By Mike Marsee
Rita Renfrow has no idea how many hugs she gets in a typical day.
“You know, I’ve never tried to count them,” Renfrow said.
The truth is, she probably doesn’t have the time. Renfrow spends her days as a preschool classroom assistant at North Butler Elementary School (Butler County), where there is always something going on – and there is seemingly always a child who wants to hug her neck.
Those hugs would be reward enough for Renfrow – “Ms. Rita” to the students who know and love her – even if she hadn’t won the Fred Award from the Kentucky Association of School Administrators (KASA) earlier this summer.
“I just love being with the kids,” she said. “I could come in feeling bad, and as quick as I see them it changes.”
Renfrow was recognized by KASA in July as the 11th winner of an award that honors non-administrative or noncertified staff members, parents or volunteers. The award is inspired by Fred Shea, a postal carrier who is the subject of the best-selling book “The Fred Factor.” It recognizes individuals who model Shea’s spirit of service, innovation and commitment to others, who have positively influenced and impacted the lives of those in the school community.
North Butler Elementary Principal Josh Belcher brought Renfrow in as part of the staff after she had volunteered at the school for several years and has nominated her for the Fred Award twice.
“I think what’s unique about Rita is her heart,” Belcher said. “I talked to her on the phone before she was hired and I was just amazed by the heart that she showed for kids.”
Renfrow began volunteering at the school in 2003 when a child she had been babysitting entered preschool. She volunteered in his classroom, but soon moved when she saw that an adjacent class needed some help.
“I met Rita when she started volunteering in my classroom,” said Ginny Lockhart, the preschool teacher in whose class Renfrow spends her days. “I didn’t have any parents volunteering, and because we didn’t have anybody, she would come to my room and volunteer. She was our reading pal; she would come and read to my class every Friday afternoon.”
Renfrow returned as a volunteer a second time when a second child she was babysitting entered preschool.
“After he went into kindergarten I stayed on as a volunteer, and it worked into a job,” she said. “You stick around long enough and they’ll put you to work.”
Lockhart said it’s clear that Renfrow loves her work.
“She loves my kids. It’s always nice when you get people in here that love them like you do,” Lockhart said. “She just comes in here all smiles every morning, a lot of positivity.
“She’s always willing to do whatever it takes with these kids, whatever I need. She plays with them, ties shoes, helps them get shoes on, helps when we have accidents. On Fridays when the kids aren’t here she comes in and helps clean and organize.”
Belcher could hardly wait to tell Renfrow at a schoolwide assembly in May that she had been named one of three finalists for the Fred Award.
“Through her eyes, I just know how much it meant to her,” Belcher said. “She cried and I cried and all the students celebrated. The students felt that sense of pride, too.”
Actually, at least one of them cried, too.
“One little boy thought I was leaving and he cried,” Renfrow said. “Mr. Belcher had said, ‘Ms. Rita will be going to Louisville,’ and that’s all he heard.”
More tears were shed when Renfrow was announced as the winner at the annual KASA Leadership Institute in July. Renfrow said she was a little uncomfortable as the center of attention.
“To me, you shouldn’t get an award for doing what you love,” she said. “I was just shocked, but I appreciate it and I’m thankful for it. People tell me, ‘It’s OK to be proud of yourself, to pat yourself on the back,’ and I don’t feel like I should be doing that.”
The cheers keep coming. People she doesn’t know have congratulated her on social media and in local stores, and she has been chosen by the Morgantown-Butler County Chamber of Commerce as one of the nominees to be grand marshal of the local Christmas parade.
“It may not be the biggest thing in the world, but it meant something to this community,” Belcher said.
Back in her classroom, it’s a new year with new little faces, and Renfrow is excited to see how much they’ll change during her time with them.
“They grow a lot from August to May,” she said.
And of course, they hug a lot, too.
“You can get onto them one minute, and then they come right back with that hug and you tell them, ‘It’s OK,’” she said. “They’ll be mad at you, and then they’ll be ready to hug you.”
The hugs don’t stop when the students move up, either. Even as Renfrow spoke, a kindergarten student who was in her classroom last year and happened to be walking down the hall spotted Renfrow and detoured from her route for a hug.
“I try to stay out of the hallway so I don’t get in trouble, because when they see me they holler and want hugs,” Renfrow said. “You don’t want to get them in trouble, but you still want that hug, too.”
Renfrow said she’ll keep helping preschoolers at North Butler Elementary and doling out hugs “as long as they’ll let me in the door. I told them as long as I can get up and down out of that floor, I’ll be here.
“If I can help just one kid, then I feel like I did what I was supposed to do.”
MORE INFO …