For 15 years, Toni Kuhn has been a familiar face to students at Omaha’s Sherman Elementary School, where Civic Nebraska runs the after-school Community Learning Center (CLC) for more than 100 students every day. In addition to running the school cafeteria, Toni is a member of the CLC. In that role, she provides youths an evening meal while also leading the Sherman CLC kindergarten team. In her years at Sherman, “Ms. Toni” has forged a cross-generational reputation for kindness, generosity, and straight talk.
Everything we do is for the kids. I could do a million other things besides cooking, but I do it for them. I’ve seen children go through these doors who grow up and head out to middle school, then high school, they graduate, they start their own families. They’ll come back with their kids and say “This is someone who took care of me when I went here.” You see generations of this community come through our doors.
We probably spend more time with the community and the neighborhood than we used to. Family Nights are a good example. Now that’s a popular event. It’s for the whole neighborhood. All the kids bring their uncles, their aunts, and everybody else. I love to see parents get involved here at the school. That’s what I see during Family Night.
Sometimes I go shopping at Goodwill and I might pick up a few things that I know the kids might like (points to a shelf with children’s shoes, LEGOs, puzzles and other items on it). If I see a kid who I think might need something or one who is having a bad day, I’ll take something down off the shelf and give it to them.
Some of them go through more stuff than some adults do in life. It takes special teachers and staff to relate to them. The staff here know what these kids’ lives are about. I know the kids look forward to coming to school and to the CLC.
There was one kid who was getting in trouble quite a bit. Getting yelled at, at home and having trouble at school. One day I asked him if he could take a look at some of these Lego sets I have. He’d take one, really work on it. Sometimes he’d take one home and bring it back all done. He started to gradually do better. He started to search me out to see if I needed any more “help” getting all of my Lego sets built. Sometimes it’s little things that can make a difference, I guess.
We’ve been invited to kids’ graduations, get visited by grownup students who have gone on to college. That’s community to me. That’s family.
This is my relaxation. I love my job. I look forward to coming every day. The kids are my family in a way. They know when I’m upset. They know when I’m happy. They can see right through me.
It’s so funny and so interesting to watch them grow up in front of your eyes. You never know what might turn out to be a life lesson for someone, or what someone might remember as an adult. Sometimes it’s easy to forget that we’re making memories and lessons for everyone who we watch over here.
I never really thought about how long I’d be at Sherman. I had a friend say, “You need to retire, Toni.” I could’ve retired in October. I said, what am I going to do? Go home and sit around? No, I love my job. So I’m not going anywhere.
I hope people remember me for caring about them, and knowing that I was there for them, no matter what. That I was someone to talk to, someone who gave them a safe place.
For more about Civic Nebraska’s Youth Civic Leadership programs, click here.