By Janelle Richards
LEXINGTON -- Lois Hayes sat at her wooden desk and pulled out something resembling a recipe box. She took off the lid, revealing notecards filled with dates – divided by month and by day: the birthdays of her former students.
Hayes, 66, has mailed nearly 400 handwritten birthday cards to her students for the past 20 years from her home in Lexington, Miss.
It has become a weekly ritual. Using a lapboard, Hayes sits on her living room recliner, squinting through her glasses while composing notes in large, cursive handwriting.
“When I retired, I really was afraid we would not be able to send cards anymore,” Hayes told NBC News. “I buy the cards by the box and it has never been a problem, coming up with the postage or buying the cards. The Lord has provided for us, so it has been a joy to be able to do it.”
After her four children got older, she realized that she should be recognizing her students’ birthdays – not just those of her close friends. Hayes wanted her students to know that they were special and that she was thinking about them. For her, sending handwritten cards felt like “a calling.”
“It brings back memories to think of them, and what they were like when I taught them,” said Hayes who retired five years ago.
And it brings back memories for her students too.
Jessica Donald, 28, and her sisters Sara Sanders, 29, and Laura Shrock, 25, all had Hayes as their second grade schoolteacher.
“I remember her being always a very caring teacher,” said Donald. “She of course wanted us to learn. But she always made sure that we knew we were loved, and that she loved us. She always had a passion for teaching and you could see that in her every day.”
Donald eventually became a second grade teacher too, after working with Hayes during her senior year in high school.
“When I see my former students out I always try to give them a smile, or a big old hug if they’re willing,” said Donald. “I try to keep up with their lives… it’s never too late. I may pick up the tradition of sending them birthday cards.”
Some of Lois Hayes' former students on the difference she has made in their lives.
Sanders and Shrock said they find the details in Mrs. Hayes’ cards impressive, especially because Hayes remembers how old they are each year.
“I think it’s that she really shows you how dedicated she is to you and then, after you leave her class, it doesn’t end. She has really made a lifelong dedication to her students,” said Sanders.
“It’s always on time, which you can’t even say about most people. Even your own mom is sometimes late. But hers is always there, if not a day early,” Shrock added. “It’s just nice to know that someone is thinking about you and for a lot of people this might be the only card that they get, so I know it is extra special for many of her students.”
Hayes’ daughter, Natalie McKinley, 33, describes her mother as “selfless.”
“She tries to help other people before she would try to help herself,” said McKinley. “Her faith brings her to do this. It drives her to do good and to show love to other people.
When I was younger, it was just so normal for her to send these cards. Then when I got older and parents started telling me how their child was still getting a card in their 20s, I realized how special it was. I think it’s just so great, reaching out to people. You don’t get cards in the mail anymore,” said McKinley, who is the mother of a 5-year-old. “Some teachers don’t think it’s normal to get too involved with their kids… it takes a special teacher to do it.”
For the majority of Hayes’ 33-year teaching career, she taught second grade. Most of her time was spent in classrooms in Lexington, Miss., a place Hayes describes as “very much a small town. Friendly, and like one big family in a way.”
She learns which students got married recently and who has a baby on the way through word of mouth.
When neighborhood residents can’t help her track down students who have moved away, Hayes uses Facebook to find them.
“She sent me birthday cards, I can’t remember when it started, but she tracked me down all the years I was in Brazil, because I didn’t come back until I graduated from high school,” said Debbie Arnold Gyger, 52, who had Hayes as her fourth grade teacher in the late 1960s in Brazil where Hayes taught briefly after attending college.
“I just have very happy memories of her,” Gyger said. “She taught by example and showed she cared more than just teaching us facts.”
Now several of Hayes’ former students send her birthday cards, too.
“Some of my students write back, or even send pictures of their children, and tell me what’s going on in their lives and I always love that,” said Hayes. “It’s so fun to hear from them… it has been a joy to watch them grow up.”