LYNCHBURG, Va. – When Mand’ze Dyke walked across the stage at her graduation from E.C. Glass High School in 2013, Gretta Ford was there.
When Dyke was in preschool at Court Street United Methodist Church, Ford was there.
“Ms. Gretta was everyone’s cheerleader, and the moment I saw her after graduation and got to walk up to hug her, just going back from memories since I first started school and up until now, (I remembered) she always rooted for me and always welcomed me with a smile and let me know she cared,” Dyke said.
Ford, now the head custodian at E.C. Glass, continues to inspire students and staff members to do their best as she walks the halls of the school saying hello to everyone she sees.
After graduating from Heritage High School in 1989, Ford spent years working in daycare settings such as Wonderful World of Children and Court Street United Methodist Church before starting a part-time custodian position at both Dearington Elementary School for Innovation and Linkhorne Middle School almost 20 years ago.
Ford also served as a heating and air conditioning technician for Lynchburg City Schools and was the first woman in the division’s mechanical department.
“In the maintenance department, being the heating and air conditioning tech is where I really think I flourished in Lynchburg City Schools because instead of being in one location, I got to get out and see everybody and see what went on in all the schools in Lynchburg city,” Ford said.
Linkhorne Middle School English teacher Patty Webb, whose daughters went to Dearington Elementary when Ford started with LCS, said while Ford was a technician “she wasn’t in the school the same way, but her heart was with the kids.”
“Principal after principal and teacher after teacher came to rely on Gretta to be the one to love every child, and that’s what she does,” Webb said. “She treats every child like they’re her own.”
In 2013, the head custodian job at E.C. Glass opened, and Ford said people in the division’s central office and Glass administrators told her to take the job.
“With the agreement that I gave myself one year when I started at Glass, if I didn’t think I was making a difference, I was going to go back to heating and air conditioning,” Ford said. “I’ve been (at Glass) ever since.”
As Ford progressed in her career, she said it was fulfilling to watch the students do the same in their education.
“The amazing part is watching them walk across the stage when a lot of them come (to Glass) in ninth grade and have no idea if they’re going to make it because they’ve been told most of their life they’re not,” Ford said.
Harry Pannell, a 2011 E.C. Glass graduate, said Ford was “one of the most motivational and inspiring assets to the community.”
“She taught self respect (and) discipline, provided encouragement and through her work and support offered and displayed dedication to the youth,” Pannell said. “Everyone remembers Ms. Gretta.”
Pannell and Dyke’s mother, Kimberly Dyke-Harsley, said Ford related well to students and parents.
“I knew that she upheld the same expectations that I did as a parent and many other parents did. You felt comfortable and an element of safety knowing someone from the community was present,” said Dyke-Harsley, who’s known Ford for about 20 years as her kids were going through LCS.
E.C. Glass Assistant Principal Rose Flaugher said Ford “bleeds blue” and is a “true Hilltopper” as a leader in the school.
“When you come into work every day you want to love the people that you’re working with. You can’t do what we do every day without working well and loving each other. Gretta is an integral part of that. I can’t say how much we depend on her every day,” Flaugher said.
Ford continually gets involved in school committees, events and more outside her responsibilities as head custodian. She serves on the senior class committee, leadership committee and is a JROTC sponsor. She also attends after-school activities such as sporting events and “anything else to support the children here at E.C. Glass,” Ford said.
As an “integral part of the school,” Flaugher said the school’s administration asked Ford to be part of the Virginia Tiered Systems of Supports (VTSS) team because they value her input. VTSS is a program designed to address the needs of all students by focusing on their behavior, academic performance and social-emotional support.
In contrast to her “country living,” which stems from being raised in Appomattox, Ford said moving to Lynchburg after her junior year of high school was an eye-opening experience.
“As I got older and got into the daycare settings is when I found out that a lot of children have no support. They raise themselves. They’re just looking for love,” Ford said. “So sometimes being in the provider role or in the setting as an adult to show someone care and compassion and love, sometimes that’s all they need.”
As she walks the halls every day, Ford greets every student or staff member she sees. Ford said she lets students and staff members vent to her about stress, problems they’re having and more.
“The reason I keep going every day is because if I don’t, who’s going to do it? If I’m not here to encourage the kids, if I’m not here to be the voice of the children who don’t have anybody that cares for them, if I’m not here to let them know there’s light at the end of the tunnel, who’s going to do it?”
After the final bell every day, Ford makes her way outside, hugging a few students and saying goodbye as she passes them.
With a safety vest and stop sign in hand, Ford dashes out to the middle of Langhorne Road to stop traffic so buses can pull out of the school driveway.
As bus after bus drives past, some drivers honk at Ford as she waves goodbye to the students.
“When I come in here every day, the whole thing is make a difference in one person’s life,” Ford said. “If I can be the light at the end of somebody’s tunnel, that’s all that matters to me.”