MAHOMET — For Kristi Hart, last Thursday started out like any normal workday as a crossing guard for Lincoln Trail Elementary School, where she ensures students safely cross the intersection of Division and State streets each school day. But when a dozen children came running waving signs that read "thank you for keeping us safe" and shouting "we love you," it suddenly turned into a Valentine's Day she won't soon forget.
"I was totally blindsided by the whole thing," Hart said.
Not only was the crossing guard the recipient of a kind greeting, but she was also showered with gifts raised unbeknownst to her from community members.
Local parents Amy Jessup and Heather Wanninger headed the cause, raising more than $625 for the crossing guard, which they used to purchase Hart a parka. But donations from area businesses topped her gift value well over $1,600.
"(I'm) overwhelmed," Hart said. "I'm used to giving and not receiving, so I am still floored at the generosity of our community."
The idea all started with a Facebook post from Wanninger, who simply wanted to thank Hart for her dedication to Mahomet-Seymour's youngsters.
"While many were complaining about having to drive to work in the bitter cold, subzero weather, Kristi was spending over 30 minutes every morning and afternoon in the cold weather keeping all our kiddos safe," Wanninger said.
The "overwhelming," positive response to her post inspired both Wanninger and Jessup to collect donations for Hart.
"Within two days, we had over $300 donated and it caught like wildfire on Facebook and word of mouth," Jessup said. "People from all over the district donated."
"It was just cool to see hundreds of people within a few days make a small idea become something huge, and we were really able to honor her because so many people love her," Jessup added.
Lincoln Trail Principal Jeff Starwalt couldn't sing Hart's praises any higher.
"Kristi is a hoot, and the kids love her," he said. "We are so fortunate to have someone with her dedication, kindness and wonderful personality helping our kids."
"Truly one of the most influential adults working with our students daily!" he added.
Hart started the gig last year shortly after Christmas when she noticed the former crossing guard simply didn't show up.
What was she to do? Hart stepped right into action.
"I was sitting waiting for my kids and I got out there without a sign and I let the kids cross," Hart said.
"I went and talked to Jeff (Starwalt), and I was like, 'If she ever resigns or you need a sub, just let me know,'" she added.
So Hart subbed until the former crossing guard resigned at the beginning of the cold season.
Not only does Hart withstand all of Mother Nature's elements, she does so by "greeting every kid that crosses with a smile," Wanninger said.
"She's also the community mother shouting to kids lollygagging a half a block away to hustle so they aren't late for school," Wanninger joked.
But something that both Jessup and Wanninger witnessed in Hart was her ability to acknowledge each and every student and make them feel important.
"Unfortunately, there are kids everywhere that go through life feeling invisible," Wanninger said. "If any of those kids walk to school here in Mahomet, I promise you they will be noticed by at least one person that day."
"Kristi takes her job ensuring the safety of the kids very serious," Wanninger added, "but I believe her real gift is loving on the children in the few seconds she sees them."
Not only does Hart exhibit this in the middle of an intersection, but also in the lunchroom of Middletown Prairie Elementary School, where she serves as a lunch room supervisor for three periods.
"All three of my kids love her," Jessup said. "She's just always been friendly and one of my kids' favorite workers in the district."
"She makes everyone feel so special," she added.
Middletown Prairie Elementary Principal Wendy Starwalt couldn't agree more.
"Kristi (has) just been a rock at MPE," Wendy Starwalt said. "Her enthusiasm, energy and fun are contagious each and every day she is the lunchroom."
But by far her favorite part of her day is the kids.
"It's just everyday conversation," Hart said. There's always something new. The kids are funny."
"They're concerned about me, too," Hart added while smiling. "'How was your day? Did you get warm? Did you get breakfast? Will you have breakfast?'"
But with the positives of her day come the negatives, too.
"I'd say the negative part is impatient parents," Hart said.
"There are some that aren't forgiving that are in a hurry no matter what, and it's frustrating," she said. "There are days where I'm like, 'Are you kidding me right now?'"
"It has nothing to do with you or me," she added. "It has to do with these kiddos getting to school."
So when a dozen children came running down Division Street waving signs and shouting their appreciation for the dedicated crossing guard, Hart was moved to tears.
"It gave me goosebumps," she said. "For them to reciprocate the love that I give is just amazing. It's amazing to me. They keep me humble every day."
"I feel like when you give, you get what you give," she added.
As for the community's outpouring of support?
"I can't even begin to thank them," Hart said. "There were 50-plus families that put donations in. The generous gifts ... I could never ... just a simple thank-you is not good enough."
"I don't know any other way to say it except for I'll still keep taking care of your children," Hart said, "and I'll still be that person that will wave and smile on the corner every morning."
"Thank you from the bottom of my heart," she added.
But if there's one thing Hart wants to make clear, it's that "their thank-yous on a daily basis are perfect for me," she said.
"That's all I need," Hart added. "I don't need gifts. I don't need that kind of stuff, but it was very, very kind."
As for her future?
"I'm hoping to do it next year, but I may be a TA (teacher's aide)," she said. "Maybe I can be the crossing guard and do something like that."
Hart previously worked at Cunningham Children's Home in Urbana for 14 years — 10 of which she spent in the cottages and four in the schools.
"I worked with boys who have autism in this particular classroom and they just stole my heart," she said.
"I had the glorified part," Hart added. "I got to hang out with the kids. I got them to do their homework and to do their school work, and then we'd get to have a little fun along the way. I thought, 'Yeah, maybe I'll do that again.'"
But for now, Hart enjoys each and every day in her roles as a crossing guard and lunchroom supervisor.
"As a whole, I just love the kids. That's it," Hart said. "I want to make sure that they're safe out there."