"End of the line" for Jonesboro paraprofessional announcing retirement

"End of the line" for Jonesboro paraprofessional announcing retirement
Ms. Downs with the Stafford siblings. (Source: Jenna Stafford)
Ms. Downs with the Stafford siblings. (Source: Jenna Stafford)
Ms. Downs gives a big wave in her all winter weather gear. (KAIT-TV)
Ms. Downs gives a big wave in her all winter weather gear. (KAIT-TV)
Ms. Downs has hugs for every student. (Source: Jenna Stafford)
Ms. Downs has hugs for every student. (Source: Jenna Stafford)
Ms. Downs gets a visit from former VPA student, Will Wright. (Source: KAIT-TV)
Ms. Downs gets a visit from former VPA student, Will Wright. (Source: KAIT-TV)

Travel down Wilkins Avenue on any given school day and you are liable to see a tight configuration of cars doubled up, side-by-side, two abreast where one lane of traffic should be inching ever so closer up Hillcrest Drive toward the Visual and Performing Arts Magnet School. 

There at the top of the street, like a flagger at the start of the race for the Indy 500, would be a petite woman with a Walkie Talkie smiling and waving to each car on approach.

She may be small in stature—but big on protection for her small charges--especially if even one car came down her street the wrong way or, worse yet, was speeding.

Willene Downs may not be tall, but her presence in the car rider line commanded attention. And rightly so! Her students are some of the most precious things in her life.

"I've stopped a lot of people who were going the wrong way on that one-way street during school hours," Ms. Downs said. She sighs. "Tomorrow will be the last round-up."

Ms. Downs acknowledges her retirement at the end of the 2017-2018 school year.

"It's very sad for me," Downs said. "When I took my resignation in, I said I'm gonna hand this to you. I can't say a lot or I will start crying."

That's because Downs has spent the better part of her life working with children as a paraprofessional in the Jonesboro Public School District.

"My daughter was in South School, so when I was there, she was there," Downs said remembering the start of her days in the district.

Thirty-one years later and three school changes, she has developed a faithful following of parents and students.

"Ms. Downs represents those adults in elementary school that really know the heartbeat of the children," Trey Stafford, father of four children who have attended Visual and Performing Arts Magnet School. "Principals run in a daze of administrative fog.  Teachers are up to their necks watching children, planning lessons, responding to administration, grading papers, doing computer work, taking care of their families at home. For me growing up it was Mrs. Keith the school nurse at Marked Tree. For my kids, it was Mrs. Downs. The first to sniff trouble on the playground. The authority moving traffic through the drop-off and pick-up lines. The one to add the hug, the kind word, the tease that turns a bad day into a good day. From early in the morning until late in the afternoon. And then back for night events.  And anything else involving 'her kids.'"

Generations of students have known Ms. Downs and her penchant for dressing up for special days like school holiday parties. 

JONESBORO, AR (KAIT) - "The biggest mystery will always be what she put in her hair to make is 'sparkle.' Did she sprinkle it with silver glitter, or was it just the hairspray she used?" Jenna Stafford, a former PATHS President at VPA, said. "I'm pretty sure years from the now, the janitors will still be finding silver glitter from Ms. Downs' hair on the floors of VPA. Whatever it is, we will never forget her "sparkly" hair that matched her even  'sparklier' personality. Ms. Downs helped make school fun, but she also made school safe."

"Ms. Downs is a very sweet person. She kept me safe on the playground all six years I was at VPA," Lexie Burris, Jonesboro High School sophomore said. "Ms. Downs is hilarious, as well. She always kept me in stitches. She also gives the best hugs all day every day!"

It would not be unusual to find sparkles sprayed into her hair and a huge Christmas lights pendant adorning her neck as she waved to parents in cars at drop-off and pick-up times. If parent-teacher conferences were coming up, she'd hold her sign and point to cars passing by.

