By Nancy Winckler-Zuniga
Originally published in The Florida Times-Union
Linda Kittles decided retirement wasn’t going to diminish her passion for helping young people succeed in school. So, after 37 years as a Duval County Public School teacher, she became a mentor through United Way of Northeast Florida’s Achievers For Life initiative.
“I missed the kids,” Kittles said.
Kittles touched the lives of hundreds of students and teachers over the years. Being part of a community effort to help young people was important to her to continue even in retirement.
“Sixth grade is my passion,” Kittles said. “Sixth graders you can mold. Seventh graders are suspended in air, and wherever they land is where they start – sometimes that’s never, never land. And eighth graders just think they’re grown.”
United Way’s Achievers For Life initiative, in partnership with Big Brothers Big Sisters of Northeast Florida, pairs at-risk middle-school students with adult mentors, who help mentees pursue their dreams and show them academic pathways to success.
Kittles has been paired with Monye through all of Monye’s middle-school grades and stages. She’s had the opportunity to watch Monye change and grow over the years and she’s proud Monye asked to continue their partnership after middle school.
“I’ve been trying to get her to utilize the adults around her,” Kittles said. “If I can help her communicate with her teachers and others around her, there’s no excuse for not solving a problem. There are steps you can take; you can go through channels.”
Kittles knows the value of working together with others. She said her own success reflects a well-known saying: “It takes a village.”
Whether it was growing up in a family where everyone chipped in to make ends meet or the special inspiration she received from a teacher in third grade, Kittles learned it takes many people to help a child succeed.
“My problem was silent letters,” Kittles said. “I kept reading the word ‘island’ wrong. My teacher made me write it and say it. When I finally got it, tears were streaming, and the other children were cheering. I remember the white dress I was wearing with the watermelon halves and seeds. My grandmother had made that dress for me, and I can still see that moment now.”
Being surrounded by family, friends and those who shared her faith also helped Kittles when she lost her only son in 1985. He was a bright young man who died from an unknown heart condition during his senior year at Raines High School.
Kittles has taken her experiences and channeled them into mentoring in her community through Achievers For Life and other neighborhood initiatives.
“Teaching, mentoring, was what I was put on this earth to do,” Kittles said. “When you’re in your purpose, you can see positive change happen.”