Retiree rakes in award for volunteer work

Published 12:00 am Monday, April 5, 2004

Seven-year-old Jamaya Barnes rests her head on the shoulder of retired teacher Gustina Atlas as she helps Deairton Simmons, 9, left, and Kirsten Stamps, 11, with their homework in Port Gibson.(Melanie Duncan Thortis The Vicksburg Post)

[4/5/04]PORT GIBSON Freeze-pop visits from neighborhood children turned into reading sessions, and a retired Port Gibson High School teacher decided to organize the activities into an after-school program at her church.

For Gustina Atlas, the children who visited her home were younger than the ones she had taught for 31 years. The commitment she made to them, though, added further to the pattern of seeking opportunities to help younger people that she was already continuing through her work with the local arts agency here.

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For her efforts, she has been named this year’s winner of the Governor’s Initiative for Volunteer Excellence (GIVE) Senior Citizen Outstanding Volunteer Service Award.

She will be honored Wednesday at the 12th annual GIVE Awards ceremony. The awards will be presented to 10 volunteers from around the state by the Mississippi Commission for Volunteer Service and Gov. Haley Barbour.

Atlas, 66, who is retired from a 31-year career as a math teacher at PGHS, volunteers about 30 hours a week to the local arts agency, Mississippi Cultural Crossroads. The agency was co-founded in 1978 by Patty and Dave Crosby.

Atlas said she learned to quilt in her retirement, beginning about 1993 with the encouragement of Patty Crosby.

“I was at Piggly Wiggly and saw Patty,” Atlas said. “She said, What are you doing now? Why don’t you come to Cultural Crossroads and learn to quilt?'”

Atlas said she had seen her mother quilting but had never had the time to learn herself. Now she helps novices learn to quilt as she continues to produce her own work. She made or helped make four of the 55 quilts displayed in Cultural Crossroads’ downtown building for its 17th annual quilt contest and exhibition this year.

“She’s an extraordinary volunteer,” Crosby said of Atlas, who is known around Cultural Crossroads as “Mrs. G.” “She sees what needs to be done and she helps do it.”

Atlas also brings “an incredible amount of positive energy” to the organization, including the mentoring she provides to the young women who come to MCC to learn to quilt, Crosby said.

“She helps talk them through some of the things that one has to do,” Crosby said, citing as an example the counsel Atlas provided one young woman in her recent move from one apartment to another. “She talks to them about life. And she brings a creative, artistic energy as well.”

Atlas’ idea for the after-school program “came out of the blue” about three years ago, she said. She was standing in her yard talking to a neighbor when she saw a little boy nearby.

“This little boy was just standing there,” she said. “I said, Hi.’ And he didn’t say anything. And my neighbor said, Oh, he doesn’t talk.’ And I didn’t know whether she meant he couldn’t talk or he just didn’t talk.

“But the next day my doorbell rang, and I went to the door and there was this little boy. I said, Hi, come in.’ He came in and I said, Have a seat. What’s your name?’ And he didn’t say anything.”

After a while, Atlas’ husband said to the boy, “Would you like a freeze-pop?,” she said. The boy nodded his head, she said.

“And I said, No, no, no.’ Can you say Yes’? And he said Yes.’ That’s the first word I’ve heard him say.”

The next day the same boy returned, this time with a friend. Both were given freeze-pops, the boy said three words during the visit “yes” and “thank you” and the idea for the program grew from there as Atlas and her husband began hosting a regular and growing group of children.

“It was not just a freeze-pop,” she said. “I would start reading them stories. They would say, We came for you to read us a story.'”

The pastor at her church, Christian Chapel Church, agreed to let her use a house the church had bought as meeting space. The group grew as large as 27 children. Atlas and others who have helped her from time to time tutor the children. She helps them with their homework in all areas, maintains a library of donated books, including some she bought, and, with her husband, serves snacks.

At times, the groups have met four afternoons a week. Now, about 15 students in kindergarten through the sixth grade meet on Tuesdays and Thursdays when school is in session. A church van picks up and drops off the children for the program, which lasts from 4:30 p.m. until 5:45 p.m.

Most of her students’ parents work full-time, she said.

Atlas often directs some of the older students to read to the younger ones, she said.

She checks every report card her students get, and she said she has seen many grades improve after the tutoring sessions, “but not as much as I’d like.”

Once during an after-school session, one of her students, a fourth-grade girl, slipped a note in her shirt pocket, she said.

“She said, Here, Mrs. Atlas, this is for you,'” Atlas said, adding that she didn’t get around until later to reading the note.

“It said, Dear Mrs. Atlas, Thank you so much, and I love you,'” she said. “Those are the kinds of things that make you keep doing it.”

Atlas said she plans to work one-on-one this summer, for about an hour a day five days a week, with a third-grader who lives down the street and is trying to learn to read. And a need exists for a larger such summertime-tutoring program for youngsters, she added.

“I’m hoping that these younger people in the church will take this program over,” Atlas said. She added that she has yet to identify a good prospect to succeed her as director of the program, but that any such prospect need not be a member of the church.

The mission of the Mississippi Commission for Volunteer Service is to engage and support Mississippians of all ages and backgrounds in service to their communities. For more information on the GIVE Awards or the commission, call (601) 432-6779 or see