GLADSTONE - He was once like a Pied Piper.
At the end of the school day at the Cameron Elementary School in Gladstone several years ago, Darrell Mullins could be spotted marching down the hallway with a group of kindergarten and readiness youngsters of Peggy Austin stepping along behind him as he led them to the front door of the school to board the waiting school busses.
Foster Grampa Mullins is still at the school and still in Austin's classroom. Only this time, he has moved up with Austin to the second grade.
Foster Grandparent Darrell Mullins stands ready to give second graders, Megan Sarasin and Vijay Kennedy, a little help with their math assignment. “Grampa” Mullins has been helping in the second-grade classroom of Peggy Austin for the past two years. Prior to that, he worked with Austin in her kindergarten and readiness class. (Daily Press photo by Dorothy McKnight)
"He's been with me for these years and I hope he stays around forever," Austin said. "He's a wonderful Foster Grandparent."
Born and raised in Danville, Ill., Mullins moved to Wisconsin and worked at Esco Corporation until workers went on strike.
"While they were on strike, I worked at a service station and it turned out that I got a better deal there so I never went back to Esco," Mullins said.
He moved with his family to Wisconsin where he worked in the woods and laid carpet and flooring for about eight years. He worked at a sawmill for an additional 11 years before retiring and moving to Gladstone six years ago. He and Virginia make their home at Bayview.
Two years after moving to the area, Mullins signed on to be a Foster Grandparent along with Virginia.
"Virginia and I signed up together," Mullins said. "Gramma said she was going sign up and I told her I would try it, too. I thought maybe I would be good at something like this."
Although he admits to being a little nervous in the beginning, a smile comes easily to his face every time he talks about his "kids."
"I was a little nervous about whether I would be able to communicate with the kids and whether they would want to work with me," he said. "But I found out that more than anything, if you show them attention and love, it's not hard at all to get along."
Mullins said Foster Grandparent Joan Lambert, who died in 2007, was a special "mentor" to him when he first began his work at Cameron.
"I kinda shadowed her," he said. "And she told me 'If you can keep just one child out of jail when he grows up, it will be worth it all. That's what it's all about.'"
When in Austin's classroom, Mullins helps the youngsters with such skills as math.
"Most of the kids are counting to 100, but a little while ago, through in one for 1,000 just to see if they could get it and some of them did," Mullins said. "It's so good to see them - especially those who struggled in the beginning - about to get the answers so quickly."
"He's able to work with the kids one-on-one," Austin said. "He helps me with my workload and the kids all love him."
"Sometimes we read together," Mullins said. "And when Peggy needs to catch up on tests, I help the kids get started and make sure they don't get themselves into trouble. Some of the kids need some extra help and I'm there to help them."
A real plus in having a Foster Grandfather in the school is monitoring the little boys when they disappear into the bathroom.
"Sometimes if they go to the bathroom and it seems they're taking a little too long, I go in and check on them," he said. "Sometimes I go in and see a little horseplay and goofing off. Then I tell them to get a move on and get back to class."
Mullins readily admits that he wants to be a part of the Foster Grandparent program for quite some time.
"Second grade is as high as I want to go," he said. "But whenever people ask me if this is my last year, I tell them 'no.' I want to stay here for as long as God allows me to. Being here, I look forward to being in school. Whenever there's summer break, I can't wait for it to be over and get back to the classroom."
Austin said she especially appreciates Mullins' dedication to his task.
"He's very organized and very conscientious," she said. "He's just a great person to have around. He's scheduled to work 20 hours a week, but he even volunteers for an extra four hours on his own time. I would say he's just perfect."
Mullins is extremely happy whenever a youngster shows him how much they appreciate him. "If I go to Walmart or out somewhere, kids will run up and give me a big hug," he said with a proud smile. "I was at church the other day and one little guy came in and asked me, 'Do you work at Cameron?' Then he gave me a big hug. Pastor Steve (Patrick) saw that the little guy recognized me and smiled. Once when I was in Drifter's a youngster came in with his dad and little sister. He saw me and ran right down to give me a hug. And he gave one to Gramma (Virginia), too. It's kinda neat to be a part of such a wonderful program. Having a kid run up to you and give you a hug is better than getting a check for working here any day." During a recent classroom assignment, all Austin's children were told to write a little book for their classroom. Some wrote about their family. Others wrote about trees and other interesting topic. But one little girl, Meagon Sarasin, wrote about the Foster Grandparents and included a page about the special "Grampa" in her own classroom.
"Peggy made a copy for me to keep for myself," Mullins said. "It's very special to me."