When Granny Brooks walked into Rocketship Northeast School on Dickerson Pike on Friday, she was practically smothered with sloppy kisses, fierce hugs and lots of “Hi Granny” salutations from the elementary students there who adore her. 

This is an everyday greeting for a special lady who has volunteered her time to tutor and mentor the students in a program called the Fifty Forward Foster Grandparent Program.

Her real name is Wyvonnia Brooks, but that’s a bit hard to pronounce for elementary school students, she said with a laugh. 

“I also have a nickname of ‘Candy’ from my friends, and that’s also easier to say,” she said. “I’ll answer to anything.”

Her response back to the fledgling students who attend the high-needs school was boisterous laughter, bear hugs and, in return, lots of “Hi ya sweeties,” “Good to see you,” “How are you this morning?” “Now don’t you cry there” and many other endearments. 

She then set off to the third-grade classroom, where she sees the students every day for the entire day.

Friday was a special day for Brooks, 61, because the school where she’s been a foster grandparent for the past eight years planned a special bon voyage party for her. 

And, no, she wasn’t leaving her long tenure as Granny Brooks to the students forever. It’s a brief departure, but one that had her mentees there a bit sad because they will miss her, even if it’s just temporary.

The next day, Brooks was off to the high seas on an all-expenses-paid cruise to the New England area because she was selected as a 2019 Community Celebrity by Cabot Creamery Cooperative, the New England and New York farm-family owned dairy cooperative, as someone who makes a significant difference in her community.

She’s been a grandma buddy for years after her retirement.

“What?” said the retired Vanderbilt nurse and associate pastor. “I was astounded. I’ve never really been anywhere in my adult life.”

Brooks lives in Hermitage and moved there for refuge.

“We had a drive-by shooting where I lived in Nashville, and I wanted to be safe,” she said. “I moved to Hermitage and love this community.”

So she drives five days a week to be with her special students at Rocketship Northeast School. They depend on her, and she knows it and loves it. The commute is a blink of an eye each day. She has important work to do. She’s literally changed lives in the past eight years. 

“The Cabot farmers have a different perspective on what defines a true celebrity,” said Cabot CEO Ed Townley. “For them, the kind, giving souls who make a significant difference in their communities each and every day are the real celebrities. That’s why, in 2010, Cabot created the Community Celebrity Cruise to honor the achievements and contributions of those hard-working volunteers and to encourage more people and organizations to join us in applauding and recognizing their efforts.”

Brooks was humbled by the recognition. She already has a bounty of degrees, just to mention a doctorate in philosophy, a doctorate in theology, a master’s degree, two bachelor’s degrees and more. 

“I am truly honored to be named a 2019 Cabot Community Celebrity and look forward to being a part of what is sure to be a remarkable group of volunteers who strive to make their communities better for everyone,” said Brooks. “Years ago, a friend encouraged me to join the Foster Grandparent Program, and as soon as I started, I fell in love with the opportunities. The kids pull at my heartstrings. I had a boy who would get so frustrated…He’d tell me he couldn’t do anything. When I learned he loved music, we practiced reading using rap music together. Now he is a wonderful reader. He later told me that I was the reason he came to school.”

That’s just one of dozens and dozens of intergenerational sharing experiences through the program. The mother of four grown children and 14 grandchildren knows what it is like to struggle. She thought back to her childhood in the projects of Nashville when a friend at her church most likely changed the course of her retirement.

“She was always talking about these children,” Brooks said. “And I said what children? She told me about the Fifty Forward Foster Grandparent Program. She said, ‘Why not try it?’”

The program gave her an interview.

“I was sent to Rocketship and felt so welcome,” Brooks said.

It was a match. In the past eight years, she’s been Granny Brooks to more than 250 students who need extra help. 

“As a Foster Grandparent Program volunteer at Rocketship Northeast School, Wyvonnia embodies everything an older adult can be in our community,” said Fifty Forward executive director Sallie Hussey. “From her modest roots, she uses real-world experience and professional expertise as a retired nurse to share her love of learning to elementary school students who are falling behind. At Fifty Forward, through our programs, centers and services, we support, champion and enhance the lives of those 50 and older to encourage everyone to live their best life. We are honored to have one of our dedicated volunteers recognized by Cabot.”

Robin Johnson is the director of volunteer engagement of the Davidson County Fifty Forward. 

“Currently, there are 55 foster grandparents in our local Foster Grandparent Program,” she said. “It’s important to know these special volunteers are not ‘real’ foster parents but are mentors and tutors in the classroom. It’s so important.”

She said Granny Brooks is special and “representative of the entire group of volunteers in this program.”

“It’s an entire group of older adults who make a difference in the classroom,” Johnson said.

She said Brooks is outstanding.

“She has a unique ability to connect with children,” Johnson said. “She knows when to be tough or when to hug, when to challenge and support. It’s instinctual with her. She just has something in her.” 

It is innate, for sure.

“To do this outreach, you have to a lovely heart, be firm but understanding,” Brooks said. “We deal with diverse children; some don’t eat until school. Others have behavioral problems. Some don’t. I’m a disciplinarian. I’m their Granny. They love me. There is not one thing I would not do for them. If a shooter came into our school, I would block those bullets.”

Johnson said Brooks is one of 60 volunteers at nonprofits across the United States invited on this free cruise to celebrate their giving hearts.

Brooks’ cruise will make stops in Portland, Bar Harbor and Saint John, Maine and Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada. More than 200 volunteers have been honored thus far. 

The day before Brooks set sail she said, no, she wasn’t packed. 

“Of course not,” she quipped. “My daughter is a jetsetter and stylist. I have my clothes out on the bed to pack, but she’s probably there right now getting rid of most and putting together cruise-type outfits for me.”

She got her hair fixed special, and someone helped with her eyelashes. 

“I did my own nails,” she said with a smile.

She said she’s excited about meeting colleague volunteers.

“As you know, I don’t meet a stranger,” she said. “That’s the way I was brought up in the projects of Nashville. I don’t care where you live. My dad was a mechanic, and if someone was put out on the streets, a group of us would help out.”

Brooks is even packing a bathing suit, just in case she can swim, though, New England isn’t the warmest place this time of year.

“That’s OK,” she said. “I’m hot natured.”

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