‘Papa John’ devotes years to children

Longtime foster grandparent will retire
By Shelby Harrell Staff Writer | Jan 24, 2014
Photo by: Shelby Harrell John Burnette, also known as 'Papa John,' holds 2-year-old Jake Lewellyn while spending time together at the Hazelwood Child Development Center. Burnette has been a foster grandparent with children for 23 years.

Caring for toddlers at age 90 is probably not something many people aspire to do, but John Burnette does it four days a week.

Burnette is affectionately referred to as “Papa John” after volunteering as a foster grandparent for 23 years. When he is not watching a sports game on TV, Papa John spends several hours with children at Hazelwood Child Development Center every Monday through Thursday.

“It gets lonesome by myself,” Burnette said. “Just being around the kids — it keeps me going. If I didn’t do this, I don’t know where I’d be.”

The foster grandparent program provides opportunities for seniors to impact the lives of children in their community. Foster grandparents are individuals age 60 and over who serve as a mentor, tutor, and loving caregiver to children and youth with special needs.

This November, "Papa John" will retire from grandparenting. His body is getting slow and it’s the right time to retire, he said.

“Our center will not be the same,”said Vickie Parker, director of Hazelwood Child Development Center. “The great thing about Papa John is he’s classy. He could have just been sitting, but he decided to put his life into children. He’s our gentleman in the classroom.”

Burnette previously worked with children at Ninevah Child Development Center and Balsam Road Center. When those centers closed, he ventured to Hazelwood Child Development Center, where he has been a grandparent for many years.

“He is such a calm wonderful person — he takes all the time in the world with those children,” said Mary Phillips, foster grandparent coordinator. “He laughs with them, he plays with them — he’s just an outstanding man.”

Papa John has worked with children from ages 2 to 5. He is known for his love of puzzles and helping children develop educational and cognitive skills.

“A lot of children don’t here have parents or grandparents, but he brings that to them here,” said Parker. “He adds the old school traditions to our center.”

Papa John lives alone in Waynesville and uses Haywood Public Transit system to get back and forth to the center. He spends about five hours each day interacting with toddlers.

“It makes me feel good to help the kids,” Burnette said. “We do puzzles, and sometimes they want me to read to them. I try to teach them with rhymes.”

Burnette was never married and never had children, but he feels as though he’s had hundreds of grandchildren.

“It feels like they’re my own grandkids,” he said. “You get attached to them and then they have to leave and go to kindergarten, but when you have to move on, you have to move on.”

Though Burnette was originally born in South Carolina, he moved to Waynesville in 1948, and has lived here ever since. He has extended family nearby who comes to visit him — a niece, a great niece and a great-great nephew.

Burnette worked for 30 years at the Toggery, which is now the Mast General Store, in downtown Waynesville. There he worked as a janitor and eventually became a sales clerk. After retiring in the 1980s, Burnette decided to spend his free time with children.

“I just like being around the kids,” Burnette said. “They keep me happy and busy.”

For his devotion to children, Papa John was named the 2013 Champion for Children by the Region A Partnership for Children and was recognized at a gala in November.

“I had no idea I would ever win an award,” Burnette said. “I just love to see (the children), and just get out there and do things.”

Parker said everyone at the Hazelwood Child Development Center would miss Papa John. Though Burnette doesn’t have a wife or children, Parker said he had a huge Haywood County family.

“Everyone knows Papa John,” she said.

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