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Book bags requested by late teacher delivered to school
book bags
Mike, left, and BJ Waddell, right, deliver book bags filled with school donated in memory of Tammy Waddell, a late Forsyth County teacher whose last request for the bags went viral online, at Cumming Elementary School on Wednesday. - photo by Kelly Whitmire

Tammy Waddell served as a paraprofessional and teacher in Forsyth County Schools for more 30 years and is continuing to serve students with her last request.

A photo showing donated book bags filled with school supplies – in lieu of flowers – from Tammy Waddell’s June 13 funeral went viral, reaching news sources as far away as the United Kingdom and Portugal.

On Monday, her husband, Mike, and son BJ delivered about 50 of the book bags to Cumming Elementary, one of the schools where she worked. BJ Waddell said his mom’s reaction would likely have been bittersweet.

“She would be incredibly embarrassed,” he said. “She was one of the most humble people. She would be excited about so many kids being helped, but she would be really embarrassed that her name is tied to it. She would have the sense of pride, but she never wanted credit for stuff. She just wanted to do the right thing.”

The online frenzy started a few days after Tammy Waddell’s funeral when her cousin, Brad Johnson, posted a photo from the funeral on Twitter showing dozens of filled backpacks at the funeral. “My cousin’s final request at her funeral was backpacks full of supplies for needy students instead of flowers,” it read. “A teacher to the end.”

BJ Waddell said he was on vacation without cellphone service when the post went viral.

“I found the one place where you get free public Wi-Fi in Grand Caymans. I just pulled my phone up after several days without internet access, it just blew up,” he recalled. “[My wife and I] sat there and cried in a little hallway about all the chaos that was going on, the positive chaos.”

As the story spread across the world, donations began coming back to Forsyth County.

“These came from all over the country and the world,” BJ Waddell said. “We actually got a package from Great Britain with several book bags in it, also. This is a global initiative.”

On Monday, the bags were being delivered to Cumming Elementary School’s Cougar Closet, where in-need students and their families can grab food, clothing, shoes, school supplies and other items.

“It’s an opportunity for our families to come and utilize a resource within the school so they’re not having to go outside,” said Amy Gamez, a school social worker. “If a kid comes to school and his shoes are worn out and he needs some new shoes, he can come here and we can help him out.”

Gamez said donations like the book bags means one less thing to worry about for students, such as finding items “because we have it now and the needs can be met.”

“I feel like we have a super supportive community,” Gamez said. “We have amazing nonprofits in our community that help students in need. I feel like we have a great support system with our team, at least with the social workers. If there’s a need that we’re trying to meet, typically we are just a phone call away from someone that can help me with that need, which is amazing and speaks volumes to our community and the generosity.”

Since his mom’s funeral, BJ Waddell said his had received “countless” emails, messages and texts from those who knew her.

“Not just her, but all teachers don’t ever get the credit they deserve for the influence and the impacts that they make in so many lives,” he said.

One story that particularly stuck out was a card from a former student who had struggled with a learning disability before taking his mother’s class.

“That girl was able to learn how to read and is in college now and doing reading really well in academics and life,” he said. “The effort and attention my mom put into this one particular student really touched her mom, so the student’s mom ended up going back to school and became a teacher and is now a teacher in the county.”

More than a month after the funeral the Waddell family is still being contacted by those wanting to host a similar program. BJ Waddell said there are also plans for a scholarship in her name through the local school system.

“As of right now, I’m not sure where this is going to end,” he said. “As long as it’s going, we’re going to continue to do good in her name.”