Tammy Waddell didn’t like attention. Over the course of 30 years working as a paraprofessional and elementary teacher with Forsyth County Schools, Waddell relished working behind the scenes for her students.
It was ironic then for Waddell’s family to see her final request in the last days of battling cancer – to have people donate backpacks filled with school supplies for children in need instead of the traditional flowers – go viral this past weekend.
Scenes from Waddell’s June 13 funeral spread across media outlets in the United States and beyond on Sunday and Monday.
“A teacher's dying wish helps hundreds of needy kids,” read a CNN headline.
“'Teacher to the end' leaves lasting legacy,” read another by a television station in Florida.
“Teacher’s Last Wish: In Lieu Of Flowers, Bring School Supplies,” read another by an outlet in Pittsburgh.
It was an ironic experience for Kevin Waddell, one of Tammy’s sons. He knew her as “a quiet person” who “pushed from behind.”
“I don’t know if she would love the attention,” Kevin Waddell said.
But he also knew his mother as a person with “a lot of compassion for the people around her,” who focused on “loving students and being there for students and kind of pushing them forward.”
Kevin Waddell became a teacher himself in part because of the impact he saw his mother have. She worked at Sawnee, Cumming and Haw Creek elementary schools, only stepping away when her cancer resurfaced this past November. Even then, she planned to continue working in local schools as a mentor after retirement.
On May 17, Tammy Waddell attended the Forsyth County Schools’ reception to honor its retiring employees. She went to Northside Hospital Forsyth the next morning. Her health dwindled during the following three weeks. At one point, doctors notified her and her family that she would pass soon.
Kevin Waddell said when his mother received the news, she began to make her own funeral arrangements, and she was adamant that people donate backpacks filled with school supplies instead of the traditional flowers.
“I thought it was pretty cool,” Kevin Waddell said, “but I don’t think any of us at that time were in our right minds to think what it was going to mean.”
Tammy Waddell passed away June 9 at 58 years old, and by the night of her first visitation, June 11, just a handful of backpacks had trickled in.
Two days later at her funeral, nearly 100 backpacks packed with supplies from friends, family and former colleagues marked the pews and filled the chapel at McDonald and Son Funeral Home.
“We thought it was something,” Kevin Waddell said, “but we didn’t think it would become what it has. Every single book bag … is just loaded with school supplies.”
Five days later, Waddell’s cousin, Brad Johnson, posted a photo of the scene on Twitter. “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.”
On Saturday, the photo surfaced on Reddit. On Sunday and Monday, media outlets across the country and beyond were spreading the story. Kevin Waddell tried to keep track of all the stories by sharing them on his Facebook page. He counted at least 30. People called him from Alabama and Texas saying they’d just seen his mother’s story on the news. He found stories from the BBC, even a media outlet in Portugal.
“I couldn’t read it,” Kevin Waddell said, “but due to the pictures and the name I knew what it was about.”
Backpacks have continued to come in from far and wide. A website for teaching resources based in Britain pledged to send a backpack. The family wasn’t sure what to do with the backpacks, but they’ve linked up with Project Connect, which delivers bags of school supplies to families in districts that feed Forsyth Central High School. Donations are still being accepted at the Forsyth County Schools building at 1120 Dahlonega Highway.
Eventually, many of the backpacks will go to students who attend Cumming and Sawnee elementary schools -- where Tammy Waddell spent nearly 26 years of her teaching career impacting the community.
“She would really be excited that she’s leaving a legacy of love,” Kevin Waddell said, “because that’s what she was all about.”