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Nile Garden School icon retires after 18 years
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Nile Garden School children gathered behind her, Meme Heinrichs, holds on tight to a signature board and poem presented to her by students and staff members. Not only a volunteer playground supervisor and cafeteria worker for 18 years, she was a self-appointed counselor to the student body listening to their problems and letting them know she cared. - photo by GLENN KAHL

It was a celebration of the life of a very important person – a friend to every student. A person who year after year acted as a loving, caring grandma to students young and old out on the playground and in the cafeteria.

Cynthia “Meme” Heinrichs, 77,  was all but choked up as hundreds of children came together Wednesday to demonstrate their unquenchable love for the volunteer supervisor who gave so much of her heart and soul to so many over the past 18 years at Nile Garden Elementary School.

The entire student body gathered on a grassy area in front of the school office following a traditional Halloween parade,  standing grade level by grade level until she unexpectedly walked into their midst as they sung their hearts out to her. 

“I could never have been a teacher,” she quipped, “because I would have had to be strict with the children.  On the playground as a supervisor I would just listen to what they had to say.  They knew I cared and I could always coerce them to do the right thing.”

Meme had arrived at the school with her trademark camera in hand to take pictures of children in their costumes and to talk to them as they filed past her in a long line of primary students as members of the upper classes stood and watched.

Six eighth grade students had their picture taken with Meme remembering back to their kindergarten and primary years when they took part in that parade.  A number of them recalled exactly what costumes that had on back then.

And, it was after those kindergarten through third graders filed back into their classrooms that she spent some time with her family members on the playground thinking they had only come to see the parade.  Meme had to be called over the public address system to report to the office immediately.  When she did, she found the entire student body waiting for her with their special surprise of love and respect that electrified the morning.

Began volunteering when grandson started at school

She had first volunteered at Nile Garden when her grandson Andrew went off to school.  Meme said he was not going to leave without her at his side.  She has been on campus ever since he entered kindergarten.  Andrew who is about to be married and was present for the event was met by a former eighth grade teacher who kiddingly quipped: “You still owe me a book report!”

Meme had her Canon Rebel digital camera in hand taking as many pictures of the children and the staff as they took of her at the parade and at the subsequent celebration that focused on her “heart and soul” presence at the school.

She was presented with a framed poem centered on a signature board that had been signed by countless students and staff members wishing her well.  Centered in the mat was a poetic verse from the children – a poem they recited to her grade level by grade level as she stood in awe before the young student body.

It was entitled: “We must say,” and read:

We must say we wish to send our appreciation.  You deserve a standing ovation. Genuine is our gratitude and we really like your attitude.  A positive person we must say, a hard worker that enjoys to play. We could only say good things, when you are around good fortune brings.  Let us say you will be missed – you are our friend we must insist.  Wish you only the very best. You are great, enjoy your quest.

Following the event she was rushed by members of a school choir who smothered her with hugs as a group.  One girl had to mention the cost of the cookies, shouting that they had gone up to 50 cents each, saying that was a “scandal.”

Meme was not only popular on the playground but also in the cafeteria where she had filled an open position after taking the last set of classes to become a teacher’s aide – a position that was quashed by the sinking economy and schools’ budget crunch.

She became known as the “cookie lady” to the children as she was responsible for putting the cookie dough into the ovens. She had her young student helpers who were there every day and witnessed those cookies come out of the ovens.  Meme will always remember that they had to be just a little raw or the kids wouldn’t eat them.

After the morning salute concluded and she sat in an office chair as a second grade student, 7-year-old Colton Stonum, walked in through the door.  He had broken his arm in recent weeks and couldn’t be on the playground at recess time.  The boy leaned on the corner of a counter looking at Meme with his eyes telling how much he loved the “cookie lady.” He had helped at so many lunch breaks put out her warm chocolate chip treats.

“I used to help you in the cafeteria,” he grinned with a deep conviction of a Huck Finn.

Meme said the highlight of her days at Nile Garden was to see her grandson graduate from the eighth grade.  He moved on to high school telling her not to follow him because he didn’t want her to be exposed to raw language she might encounter there from teenage students.

“I enjoyed it all – the kids made my life,” she said in staying on at the elementary level.  Meme said she tried hard to mend the broken hearts of her boys and girls. 

“At least I tried,” she said.

And for what is in store for her in the future,  she told a staff member under her breath at the office door, “I’ll be back in a couple weeks.”