NEW PORT RICHEY — Jeanne Regueros sits nimbly on the little kid chairs at Primary Prep Preschool, her knees against the low tables. Her broad smile invites children to join her for reading, sorting blocks or working a jigsaw puzzle.
"Can you find a yellow block?" she challenges Kaylin Clark, 3, extending an open palm, waiting for Kaylin's selection.
Kaylin digs in a plastic bin for a yellow cube, then grins into the smiling eyes of the lady everyone calls "Ms. Jeanne."
Regueros, who retired in 1988 from Jovan cosmetics in Chicago, has spent the past 23 years working full-time at the school, dispensing grandmotherly love in healthy doses.
"People who are retired can do so much to help other people," said Regueros, 86.
Primary Prep founder Diane Corbett puts it even stronger: "Ms. Jeanne is the glue that holds things together here."
In fact, it almost seems as if she's covered in glue, the way preschoolers attach themselves to her. Children crowd to her, eager for her positive thoughts. She knows the names of the nearly five dozen children at the school, and she also knows many of their parents. In some cases that's easy, because many siblings have attended Primary Prep since the doors opened in the fall of 1986.
Regueros was born in Boston and grew up in Queens as an only child. She says her mother saw her deep love for children and hoped Regueros would have children of her own.
That hope was fulfilled: Regueros has two sons, three daughters and five grandchildren, all spread across the country.
Regueros earned a bachelor's degree in psychology from Queens College, City University of New York, and taught four years in Long Island, working with kindergartners in a low-income housing project.
"I loved working with those children. They needed so much," said Regueros, who earned her master's in education at Hofstra University at age 45.
A second marriage took her to Chicago. After her official "retirement" in 1988 from the cosmetics company, she moved to Florida to care for her ill mother. After her mother's death, Regueros found Primary Prep. She thought helping as a teacher's aide would be satisfying.
"It was homey here, and Diane and I hit it off right away," said Regueros, who now works mainly in the office but fills in wherever needed, in classrooms or on the playground.
Corbett bubbles with enthusiasm when she speaks of Ms. Jeanne.
"She's been and is a mature, stable figure here with an almost motherlike appearance, and children see her as a grandmother figure," said Corbett, who sold the school in 2002 to her daughter, Terri Lisk-Penhale.
Regueros has no plans to leave Primary Prep, though she has plenty of things away from the preschool to keep her busy: reading, swimming and friends to enjoy. But the preschool with the children is where she really feels at home.
"With this school, I have a reason to get up in the morning. I'll come until the place falls or as long as they will have me," she said with a laugh.
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction: Jeanne Regueros is an employee who helps wherever she's needed at Primary Prep Preschool. An earlier version of this story incorrectly described her role.