BENTON – Gene Alexander, known to most as “Mr. A,” may be busier today than he was before retiring in 1990 from his job as principal of Logan Elementary School in Benton.
He also volunteers with Habitat for Humanity and serves on its board. “My friends and I have raised about $30,000 for Habitat by recycling cans,” Alexander said.
To date, he has recycled 1,389,000 cans for Habitat.
However, he spends more time working at his hobby of painting, specifically painting maps of the U.S. on playgrounds. That’s what keeps him busy the most.
Alexander recently finished his 381st map on the playground at The Night’s Shield, a nonprofit children’s shelter that provides emergency housing for abused, neglected or abandoned children from around the state.
The project started when he met the shelter’s executive director, Lindsey Bullman, at a meeting. Bullman told Alexander that the map he painted when the center first opened was fading, and asked him to redo it.
“I thought maybe I really needed to go out there and paint a new map,” Alexander said.
He painted a new map on a larger playground at the shelter.
While he was working on the map, he learned more about the shelter and its refocused mission, as well as its funding issues since losing a contract with the state of Illinois.
Alexander also painted rooms until last year. He said he just cannot climb ladders anymore, so he gave that up.
“I did a lot of volunteer painting at The Night’s Shield,” Alexander said. “I painted a lot of classrooms, 704. The last seven rooms were at a Habitat house last fall on Grayson Street in Benton. We are still in the process of rehabbing it for the next family.”
Mr. A decided some of the spaces inside the shelter also needed a little sprucing up, so he donated the money to accomplish that.
Alexander might not have started painting maps if not for Allen Patton, superintendent at the time of Alexander’s retirement.
Alexander was talking to Patton and told him that he was a little bored in retirement. Patton replied, “Mr. A, I have this map kit.” Alexander gave it a try, and nearly 400 maps later, he is known as “the map guy.”
“Mr. Patton opened new doors for me. He thought I’d make a few maps around here and get tired of it,” Alexander said.
According to Bullman, the second map at The Night’s Shield Children’s Shelter has been well-received.
“He showed up at our door within two weeks of me talking to him. He’s got a heart of gold,” Bullman said.
The shelter staff hopes to get sealant on it soon.
“It is actually amazing to think about the work that he’s doing at 83,” Bullman said.
The Night’s Shield changed its mission slightly in January. It is a private, nonprofit organization that provides a children’s emergency shelter for families all over Illinois. They provide temporary short-term care for children from birth through their 18th birthday for families experiencing a severe disruptive crisis.
The shelter has served 45 different children since January, providing 156 nights and 4,046.5 hours of care.
“Most of time families just don’t have a support system surrounding them,” Bullman said. “The parents have seemed really thankful to have this resource available. As families become familiar with the idea and are willing to come and at least meet with us, they are understanding the concept and warming to it.”