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Hempstead school crossing guard doesn't stand still on the job


Shirley Cunningham, a Hempstead School District crossing guard for 10 years, helps students safely navigate the intersection of Fulton Avenue and Clinton Street -- a job she accomplishes while listening to gospel music and moving to the beat. June 16, 2014 (Credit: Newsday / Jessica Rotkiewicz)

Shirley Cunningham bounces, marches, struts and dances, signals, gesticulates and sometimes shouts, but what she doesn't do is stand still on the job.

Cunningham, a 10-year veteran school crossing guard in Hempstead, does her job with showmanship and style, leaving many drivers and pedestrians with a smile.

"I take my job very seriously, but that doesn't mean I can't enjoy it," said Cunningham, 60, who works for the Hempstead Village Police Department.

Her fans include local residents, workers and elected officials.

"She enjoys her job, and I like that," said Jose Rijos, who lives in the Bronx and works as a store manager near Cunningham's corner at Fulton Avenue and Clinton Street.

Hempstead Mayor Wayne Hall called Cunningham "a dedicated part-time worker. She works hard, rain or shine, and she is entertaining."

With her stop sign in her right hand, Cunningham moves from corner to corner -- usually in a box configuration -- directing the movement of those on foot and behind the wheel.

If pedestrians start walking against the light, Cunningham might shout "Watch the light!" If they keep walking, they may be met with the admonition that "the funeral home is down that way, too."

She also has an imperious "Stop!" generally reserved for children walking against the light and into traffic.

"Most people are respectful, and I'm a firm believer in giving respect," Cunningham said after a recent two-hour morning shift. "Of course, some of these kids, especially middle-schoolers, might say anything to me. I've visited a few homes over the years to talk to their parents."

Cunningham, a Miami, Florida, native, said she has lived in Hempstead since she was 17.

She said she has had a variety of jobs, and more than once had thought she might like the traffic job. "But the truth is that I needed a job bad when I got this one," she said.

She has not saved a life on the job -- not yet, anyway.

"I'd like to think that's because I do my job so well," she said laughing.

She and her husband of 36 years, Leon Cunningham, have a son, a daughter and three grandchildren.

Her daughter, Pearline Cunningham, is a sister on the job, working on Peninsula Boulevard, Cunningham said. "She saw that I liked the job, and she needed one," she said.

Pete Paftinos, of Franklin Square, who works half a block from Cunningham's corner, called her "an absolute doll with boundless energy, always looking out for people."

He remembered her being hurt during superstorm Sandy in October 2012. Cunningham said she had just returned to the sidewalk when a wind gust took her to the ground, breaking her arm.

"A lady got out of her car and helped me to the police station. From there, I went to the hospital," she said.

The arm, broken in three places, may never straighten out, she said, "but still I like the idea of helping to keep people safe, and right now, I'm thinking I could do this for 10 more years."

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