A woman known locally by thousands of students, parents and personnel from all the school districts, Cherri "Mama" Mertz has a gift that is incredibly uncommon these days.
With attributes such as kindness, sincerity, humility, persistence and leadership, it is what she is able to accomplish with the combination of these that make her special. In fact, one might want to throw generous in there too. Generosity defines "Mama Mertz."
An 18-year veteran of the Hot Springs School District, who currently works as a registrar at Hot Springs Junior Academy, Mertz has come to form lifelong friendships with generations of children. As former district employee, Cheryl Poole said, "Her heart's focus has been and still is the students that pass through the front school doors of the building where she works."
If a student or family needs help with food, medical care, utilities, or even to meet them at Dillard's on a Sunday night to pick out a pair of pants for a job interview the next morning -- as she did for one former student -- they come to her. Validating the exceptionality of her character -- they feel completely comfortable coming to her.
Mertz has never sat down and talked with anyone about her life and why she does what she does, until recently.
"You know, I guess it's just, growing up I always saw kindness from my mom. Of course, I am who I am because she made me sweet and kind, but I remember at a young age, her taking us to the Angel Tree," she said.
Noting her mother could not "just go and pick out an angel," but wanted to learn about the families on the tree, she saw that genuine warmth and goodness in action.
"She had to call Channel 4 and say, 'Tell me more about this family,'" she said.
Upon finding more out about the family and doing a lot of shopping, they would drive to the family's home and watch, inconspicuously from a distance, as Santa Claus brought a delivery truckload of presents.
"And I remember them just being in awe," she said. "They signed up on an angel tree and wanted a couple things, but my mom put all of her resources together and we'd do these things. I just remember, as a child, thinking, 'Ohh,' 'I'm going to be that girl.' Like, 'I want to make somebody's day like that.'"
Growing up in North Little Rock, Mertz had a long career in retail sales management in Texas before eventually making her way to Hot Springs in 2001. Her parents had retired there and after her father died, she and her son, Peyton, moved to be closer with her mother.
On being known as "Mama Mertz," she said it just seemed to stick one day.
"I remember a parent coming to me one day and saying 'Mama Mertz.' And I don't even know where the 'Mama' came from. I feel like somebody just said 'Mama' one day and all of a sudden it stuck. I've just built those relationships and they just last. I remember a mom coming to me one day and saying, 'I've got eight kids in my house, Mama Mertz, I need some help.' And I said, 'What do you need?' And she said, 'Groceries.' And I said, 'OK.' I said, 'Give me the day.' And I remember getting on the phone and calling the chamber, I remember calling the mayor, I remember calling everybody and saying, 'OK, I need help.' And you turn around, and I met that mom at 3:30 with a car full of stuff," she said.
Working at the school has given her an opportunity to fulfill who she feels she truly is. She said everyone wants to help, but is not always in a position in which they know how. An active volunteer in the community, Mertz served two terms as past president of the Hot Springs Women's Chamber of Commerce. She was also named the Hot Springs Women's Chamber of Commerce Woman of the Year, the Hot Springs Greater Chamber of Commerce Woman of the Year 2010, Hot Springs St. Patty's Queen 2012, co-chair of the United Way Annual Fund Raising Committee, CASA Board director, and the first winner of the Hot Springs Chamber of Commerce Dancing for a Cause to raise in excess of $10,000.
Being so involved in the community, she noted, has allowed her to help so many people due to the strong relationships she has formed.
"I remember sitting in the office and somebody calling and saying, 'Do you know of anyone having a coat drive?' And I was like, 'No ma'am, but tell me what's going on?' 'Well, I got three kids and they need coats.' I was like, 'OK.' Well, I go to the women's chamber and I'm like, 'I need everybody in here,' you know? Here's the thing, I don't know everything, but I know everyone. I can't do everything but everybody can do something," she said.
She said she remembers standing in front of the chamber, asking for everyone to pitch in $10 for the coat drive.
"Because I don't want one person to buy a coat, but if we all pull together, everybody can do something and we can buy a coat," she said. "So we did a coat drive. Well, I turn around and there's a hundred coats. So now I'm on to something. And I have so many families and people I've met over the years that I've built these connections with, and so when there's a need, it's easy for me to meet."
Perhaps the most exhausting day in the life of Mama Mertz came when a local single mother with nine children were evicted from their home. One of the children was a good friend of her son, Peyton's, and she received a call one day at work saying that they were being evicted with no place to go.
