By Jennifer Lang
If Blanche Vantol always has a smile, it’s because she loves what she does.
She’s a school crossing guard, and her enthusiasm exudes out of every pore.
Twice a day, five days a week, she choreographs a complex ballet outside Ecole Martha Currie Elementary School as the nearly 600 students – along with parents and grandparents picking them up or dropping them off by car or foot – make their way across 184 Street.
“It’s really been a privilege to just do my bit. It just makes my day,” smiles Vantol, a former businesswoman who came out of retirement to volunteer as a crossing guard at the school two blocks from her 58A Avenue home of 30 years.
During her first shift in November 2008, a surprised little preschooler told her, “You used to be a man!”
They all know her now, and whether they call her Madame Blanc (to the French immersion students) or Mrs. Blanche, everyone seems to adore her.
They trust her, too.
“The only reason I let my daughter walk to school is because I know she’s safe,” says parent Jennifer Criddle, whose eight-year-old daughter attends Martha Currie.
Vantol greets many of her young charges by name – their adult caregivers, too – and everyone from the tiniest preschooler in a stroller to passing motorists who drive the route regularly receives one of her trademark smiles.
“I’m out there two hours a day, so there’s lots of time to get to know people,” she says. “It really brings structure to my day.”
In return there’s lots of hellos, gossip and even hugs for this multitasking blonde – an enviable, but undeniable distraction.
Her goal is to keep cars and trucks flowing smoothly while allowing children to cross 184 Street safely.
Stationed at “the corner” at the crosswalk, her eagle eyes don’t miss a thing. “Drivers are pretty good when they see me,” she says.
Much of her role is non-verbal, she says: “I use a lot of body language and hand signals.”
The 15 minutes before and after school, “when everyone’s either coming or leaving,” can be intense.
Dealing with the kids who are late is particularly challenging: They’re rushing because they don’t want to miss the bell – and so intent on their goal of getting to school they forget about traffic safety or the threat of getting hit by a car.
Fortunately, Mrs. Blanche/Mme Blanc is there to help.
“I’ve now saved about five kids from running right out into traffic, catching them just at the last moment,” she says. “There was one parent who gave me a movie pass [in gratitude]. I said, ‘Thank you.’ It is just an enjoyable job.”
Vantol recently received what she describes as a “lovely and much sought after trophy” among the crossing guards of South Surrey and White Rock.
It’s the coveted Frontiersmen Competition Cup, handed out by Frontiersmen of the Commonwealth, B.C Command, the organization that invests school crossing guards in B.C.
This the first time anyone from Cloverdale has won and it came as a complete shock to Vantol, who didn’t even realize she was up for the annual award.
So when she was called up to receive the 2011 trophy during a meeting, it came as a great surprise, she says.
She’s been told it’s awarded for keeping proper time sheets and a neat, orderly uniform and for showing up.
“For a novice I haven’t done half bad!” she jokes.
Vantol she didn’t set out to become the best.
She just wanted to give something back to her community.
“I found that when I was retired, I became quite isolated. This has just changed that completely,” she says.
“I’m out in my neighbourhood.”
It’s a huge volunteer commitment, but one that’s not without its rewards.
She now volunteers with the school’s reading program, too. As a school crossing guard, she’s asked to do volunteer work. Crossing guards help at Remembrance Day services and at the soap box derby in Cloverdale and other community events.
“A large part of what we do is volunteering,” she says.
Understandably, she receives a lot of gifts at Christmas and at the end of the year. “They’re pretty happy with me, for the most part,” she says of the school community.
Are they ever.
“We also have to congratulate and thank Blanche, our ever present and perpetually friendly crossing guard, for winning the Surrey and White Rock award for the best in the business,” school principal Mike Gordon said in December.
“We already knew it, but now everybody knows. Thanks, Blanche!”
In the summer, Vantol works in her greenhouse or in the garden. She has a husband, three sons, a daughter-in-law and one grandson.
“I have a full life.”