FREMONT, Calif. (KTVU) - We met up with retired teacher Livia Thomas at the apple orchard at Garin Regional Park. She's been here every week all summer long with children, and paintbrushes and a mission to leave a legacy of beauty and kindness.
"Art heals many things," explained Thomas who said the mural project for the shed is about showing the beauty of nature through the eyes of kids.
"This was designed to be all together and make it as a group and be fun," said 12-year-old Andrea Ortega has been out here every week.
Thomas's passion for this latest project doesn't surprise those who know her. She has spent a lifetime giving back and much of that has been in the classroom. She knew she wanted to be a teacher when she was just a little girl inspired by her own kindergarten teacher.
"What I wanted was to teach kids from all over the world and what has happened is that kids from all over the world have come to me and I can say I’m a better person for it. And I know that sounds really sappy but it's really true," Thomas said with a smile.
In her 27 years as a teacher at Grimmer elementary school in Fremont she says she also did a lot of learning from the many immigrant children she has come to know.
"One year Claudine and this is no kidding," she said. "I had 28 children in one grade and 22 different languages were spoken. They taught me that sounds crazy but I learned to be a better human being and a better teacher through them."
About ten years ago she learned about a child who had been bullying classmates for years.
“Very under the radar", she said. "And finally we heard about it and my principal Judy Nye and I were overwhelmed. I grieved I went home and I felt that something had died because I thought we had a school that was kind and compassionate and loving."
Out of that grief came a call to action. Two sixth graders came forward asking what they could do.
"Judy and I made a promise to us that we would learn what to do because we didn't know what to do," she said.
From that promise came a kindness mural, a conflict manager program and a video of children teaching children about kindness. And three years ago she retired. Thomas said it was time, but her wife Sandy Feisler says she never saw the joy of teaching dim.
"When she was still working, every day when she went to school it was the first day of school," said Feisler.
Feisler is a ranger at Garin Regional Park and a new shed at the apple orchard needed some love. So Thomas went to Grimmer Elementary and recruited students who were happy to help with the project.
12-year-old Melanie Miramontes says she's excited for the public to see the art. "I want them to see how much effort we made on this shed and it's all from the heart," she said.
"When people see it they are going to see how much we do to paint it," 8-year-old Vanessa Ortega said.
It's part of the legacy Thomas has always wanted to leave in all the students she has taught over the years. She teared up when she recalled a talk she had in the orchard this summer. It was with a young man in his twenties. He thanked her for a conversation she had with him almost a decade ago about bullying and acceptance.
"And he told me he tried so hard to understand what I was saying and he didn't because he was only in fifth grade but he thanked me because he understands now and he is gay."
She helped him, he says with self-acceptance and she made a difference.
"It made me cry that day because as a teacher you don't always hear that "