks in Gainesville, people invariably
asked "Where are you from?"a question she'd never heard
before. "At home," Toy grinned, "We all knew where we
while she was in a new communityone she concluded was one made
up of people who were pretty much all from somewhere elsestill
the value of community was one she brought with her from her beloved
mountains, a value she deeply cherished. She wanted the children she
taught to get to know the people around them, to learn what they did
and why, and to value and honor all members of their community. For
example, when the maintenance crew was fertilizing the university grounds,
she'd take the children to meet them, to learn from them what they did,
what role the fertilizer played, and how the maintenance crew was contributing
to the beauty of their surroundings.
day they found a building under construction a short walk from the school.
She took the kids over to meet the builders, to learn about construction
and to see what was being built. When she learned it was to be a nursing
home, immediately she sought the woman in charge, and said when it was
up and running, she'd like to bring the children by. "Are you for
real?" the woman asked. "You want to bring children here?"
"You're going to have people here, right?" Toy replied. "Well,
I am going to bring little people."
was eventually given against-my-better-judgement consent. For the first
few months they walked on eggshells, not wanting to wear out their welcome.
But the loving connection between the residents of the nursing home
and the "little people" soon became evident, and they were
ultimately welcomed with open arms. Many of the children she taught
did not have grandparents in the area, and Toy knew what unconditional
love and wisdom the older people could offer, and she knew that love
would be reciprocated. She also gave children credit for a depth of
understanding most adults do not expect. "We tend to sell the children
short." she said, and proceeded to give many examples of the acceptance
and understanding offered by the children in her care.
The children were, of course, briefed about the constraints of people
of advanced age. There was plenty of planning, talking beforehand with
the children, with their parents, the staff at the nursing home, and
with all involved. While she was aware that the rhythm and movement
of children in a nursing home was potentially disruptive, still "you've
got to let them be children. You don't want to take little adults down
there...you would defeat your purpose". From the outside the limits
set, the careful planning. and the structure was invisible, but nonetheless
the interactions were carefully orchestrated to make it a good experience
Yet much of the success was due to the wide open hearts of the children.
The children loved to play with one of their "grandmothers"
who had a wooden leg...a clumsy one that frequently fell off. (This
was long before the days of well-designed prosthetics). While an adult
might have been tempted to caution the children not to mention the wooden
leg, the children took it all in stride. Their "grandma" even
taught them a song they liked to sing with her:
the thousand legged worm
as he wiggled and he squirmed,
Has anybody seen a leg of mine?
If it can't be found,
I'll have to hop around
on the other nine-hundred-ninety nine.
her leg sometimes fell off, they'd just fetch it and help her screw
it back on while they all sang the worm song. No biggie.
day when elderly Grandmother Morgan was sitting in her wheelchair teaching
songs to the children on the floor around her feet, Toy Whitley noticed
urine leaking from the chair and pooling on the floor. She wanted to
go take care of it, to clean it up. When they all left, a little boy
went up to her and gently scolded: "Mrs. Whitley, you could have
hurt her feelings. You know she can't control her bladder!"
after she had not accompanied the children to the nursing home for several
days, (graduate students, faculty, parents and others would sometimes
take the kids), one of the children filled her in on what she'd missed
as they were walking to the nursing home: "Now Mrs. Whitely, Grandma
Sampson talks to herself in the mirror, but it's perfectly all right!"
Such is the simple, accepting, unconditional love between the very young
and the very old.
children of the Lab School usually adopted between 12 and 15 grandparents.
Toy would check first with the residents and then with their families
for comfort level and understanding the impact of the program. Then
they drew up "Adoption Papers"in the language of the
childrento formalize the bond that was ultimately sealed with
there was a limited number of "official" grandparents, when
the kids were visiting, no one was excluded. One elderly woman sitting
in a corner of the day room beckoned Toy to come over. She took Toy
by the hand and pleaded "Teacher, teach them to love me too!"
today Toy protests, "We cannot teach love. We can only live love,
and that's what we did."
one grandfather, a retired railroad engineer who had never married,
never had children: a white man (in the sixties) whose lifelong racial
prejudice melted when he was adopted by two little black boys. Toy
made certain to key in on everyone's talents. With his background in
the railroad, he was tickled to get all the kids excited about geography.
