For most people, school is where we began to really explore the world, ourselves and where we fit in. Yes, it is where we learned to read, write, add and subtract but it was so much more. Often, elementary-aged students will choose recess as their favorite subject because that is the time for free play and visiting with friends. The schoolhouse is supposed to be a place to meet people outside of our families, learn important socialization skills, and with the addition of special area classes — art, music, library and physical education, for example — it’s a place we begin recognizing our own interests and strengths.
It should be, but with the COVID-19 pandemic, everything changed.
COVID-19 forced schools to close to in-person instruction in March and took almost all of the social and emotional growth opportunities for children with it.
Students, parents, and educators stepped up and did what was necessary to complete the 2019-2020 school year, and we held our collective breaths all summer. Most of us hoped things would return to normal in August, and we all know now it was not meant to be.
Everyone except Mary Galtney.
Galtney, armed with the keys to the Jackson Street Community Center, refused to allow COVID-19 to take any more opportunities for some children away.
Galtney has been employed by the city of Vicksburg for 23 years and has spent the last 13 of those giving area children a place to play, work, learn and grow.
“I’ve worked with the police department, youth services, and now I’m the program coordinator here at the gym. My favorite jobs have been the ones with the kids,” she said.
The pandemic forced schools to put stringent restrictions on special area classes and group activities like PE and recess. In many elementary schools in the Vicksburg Warren School District, students are confined to one classroom for most of the day. The special area teachers bring their classes to the students to prevent transmission of germs as much as possible. A few of the schools are allowing students to move to other locations in the building for some activities like library and gym, but the strict social distancing and mask mandates remain in place. For the few teachers that choose to brave the heat and visit the playground, it can only be for 10 minutes and students are not allowed to use the equipment.
Mary Galtney, though, wasn’t going to allow something like a global pandemic to affect children any more than absolutely necessary.
“Kids need to experience a variety of activities and learn to face challenges and problem solve ways to overcome things,” Galtney said. “They need to be able to play freely and learn how to play fairly in a group or on a team. I’ve been working with the Montessori school up the hill for years, and I know how much the kids benefit from coming down here.”
Agape Montessori Christian Academy is in the old Planter’s Hall building on Main Street and borders the community playground that is run by Galtney as part of the community center. Because of its proximity, students at Agape have had a place to play outdoors and a gymnasium to use when they otherwise would have done without.
Galtney said the gym is available for any community organizations’ use and has been home to events such as basketball games, exercise classes and assemblies among other things.
“A lot of people benefit from this place, but I know a lot of people don’t even realize it’s here, she said. “All they have to do is call and make arrangements.”
Initially, Galtney said she was concerned the COVID-19 restrictions would affect the Agape students being able to continue using the playground and gym, but aside from the masks and the limit on group size, she has been able to continue coaching and supervising her “kids from up the hill.”
Galtney has worked together with Lois Christian, owner of Agape, and the city for 11 years. She has witnessed the benefits of play, regular exercise and sports with children she met when they were in kindergarten and watched grow and develop into high school graduates.
“It’s bad enough what the kids have had to do because of COVID. Kids don’t get what they need being cooped up at home and not being able to visit and play with friends,” she said.
“I’m very happy the kids are still able to come here. There’s plenty of room for them to be 6 feet apart and the masks aren’t bothering them as much as when they’re outside in the heat.”
Galtney says she sees all the Agape students at least once a week. Some of the younger groups are scheduled more frequently and stay up to an hour at a time. “We stretch and warm up for a few minutes, and then I lead them in some basic exercises. I let them choose their activities for the last part of the hour,” she said.
The time she gets to spend with children is Galtney’s favorite part of the job, and it is obvious from the smiles and calls of “Hey, Miss Mary!” and “Guess what, Miss Mary? I learned to tie my shoes!” and “Miss Mary, do you wanna hula hoop with us?”
The community center includes the gymnasium, slidable bleachers, a space for a meeting or classroom, restrooms and water fountains (currently unavailable for use). Galtney has also added different types of balls, dozens of hula hoops, soft portable goals and even gigantic Connect 4-like checkers games.
“I know it’s rough on all the kids in all the schools these days,” she said. “Kids need to move. They need to play.
“I know everybody’s hands are tied and all the teachers are coming up with ways to give their students what they need. I’m very blessed to be able to give some of the kids a place where they can get away from the same four walls all the time. They need to be able to move, to learn to make choices, to explore different sports and figure out what they like to do and what they’re good at. I’m just glad the city has us here and lets me give these kids a place to do what every kid should be able to do.”
The Jackson Street Community Center is located at 803 Jackson Street in Vicksburg. Call the city’s Recreation Department at 601-634-4514 for additional information.