"I had swore that I wasn't going to get close to this family but you can't help it. I mean, they're kids and they're amazing. And so I go over there and sure enough, the landlord's there and going to evict them," she said.
Someone was being sent to remove their things as plans to contact the Department of Human Services were underway. She said, fortunately, she knew the police officer on the scene.
"I said, 'We're not calling DHS.' And I said, 'Give me 30 minutes.' I got on the phone and called every single coach in the district and said I need coaches and trucks at Oaklawn Street. And I remember the policeman looking at me and saying, 'Where you going?' And I was like, 'Well, I guess they're going home with me.' And he was like, 'I'm sorry what? Like, there's 10 of them.' And I said, 'Yeah, they're going home with me,'" she said.
As the coaches loaded up the trucks, she loaded up the kids with her in her vehicle. She then texted about five people and told them the situation.
"I said, 'I'm taking this family home with me. I need detergent and cereal.' And by the time we got home, I had friends there with food and detergent and all the things. And they were with me for nine weeks until we found them a house. Everybody's like, 'Why would you do that?' And I'm like, 'Why wouldn't ... what was I supposed to do?' I don't know what it is but it's like, I can't imagine if somebody wasn't there to help me. Like, what was that mother going to do? Where was she going to go, with nine kids?" she said.
Mertz's favorite quote in life is that "Your children will become who you are, so be who you want them to be." She said if a student does not have a mother telling them they can do better, she is going to tell them they can do better.
"I'm going to be that person in everybody's life that I can be that makes a difference," she said
Amy Bramlett-Turner, one of Mertz's former students and now best friend, who serves as the dance instructor for Hot Springs School District, noted the impact that she has had on her life and that she "makes the impossible possible." She saw the giving heart that she had early on and said, "It didn't matter who it was, a kid or an adult, all walks of life -- they were all comfortable to come to her and say, 'This happened to me today, how can I handle this?' Or, 'I need food. Where do I get it?' Or, 'I can't pay for my senior dues, how can you help me?'" she said.
Bramlett-Turner said it was not just a certain type of person or age group that would come to her, because she saw even adults come to her. She feels lucky, she noted, to have learned from her as a teenager and now as a co-worker.
"She just has a way," she said. "I think her gift is not only the gab and the heart, but she has a way of making you feel like you are the center of the world and that your problems are her problems and that she's not going to leave you until it's fixed, or at least you feel better, or have a plan to fix it. And so just being a young teenager, I knew that I was very career-driven and I knew what I wanted to do with my life, but I knew that I wanted to be like her. I wanted to be that kind of person when I grew up."
One of the toughest moments in Mertz's career with the district was when a student and office aide of hers lost their mother. She said the student had not been able to get ahold of her mother in two days and came to her office very distraught. It was just shortly after that the principal called Mertz into his office and told her they had found the girl's mother dead that morning. The student and her twin sister lived with their grandmother in the district, though her mother lived in Little Rock.
"I remember, I'm in the principal's office. Grandma's so hysterical she can't get there, and we called in the counselors and we've decided we're going to have to tell the twins. I remember sitting in that floor for three hours with those two girls, hysterical. Hysterical. It was one of the toughest moments of my life," she said.
Mertz helps them get through the painful loss and starts a building a relationship with them. She said a month later, one of them made homecoming but did not feel as if they had the means necessary to be in the homecoming court.
"I called all the people," she said. "I called my hairdresser and said I need an updo. I called my nail tech and I said, 'I've got a student who has lost her mother and she's got one bright light and we're going to make homecoming happen for her.' And we did it. Because here's the thing, my hairdresser was like, 'Thank you for giving me the opportunity. I want to be able to help and do this.'"
She said she is blessed to have the childhood she had and to have come from a caring family.
"And I've had that relationship with my son, so it was crazy to me when kids would come in that had nobody. That kids would come in and just say, 'I need a snack,' or 'I'm cold, can I borrow your sweater?' Well, I take that as they don't have a sweater or a jacket," she said.
At a certain point during the interview, a group of young students come her office door. Before they can be told she is in an interview, "Mama Mertz" gets up from her chair and says, "Here, come on guys. Come on, come on," waving her arm for them to return. She then pulls out a large bowl filled with snacks, in which they each take a small selection. They tell her thank you as they walk out.
"It would break my heart if we sent them away because this is what they do. And they don't care if I'm busy or not," she said.
She students also receive hugs in addition to their snacks.
"We're all just walking each other home -- period," she said. "That's what I try to tell people all the time. We're all the same, we're all here to help kids that. ... You know, I mean, I want them to get an education in the meantime but I want them to be good humans."