By Quinten Plummer
The Valdosta Daily Times
VALDOSTA — Those who speed through her crossing zones throw sand at Merita Williams’ security training, disregard her ministerial appointment, mock the once-daycare owner’s background in early childhood development and, worst of all, Williams says, speeders endanger the lives of little learners who amble through those designated safe zones.
Crossing guards are told not to yell at them, says Williams before reaffirming her commitment to the guideline.
“I tell them we’re not yelling at them, we’re reminding them to slow down,” Williams announces, with her voice softening at the end. “They see you writing their tag number down, so they want to be the first to tell it. ‘She wrote my tag number down! I wasn’t speeding, and she was yelling at me!’ But the police department knows that if they’re calling about me, then they’re likely the problem.”
At one point, there were no buses or crossing guards in Williams’ area when she was growing up here in Valdosta, according to Williams. Eventually a bus was deployed to serve her area, but after-school activities like cheerleading and basketball often kept her from meeting the promptly-ran bus.
“We had one bus, an old school bus that Councilman Sonny Vickers had purchased,” says Williams as her eyes trail out into reverie. “He charged us 25 cents out there to school and 25 cents back home. We’d catch his bus every morning to school and he’d be out there every afternoon after school. And it you missed that bus, he wasn’t coming back. If you missed the bus, you just had to walk.”
That walk for Williams began at Valdosta Middle School and ended roughly four and a half miles away at her childhood home on Bethune Street.
After donning the Tift County High School “blues” while she attended to a sickly aunt two counties north of us, Williams returned to Valdosta briefly and eventually landed in Florida in 1985. Her stay in Cocoa Beach, Fla., was short, she says, but she witnessed a life-changing event.
“I wish I had people out there to protect me with the crossing guards and buses, but now, at least, we have it,” says Williams. “Near Patrick AFB, I saw a car jump a curb and hit a child. What do you tell the parents? There’s no amount of money in the world that can replace that child. You may have a beef with me when you see my waving you down. But don’t slow down for me. Do it for the children that are walking, and hate me later. It only takes you a couple of minutes to drive 25 mph through the school zones.”
With the hopeless scene fresh in Williams’ mind, she headed over to Melbourne, Fla., where she learned more about the early stages of life, according to Williams. She worked her way through Brevar Community College’s early childhood development for two years and launched Merita’s Child Care.
From there, she moved over to Orlando.
“I had met a lot of good friends and they were all moving away and one of my best friends wanted me to move over to Orlando with her, and I did,” says Williams. “I got a job with the greater Orlando Chamber of Commerce and I worked there as mailroom manager. I also went to Mid-Florida Technical College tech, there in Orlando, where I studied security.”
While Williams was putting up drywall on her retirement plans down in Central Florida, her path was about to cross a familiar intersection.
“He was my childhood sweetheart; I used to throw rocks at him,” says Williams of her early life encounters at that intersection. “I was 12 and he was around 15. He used to try to talk to me and my father, being a minister, wasn’t having that. He would meet me just before I got home from school. I would stock up a pile of rocks before hand, so I would have plenty to throw at him.”
Back from Orlando with plenty of working years left in her veins, Williams married her childhood sweetheart who had just returned to Valdosta after spending 30 years in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. But trouble had transformed the area she’d traveled, sometimes daily, during her middle grade years, according to Williams.
Williams admired how Brian Childress, now chief of the police department, quelled the chaos that was overtaking order in her neighborhood, she says. Williams admired the man, and she wanted a job, she says.
“I saw how attentive he was to our needs, so I asked him to take me on at the police department,” says Williams. “I told him I didn’t want to carry a gun and I didn’t want to go through the police academy. He told me to just come out and work as a crossing guard. I told him good, I can do that. I enjoy my work and it sort of like I’m cruising to retirement.”
Williams is coasting into her sixth year of guarding crosswalks for kids and it’s the kids, parents and other crossing guards who are starting to tint these years with a hint of gold.
“I don’t know why I punish myself out there with those kids,” says Williams as the roar of laughter catches up to the glint in her eyes. “But it’s always good to get at the start or end of the day to get big hug from the kids at the start of the year. I love the kids. We have sessions with the parents and we get along with most of the parents. In fact, the only people I have problems with out there are the speeders.”
But, as speeders will attest, Williams isn’t always gentle and comforting. Sometimes, she says, she just has to get your attention. It’s her job.
One day, children came through a wooden area that Williams had forbidden them from entering, she says. The wide-eyed kids reporting seeing a hooded man in the undergrowth, and so Williams dialed 911, she says.
“If a child tells me something like that, I’m going to call the police,” says Williams. “They can be mad all they want to, but that’s something that needs to be checked out. And I’m also unafraid of calling the cops on a child if they’re acting up. The police will tell me ‘We’ll straighten it out.’ And it they can’t, I’ll call the parents.”
She will and she has. She steps outside of her zones, walking those extra miles to ensure children are taken care of when they are away from their parents.
“One morning, I just got tired of him,” says Williams, still slightly frustrating with the teen’s disappearing act. “I asked him where he was supposed to be. I told him I’d call Pineview on him and I’d run him down if he tried to leave. I know them, their parents and where they live.”
Williams didn’t return to Valdosta from a management role in the Greater Orlando Chamber of Commerce without a heavy shove from reason. Until she moved back, her older sister had been bearing the task of caring for their parents.
Williams says she’s a woman of faith — she was ordained in 2011— so there’s no surprise when she wracks her memories for bumps in the road on her path to retirement.
The family has always been a strongly-knit bunch, says Williams of her parents, two brothers and big sister. So this latest difficulty would stand out, no matter where it lies in her sequence of memories.
“My daddy wasn’t a perfect man, but he was a good man. He took care of us, working out at Owens Illinois for over 37 years,” says Williams. “My daddy just died Nov. 13 of 2012. He was 95 years old. So we’re getting ready to go through a lot of firsts without him. We will get through it because of the strength my daddy brought us. He held on each day to show us his strength and that he meant what he said about God.”
Now bearing the ministerial collar, Williams’ journey has passed through an intersection she’d seen her father cross during her youth. When she’s done providing safe passage for children head to and from school, she says she’ll put more time into the volunteering and traveling.
“I go to nursing homes now with a few ladies from our church,” says Williams. “But once I’m able to stop working, I’d like to devote my time to volunteer work and cruise on into retirement. We’re going to visit our grandson in Fort Lauderdale, but I’d really like to go back to visit Chicago’s Navy Pier. I’d also like to go back to Manhattan to catch some of the Broadway shows and shop the boutiques. They are so nice there. I’d love to do that.”
But for now, the end of summer keeps creeping into the front of her mind.
“Aug. 7 will be the first day of school,” says Williams dutifully. “Please be mindful of school crossings, and slow down.”
By Quinten Plummer
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