Harlem native Mary E. Sanders dedicated more than 56 years of her life to the development and education of children.
To honor that commitment, Harlem officials recently agreed that a new community center should bear her name.
"This community center is going to be named the Miss Mary E. Sanders Community Center and Head Start/Family Connections Center," former Harlem Mayor Scott Dean said at a March 13 city council meeting.
Sanders, 95, is Harlem's oldest native. She was surprised by the honor and could only smile and hold her hand to her chest at the announcement.
"What a surprise. I don't know what to say," she said while standing with Dean and the Rev. Melvin Adams, the pastor of New Holt Baptist Church, in front of an artist's rendering of the building under construction at Harlem City Park. "This is wonderful."
Sanders admits her passion was the education of children. She spent more than half a decade preparing them for success in life starting in 1932 as a teacher in a McDuffie County one-room schoolhouse.
"You taught everything and knew everybody," Sanders said.
Harlem and much of the surrounding area was then mostly farms and gardens. Children, especially boys, were often kept out of school to work on the family farm, she said.
Sanders was hired by Columbia County School Superintendent John Pierce Blanchard to teach at Pollard Academy, an elementary school, in 1954. She was named the school's principal in 1958. When George T. White Elementary School was built, the pupils were relocated to the new school, which exclusively catered to first- through fourth-grade boys.
"(Teaching) is a task ," Sanders said. "And you have to love it to do it in order to stay in it."
Sanders then served 17 years as the principal of North Harlem Elementary School, where the library was named in her honor shortly after her 1988 retirement.
Retirement didn't keep Sanders from being involved with education. She ran for a seat as a school trustee and earned a spot on the school board, becoming the first black elected official in Columbia County since Reconstruction.
"I am indeed a Columbia Countian," Sanders said. "I don't know anybody who can do it like Columbia County."
But Harlem needs something like the community center, especially with working parents and children much different than when she began teaching, she said.
"Children have changed," she said. "It is a little bit harder to work with children than it used to be. It really is. They do more thinking on their own. They don't accept much leading. They are something else."
Sanders said she's glad programs such as Head Start and Community Connections are there to help prepare children for school and help them develop intellectually and morally.
Plans for the $600,000 building, paid for through state grants and city funds, include office, classroom and meeting space for Community Connections and Head Start and shared a conference room and restrooms.
Julie Miller, the Community Connections executive director, said the location will be especially convenient because children will be able to enjoy the park as well.
Construction is to finish this summer, before the 2008-09 school year begins.
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