Inspiring Okeechobee: Gumz wants her students to be kind

OKEECHOBEE – Cheryl Gumz has been a part of the Okeechobee County school system for so long, she has seen three generations pass through her classrooms. She loves children, and she loves teaching. “It’s nice to see the kids grow up and be happy,” she said.

Lake Okeechobee News/Cathy Womble
“Every kid understands a smile,” says Cheryl Gumz.

Originally from Indiana, her family moved to Sarasota when she was 4 years old. Her father was a police officer, and her mother was a nurse. When she was 11, they moved to North Carolina, and she said she really learned what hard work was because her family built a beautiful campground there. When she was 19, she moved back to Florida and worked as a waitress while she decided what she wanted to do with her life.

Darcy Eubanks talked her into volunteering at the old South Elementary School, so she said she went and volunteered and found she really enjoyed it. Her husband didn’t like her to spend so much time there though, so instead of spending every morning there, she spent three full days there. It didn’t seem like she was there as often, but she was actually spending more hours there. The principal and assistant principal said she worked really well with the children. She wasn’t able to have children of her own, but she has always had a love for kids, and they suggested she get her substitute certificate, so she did. When she returned after the summer, they told her there was an opening for a teacher’s aide, and she took the position. She worked with Elizabeth Stanley.

When Everglades Elementary School opened, they all moved over to the new school, and she was there for about 20 years.

She was a teacher’s aide for 23 years, and during that time, she went to school at night. Through life’s ups and downs, a couple divorces, sickness, health, deaths in the family — she persevered, and she graduated from college when she was 50 years old. When she went to FAU to walk for her graduation, she had the honor society sash; she graduated Magna Cum Laude; and when they said everyone 50 and older stand up, she raised her hand, and said, “YES!” It made her happy, because she knew her parents were smiling down on her, she said. It took her 20 years to graduate, and the people in her life were always encouraging, she said. “I really want to thank my support system of friends and family who encouraged me to finish my education.” She said Tony Dellagal called her Ms. Perseverance. He said she just kept on going no matter what.

After she graduated, she started teaching second grade at Everglades Elementary School. After two years, they had the big budget cut, and she was laid off. Her time as a teacher’s aide did not count and she was considered one of the last hired. Although a teacher’s aide position was open, it did not work out for her to take that position either, but she determined to make the best of it and not have a bad attitude about it. She applied for every available position within the school system and then went on a trip to visit a friend.

No sooner had she reached her destination when she received a phone call asking if she could come in for an interview. She explained she was out of state and asked if it would be possible to do a phone interview. They agreed and set it up for Monday. She spent the entire weekend researching ACE pre-K so she would be ready. At the end of the phone interview they told her they would let her know if they wanted her to come for an in-person interview. The principal called her two days later and said, We won’t be calling you for an in-person interview,” Her heart sank, she said. Then he said, “Because we want you to come and work for us.” She worked in ACE pre-K for three years and loved it. One year, seven of her nine students went on to regular kindergarten, and one of those students later was a spelling bee champ at Central Elementary School.

She applied to have her student loan forgiven after working with ACE pre-K for three years because it is a special needs program, but was told it only applies to kindergarten through 12th grade so her request was denied. Her principal moved her to a kindergarten class so she could apply again, and then after she taught kindergarten, he came to her because she was the only one with special ed. certification, he asked her to do the inclusion program. One teacher had gotten laid off from the position, and the second one refused to do it alone, so he wanted to know if she would be willing to do it by herself. She told him she would give it a try, and that year, she was rated “highly effective,” she said. She spent three years in that position.

Now she is teaching a class called “Varying Exceptionalities — Kindergarten through Fifth Grade.” The children are diagnosed with learning disabilities. Some might have low IQs, but she does not tell them that. A lot of them have behavior issues. Some of them don’t believe in themselves. Her goal is to inspire in her students respect for themselves and others so they will be kind to everyone. She wants them to be able to get along with everybody and be successful in something they enjoy.

She is involved in the Elks Club, Eagles, Yachette Club, Teachers’ Union, and if any other charity organization has a function, she tries to go and support them. She often goes to Quarters for a Cause and the VFW fundraisers. The Elks give books to second graders every year, she said. They get a book called “B is for Buckaroo,” and after a book test, they get an ice cream social.

The Eagles just had a fundraiser for teachers and presented her with a $200 check for school supplies. The money they raised was divided between the teachers who came to the event, and each elementary school was given a check. She has really been blessed this year with school supplies. She got a big box from the Quarters auction. She won a refrigerator in a drawing from Don’s Appliances.

Recently, she went through the drive-thru at McDonalds and a young man asked her if she remembered him. He told her he was one of her students from many years ago. He was from Mexico and didn’t know any English. He said she helped him so much, and now he is graduating with a degree in psychology, “Every kid understand a smile,” she said. “That was what he needed back then.”

She ran into another former student at Nutmeg’s who said he was her student when she taught art at Everglades. He was just accepted into a special art school.

At the fair last year, she talked to a woman she taught, and then the woman’s mother walked up, and she realized she had taught the mother too. When she looked at the woman’s son, she realized she had taught him as well.

“Everywhere I go, I see people I had in a classroom,” she said. “I like to see them all grown up and happy.”

Cathy Womble is a staff writer for the Lake Okeechobee News.

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