Crossing guard Alec Childress greets school children every morning on the corner of 9th and Lake streets in Wilmette, Ill. with a familiar phrase and a big smile, "Peace, I gotcha!"
But on Thursday morning, which happened to be his 80th birthday, when he showed up to the corner, he was left speechless.
He saw dozens of yard signs that read "We gotcha!! Happy Birthday, Alec!" and tie-dye balloons, a big tent full of food, and parents and kids from the community to show their support. They all shouted, "Peace, we gotcha first!" and he was shocked.
"It was awesome!" Childress told Fox News of the community surprise. "All the kids, the parents...It's beyond comprehension. I told somebody I need to sit down before I fall down."
He's been helping school kids for 14 years as a crossing guard, something he started doing just days after retirement.
"I don't bring my problems to the corner," Childress, who is also an elder in his church, explained. "My job is to make sure they get across safe and that they are shown love because you never know what kind of home they come from."
Parents Kay McBrearty, whose kids attend St. Francis Xavier (k-8), and Krista Gallagher, whose kids attend Central, a public school (k-4), co-organized the big surprise.
"Everybody starts their day out with a smile because of Alec," McBrearty told Fox News. "We wanted to surprise him from the community for bringing love, joy, and peace to this corner, Lake and 9th street, in Wilmette."
She added: "He just infuses love and all that is good. ... and I've heard stories from parents who said, 'The only reason my child made it through was because Alec put a smile on his face.'"
The kids sang "Happy Birthday," the police department presented him with an honorary road sign that read, "Alec's corner," and the community pitched in to buy him and his wife two tickets to the play Hamilton. They also put together a book of memories.
For the descendant of slaves, who shares about his challenging childhood in the South on his family's cotton farm in Mississippi with anyone who asks, today was a special day that he thanks God for.
"Receiving love that I never dreamed I would receive," he concluded. "It shows you what can happen if you go through life loving instead of hating people. I'm just grateful. Spread the love wherever you go."
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