LeMoyne Gardens in Harlingen remembers Miss Ann through tears

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From left: Ann Phillips, Hilda Gathright, and John Phillips, Anns husband, seen in this undated photo. (Courtesy Photo)

HARLINGEN — “Miss Ann! Miss Ann!”

The children rush toward her with joy and hugs, drawn by her smile and her warmth and her youthful demeanor.

“Miss Ann! Miss Ann!” they say again, and Ann Phillips invites them into the kitchen at the LeMoyne Gardens Unit of the Boys and Girls Clubs of Harlingen to bake cookies or cakes.

Or to the “cricket” room to make mugs for Mother’s Day or some other craft, or to Chick-fil-A, or SpaceX, or the zoo.

Ann Phillips died unexpectedly on Sept. 22. It was a peaceful death and a quiet death, but shocking to everyone for this woman aged 77 who still moved about with the vitality and the manner of a young girl or a woman in her 20s.

She went into the hospital for a simple procedure with plans to get back to LeMoyne within a few days. But she never made it home, and her death sent waves of sadness through the kids, said Arlette Mares, 11.

“She was the best,” said Arlette, a sixth grader at Vernon Middle School who has known Miss Ann her entire life.

“She would take us to the pool, and after the pool we went to Chick-fil-A,” Arlette says, looking down with a look of solemn remembrance.

“Last time she took us to Dave & Buster’s in McAllen,” she continues. “She tried to make it to my dance recital at Noche de Bellas Artes. She wasn’t able to come but she was going to come.”

Miss Ann was the one who coordinated the Christmas parties at LeMoyne, and the Valentines Day activities. She never forgot a birthday, she gave the kids Christmas cards, she was the tall slender woman with the eyes and the smiles that lit up the club and the kitchen where she baked with the kids.

She’s left a permanent mark on the club and the kids; photos and videos show her always with a radiance and a sort of celebrative energy.

“I’m Ann Phillips, and I’m a volunteer here at the Boys and Girls Club at LeMoyne Gardens with Project Learn” she says in a video taken in the club kitchen.

She speaks with a smoothness of her movements, the way she turns with a playfulness and a grace captivating in its honesty, the way she emphasizes her words with her chin moving sharply onto her shoulder, the way she put her hand on her hip.

The thing most peculiar is that Miss Ann wasn’t aging. She had the quickness and the agility of someone much younger. Perhaps the charm of her youthful presence and her knowledge and capacity and tenderness of a grandmother drew people to her. Or perhaps it was so much more.

It was impossible to not like — and love — Miss Ann.

Ann Phillips is seen in this undated photo wearing a Christmas tree costume to one of the many Christmas parties she helped plan at the LeMoyne Gardens Unit of the Boys and Girls Club of Harlingen. (Courtesy Photo)

In the video in the kitchen she reveals her sunny personality as she introduces Arlette and another girl who have joined her for a baking session.

“These are my assistants, my sweet girls at the Boys and Girls Club here,” she says, embracing them as they wave and say hi.

The kids at the club quickly refer to their time in the kitchen with her. Sophia Aguilar, 8, and Laura Gutierrez, 7, sit at a round table in the kitchen which so often has been covered with fine culinary delights Miss Ann has cooked with the kids.

“She always used to cook with us the best things,” says Laura in her tiny and crystalline voice.

Sophia, sitting low in her chair and looking down, adds, “Nachos, cookies, spaghetti.”

Laura: “Oh yeah, the favorite thing, cakes.”

“She made the best cakes,” Sophia says.

And then Laura stops and looks at her. “Sophia?’

Sophia’s face is flushed, and huge tears build up in her eyes and fall onto her cheeks.

Laura reaches out to her. “She loved you, she’s in your heart. She loved us. She cared about us.”

“She wanted everything for us,” Sophia says.

Throughout the club on this sad day children break into the snapping laughter of small voices and teenage boys with their bold declarations and the kids in the game room shout with joy and frustration as video games rumble and bang and explode.

For many who have known her, it is the laughter and play and shouting of children unable yet to comprehend the loss of Miss Ann.

“I can’t talk about it,” says one boy. “I’ll start crying and I don’t want to cry.”

“It hasn’t hit them yet,” says Hilda Gathright, unit director of the LeMoyne club. She indicates it hasn’t fully “hit” her either.

And now she herself pauses to reflect.

“She would say, “I am going to the cricket room to do some project,’” she remembers. “’I have an idea and we are going to do some mugs.’ So the girls would go in there with her.”

Earlier in the day she’d gone into the cricket room.

“I was cleaning and moving stuff around, there were things she had cut up to help the girls,” she recalls. “She would say, ‘Hilda, I will be there at 3:30 to do something for the girls.”

Ayren Contreras-Mendoza remembers her as a supporter and mentor and advice giver through troublesome times.

“One time I wanted to play football, but I couldn’t because I broke my arm,” remembered Ayren, 10. “She was encouraging me, she was helping me with the injury, to play soccer.”

No one had believed in Cristian Pena until he met Miss Ann.

“She believed in everybody,” says Cristian, 12, a sixth grader at Vernon Middle School.

She could make “hard stuff” easier.

“I was doing my math homework and didn’t understand any of it,” he says. “She said let me help.”

And so she did.

The kids and staff at LeMoyne Gardens will carry these things with them through the years and decades of their lives. They’ll remember the Christmas parties when she and her husband John wore Christmas tree costumes and danced with them. They’ll remember the cooking, the crafts, the trips to the pool and Chick-fil-A. They’ll remember her gentle counsel and direction and her ability to simplify the complex and the frustrating into step by step processes the kids could understand.

But most of all, they’ll remember Miss Ann, who laughed and loved and encouraged everyone, empowering the lives they were meant to live.

As she herself once said, “I love being with kids. It has been extremely rewarding for me because I think I get more out of it than I give.”