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By Donna Cipolloni

Tester staff writer

After serving nearly 30 years as NAS Patuxent River’s Director of Child and Youth Programs, Phyllis Leighton — known to thousands of kids throughout the years as “Miss Phyllis” — officially retires today.

With years of teaching experience and some administrative know-how behind her, Leighton was hired as program director on March 17, 1986. She was ready for some new challenges in her life at that time, and felt the position was a nice fit.

“I was told in my interview that I wouldn’t have much interaction with the children, but I made sure I did,” she said. “I stood at the door every morning to greet them as they came in so that they, and their parents, could see who I was and get to know me. I had to learn a lot of new things and I had wonderful mentors; but there were things I changed when I came into the program.”

There were many changes over the years; some spearheaded by Leighton, and some directed by policy.

What started as one teacher and one aide per classroom, turned into two teachers per classroom; early childhood and school aged care children were moved to separate buildings from one another; changes in job classification and better salaries meant a higher caliber of incoming employees who stayed for longer periods of time; Pax River served as the forefront for pilot training programs; curriculum-based training was introduced; computers began being used in the classrooms for lesson plans, observation and assessment; a child care foodservice program evolved; Military Family Life Consultants with social services and behavioral specialist backgrounds came on board; the program earned its first accreditation in 1996; and the newly constructed state-of-the-art Child Development Center opened in 2013.

But throughout all that and more, what Leighton remembers most are the children who passed through the doorways and shared a part of their lives with her and her staff.

“We care for children from six weeks to 18 years of age,” she said. “Some stayed with us briefly while their parents were stationed here at Pax; others stayed for years if their parents were DOD employees. Some are married now with children of their own — and those kids are coming through the program. I’ve had a lot of wonderful experiences, especially with the children.”

One memory Leighton shared was the lone red-haired girl in a classroom of boys who sometimes had trouble fitting in with her classmates.

“We’d walk together in the halls and talk about how difficult it is to be 2 years old,” Leighton said.

There were amusing stories about the boy who added an expletive to the Pledge of Allegiance; and another boy whose dad took over cooking duties after his mom was deployed. When Leighton asked him about his dad’s culinary specialty, the boy replied, ‘He does okay with milk.’”

But perhaps there’s one story that will always tug a little harder at the heart strings. Fortunately, neglect is not something Leighton has seen much of, but she does recall one little boy, many years ago.

“He’d show up wearing the same dirty clothes,” she said. “One time, before Christmas, we asked the children in his classroom what they’d want from Santa if they could have only one gift. Of course we heard the usual — Barbie, GI Joe, games, toys — until we came to that young boy. All he wanted was his own pair of socks.”

Leighton, with help from others around the base, granted him that wish and more.

Over the course of her career, “respect” has been her buzz word. Love the kids, nurture the kids, guide the kids but, above all, respect them.

“I expect teachers to have respect for each child as a unique individual,” she stated.

In 2006, Leighton was awarded the Navywide Director of the Year honor, but she’s quick to share the accolades with the staff that supported her.

“This is not about one person; it’s an accumulation of the people who work with me that makes the difference. We were all extremely proud of that award, although I’m taking it with me when I leave,” she said, laughing.

Fair winds and following seas, Miss Phyllis. Enjoy your retirement. You’ve earned it.