She could communicate without making a sound. But, when there were times that she needed to talk over the loud roar of students in the gym—well, she had a bullhorn for that. Upon hearing of impending retirement, VPA teachers had it bedazzled with gems for the woman they think is a "gem" herself. " 

"Ms. Downs has always been an amazing example of kindness and caring to the students and staff of VPA, Melissa Burris, VPA Drama instructor and parent, said. "I have been in this building for nine years, five of those just as a volunteer parent, and the remaining four as the drama teacher. I have always had a feeling of relief knowing that she was there to take care of my kids, when I wasn't."

"I've had a lot of girls over there on my playground. I'd look at them and recognize that I had had their mother in school, too," Downs said. "I'd tell them, 'I had your mother on the playground just like I have you.'"

It may take a minute, but those memories of early school years flood back to parents once they see her face.

"My first memory of Ms. Downs is when I was a student at South School Elementary and Ms. Downs was a recess monitor," Kara Mayfield, Disbursing Officer for the Jonesboro Public Schools Board of Education said. "It took me a bit to recover that memory when she started at VPA when my girls were there. My first memory of Ms. Downs is when I was a student at South School Elementary and Ms. Downs was a recess monitor. It took me a bit to recover that memory when she started at VPA when my girls were there."

But, the memories flood back and they are the ones students hold onto—especially when some school years prove tougher than others.

"Ms. Downs was a HUGE part in Victoria being able to handle time on the playground during the crazy rough years for her of 5th and 6th grade," Mayfield said about one of her daughter's experiences with Ms. Downs. "She would spend her entire recess time (every single day) standing with Ms. Downs on the playground and following her around to stay with her. She was her lifesaver those two years and I don’t know how we would have survived if it weren’t for Ms. Downs. Victoria would have told you that Ms. Downs was her best friend those two years."

Those impressions on students have made for Ms. Down's own personal collection of student artwork.

"'I made you a picture today. I drew you a picture on Valentine's Day, they will say,'" Ms. Downs said recounting her memories of more than two decades spent with children in their formative years. "They always have to draw me some hearts. I just enjoy being around kids."

For many, she feels like an extended part of their family. "She is loving, kind, caring, and an all-out HOOT," Mrs. Burris, VPA Drama instructor, said. "Both of my kids have always loved her, and my daughter Lexi feels a kindred spirit to her, like a grandparent. VPA is definitely not going to be the same without her." 

"I've seen her physically stand in front of moving cars to block them from going the wrong way down Hillcrest Drive in order to protect the safety of "her" children at VPA," Jenna Stafford, remarked.

"She is always super nice. She is very funny. She would crack me up on the playground," Blake Burris, a MacArthur ninth-grader said. "She was right there if you needed anything. She made sure that when we played football or soccer that none of us got into trouble. She would help select our teams so that we didn't fight about it. We knew that she meant what she said, but we always knew that she loved us!"

"Ms. Downs is one of the hardest working school employees I've ever met," Jenna Stafford said. "Whether she's monitoring recess, PE, or school traffic she always gives 100 percent.  She knows all the kids by name and makes it a point to interact with them and their parents."

So why stop now? Well, years of being on her feet have taken a toll.

"My feet are in pretty bad shape. They hurt quite a bit, but at least I can walk," Ms. Downs said. "My arches are just about to flatten out. I worked for years standing on my feet. Worked with Mr. Neely that started Westside Catfish. I fried fish for him for 16 years."

Ms. Downs lost her husband with cancer when he was 47 years old. She worked two jobs to provide for her daughter, Camille, and herself.

Now at 76 years young, she's decided its time to slow down just a bit.

"I'll just probably clean out closets," she said. "A lot of times I go to the hills in Mountain View." she said with a smile, "I know I won't be able to stay away from the school though," Ms. Downs remarked.

"I've already told them, 'You haven't gotten rid of me yet. I'll just stop by and see you—probably aggravate you to death. I know I can't stay away from my kids. I'll miss them too much.'" 

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