CHAMPAIGN — Both in and out of the classroom, Barbara Gillespie has spent most of her life working to make life better for children, but she says that she doesn’t have to think about doing service for others.
That’s why she was so surprised to be recognized with a Winding Ivy Award for youth leadership development from the Epsilon Epsilon Omega chapter of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority Inc.
“I was just elated, thrilled, excited, somewhat lost for words because it’s kind of whimsical thinking about receiving an award of this magnitude,” Gillespie said. “It kind of invigorated me.”
Gillespie traces her impulse to help others in her community to her Christianity and to her parents who modeled the same behavior.
Still, she wasn’t always so willing to connect with new people.
“I was so, so shy, but when I tell people that they say, ‘Do you have any more jokes?’” Gillespie said.
Gillespie said that her parents encouraged her and her siblings all to go to college and get out of their shells, but she was shy on into her teaching career.
Her personal interest in the topic led her to provide science lessons to her elementary students at a time when only around 17 percent of elementary classes were being taught science.
It took some effort, but the school’s principal convinced her to share her science knowledge with other classes, which ended up being the first step to helping other teachers across the Urbana school district and beyond.
“Somebody encouraged me to do something I didn’t think I could do,” Gillespie said. “I’m kind of paying it forward, like with my ACT-SO kids, by staying with them, encouraging them, always expecting the best from them.”
When Gillespie joined the local NAACP, the Afro-Academic, Cultural, Technological and Scientific Olympics did not exist, so she eventually helped to found the local chapter.
ACT-SO is a youth organization through the NAACP that creates leadership and academic competition opportunities for young Black people in order to encourage them to step up in those areas.
Gillespie continues to serve as the chair of ACT-SO, where she forms personal relationships with the kids involved.
“We want to plant the best in our kids. Let them realize their abilities, because sometimes kids don’t realize how valuable they are,” Gillespie said. “They’re kind of like diamonds that have to be mined and then polished and shined.”
She uses that same philosophy in the classroom and said that the kids who she had to be the toughest on would be the first to run up and say “hi” when she sees them years later.
One example of helping an individual student that Gillespie remembers is when she noticed a boy in her class who would come in looking discouraged and would never participate.
Gillespie started specifically asking him questions she knew he could answer until he started to raise his own hand and even made him her “helper” so she could ask him to do things around the classroom.
“I would make sure there were opportunities for him to see himself as positive, as growing, as learning,” Gillespie said.
She could see the boy getting more confident, but his mother’s reaction surprised her.
“We had a parent teacher conference. She said, ‘What did you do to my kid? There was a time he didn’t want to go to school, and now I can’t get him to school fast enough,’” Gillespie said.
Other ways she remembers helping students involved the entire class, especially when she could get them to understand how what they were learning in school would help them in real life.
For example, she would point out how they needed to know math to choose a TV channel or identify their favorite football player.
Some class events got pretty big, like when she had all the kids bring their passports and join her on a trip to Africa.
“One parent said, ‘Miss Gillespie, I love you, but I can’t let my kid go to Africa with you,’” Gillespie said.
They didn’t have to worry — the students never left the school building for their “vacation.”
“I had the janitors transform the gym into an airplane and put up a big screen so we could watch movies on the plane,” Gillespie said. “I had ‘waitresses’ from the fifth grade come and serve us, and when they came back the next week we had transformed the classroom into Africa.”
From multicultural food to experts on various topics from the University of Illinois to showing how different subjects connect to each other, Gillespie isn’t afraid to think outside the box.
“If we can help students realize who they are and what they can accomplish in life, it makes a difference in how they see themselves,” Gillespie said.