Sometime later when he had to spend time in the VA hospital, he demanded
that he be able to see his grandchildren. These grandchildren of his
heart were no less loved than had they been the grandchildren of his
gifts constantly pass from young to old and back again. When poultry
specialist Dr. Henry Wilson (the head of the poultry division at the
university) brought eggs and incubators to school joining the dogs and
cats and rabbits and a knee-high miniature horse...all regular visitors
to the class ("I never ask...I don't know how I got by with it!")
one child picked up a chick and placed it lovingly in his 101 year old
Grandpa Doc's lap. He exclaimed with delight, "Honey, I haven't
touched a baby chick in 85 years!"
Again in the 60s, one of the younger grandmas was a fifty some year
old African American woman who had been paralyzed by a drunk driver.
She confided one day to Toy that she regretted deeply that she had never
finished high school. Toy replied "Well, Grandma Queenie, what's
stopping you?" She decided to go for it, and then began a a concerted
effort to tutor her to pass her GED. High school students who, as small
children, had been part of the program, would give up their Saturdays
to come and tutor her. She learned eagerly and well. All the residents
were pulling for her, and everyone supported the effort in whatever
way they could.
got special permission for her to take her GED orally from a PhD graduate
student in counseling as she could no longer write. For her graduation,
she wore the blue cap and gown, and her family showed up wearing their
best suits, starched white shirts, flowered hats, and a sense of pride
that knew no bounds. She was presented her diploma by the Dean of the
College of Education and the Director of the Lab School, and was cheered
by a community that felt no barriers of age or color. "We need
each other. We learn from each other." Toy then grinned, saying
"I'm their peer now. That's what's so funny!" And yet she
seems as much the 30-some year old woman she was when the program started
as the 82 year old woman she is now.
we began to close, she recalled the first death of a grandparent. Toy
had gone to the nursing home early, for some reason, without the children,
only to find that a beloved grandma the children had been visiting the
evening beforewho had been in fine spiritshad died during
the night. She realized she'd not prepared the children for this, and
had not thought through how she would deal with it.
walked the short distance back to the Lab School very slowly, recalling
the deaths she experienced as a child in Madison County. "Thank
goodness," she told me, "when someone died, the whole family
was involved. We didn't call it a wake then, but the neighbors and the
family would all come over and sit together all night." Death,
as life, was celebrated in community. So Toy called the children over
to a rug in the corner of the room they called The People's Corner,
where they went together to solve problems. She explained simply and
quietly that Grandma had died during the night. The childrenGrandma's
familywere unphased. Together they devised a celebration of Grandma's
life, of the fun they had with her, of the things they loved most about
time other schools and other nursing homes became interested, and Toy
was flown around the country to give workshops teaching teachers and
nursing homes how to weave the generations together. The Today Show
went way back in the 70s to report on her work. And this, you will note,
was long before Foster Grandparent programs were a twinkle in anyone's
eye. In fact, Toy Whitley has been called the Grandmother of the Grandparenting
this is what Estoya Whitley did to earn the Steven L. Tunnick Award.
She began weaving a web of love that will likely continue to grow long
after her lifetime and her grandchildren's lifetime, and their grandchildren's
lifetime . . .
We tracked down John J Ross, now 39 but once a little boy in Toy Whitley's
class, for both 2nd and 3rd grades:
the adopted grandparents experience to be extremely rewarding,
but those memories are not what I remember most clearly about Mrs.
Whitley. In reflecting on the experience, I think the nursing home
visits taught us, at an unusually young age, just how rewarding it
could be to give back and really care about someone who
was not part of your family. At that age, for better or worse, most
of ones thoughts and motivations tend to be pretty self-centered,
and that experience took us out of that mode.
student has a teacher that had a particularly strong impact on his
or her life. Mrs. Whitley was that special teacher for me, and I believe
she was that teacher for an unusually large number of her students.
She took the time and had the ability to recognize the unique gifts
of each student, and she knew how to develop those gifts to their
highest potential. In addition, and perhaps more importantly, Mrs.
Whitley taught her students (in part through her work at the nursing
home) how important it was (and how rewarding it could be) to make
it a priority to treat others well.