Cookie Lee never made more than $25,000 a year as an assistant to schoolteachers. She raised her daughter alone and still managed to pay the mortgage, put groceries on the table and save enough pennies for an annual vacation to the place she loved most: Disney World.
In that fantasy land, all the children were happy, a far cry from her real world where kids came to school hungry and in tattered clothing.
This broke Ms. Lee's heart, not her spirit. She had an extraordinary talent, recruiting community partners to donate school supplies, toiletries, clothing and shoes. At Christmas time, she polled the children at Mittye P. Locke Elementary to see what they wanted most from Santa and then got a local Harley-Davidson motorcycle club to make those dreams come true.
"Miss Cookie'' found homes for people living in cars and got donations to pay power bills. You could say this was part of her job description as "parent coordinator,'' but she took it to another level. If a child had a toothache and no money, she paid for the dentist. If a child needed extra help reading, she tutored after school. She washed clothes for people who couldn't afford appliances.
The kids loved her. She seldom missed a chance to get on their bus in the afternoon and announce how many days of school were left before summer vacation. The kids cheered.
Without question, the program that endeared her most rewarded students with perfect attendance. In 1999, her first of a dozen years at Locke Elementary, she met Jim Boyko, a New Port Richey lawyer who had three kids at the school. They hatched a program to reward a boy and a girl for perfect attendance, drawing the names from 27 finalists and presenting two new bicycles.
Even after Boyko's children no longer went to Locke, Miss Cookie called him to buy bikes. Three years ago, her last at the school, she gave out 68 new bikes and helmets and a huge hug to Boyko, who came up with $3,000.
Perfect attendance meant a lot to Miss Cookie. In October 2006 surgeons removed a cancerous tumor from her salivary glands. She underwent 36 weeks of radiation but never missed work.
She endured pain without complaint. As if she didn't already have enough to do, she partnered with women's clubs to make Easter baskets for kindergarteners. She supervised the school's safety patrol. She packaged deodorant, toothpaste and snacks for troops stationed in Iraq and Afghanistan. She arranged through the United Way for teachers at her school to have their income taxes prepared for free. Her mother, Elizabeth Krenicky, spent her final years in a local nursing home with Alzheimer's, and Miss Cookie visited her each afternoon.
Miss Cookie could rub some people the wrong way, particularly those in authority. She could be awfully stubborn and demanding. She didn't take no for an answer. "But my gosh,'' said her longtime friend and fellow instructional assistant Patty Palmer, "this woman was a saint.''
In November, cancer returned, this time in Miss Cookie's lungs. She couldn't kick it this time. But even as she faded last week, she gave her daughter Kymberly orders from her hospital bed. A family around the corner was having trouble making ends meet. She wanted them to have her 2005 Hyundai.