Helen Sakovich, 65, can be brusque at times, particularly with adults she believes are acting irresponsibly.
That goes double for motorists who pass through the intersection of Elm and West streets, where she has been a crossing guard for Elm Park Elementary students for the past 30 years.
“They put me here because they know that if I have to rip off bumpers, I will,” she told me during an interview last week.
“You don’t have to like me, but you have to listen to what I say, and that goes for the motorists, the students and their parents. This is a busy intersection but not one of my children has been hurt in the 30 years I have been on the job and that is something I am proud of.”
Indeed, Ms. Sakovich's 30-year crossing guard career has been one of those comforting constants in a world that is always changing, according to state Rep. Mary Keefe, who nominated Ms. Sakovich this year as an unsung heroine.
The honor, which is bestowed by the state Commission on the Status of Women, recognizes “women who don’t always make the news, but … who use their time, talent and enthusiasm to enrich the lives of others and make a difference in their neighborhood.”
Ms. Keefe estimated that about 100 kids pass through that intersection every day during the school year, which she said makes about 18,000 per school year and about half a million during Ms. Sakovich's career.
Ms. Sakovich was the only Worcester resident chosen among dozens of 2017 honorees.
“She is truly an unsung heroine,” Ms. Keefe said.
Ms. Sakovich, perhaps unsurprisingly to those who know her, doesn’t see herself as a heroine. She might be a good person, but she is not an angel, and there is some serious partying in her past life to bear that out, she told me.
“I think it is an honor, but I don’t think it is necessary,” she said of being called an unsung heroine.
“That’s for the police, medical and fire. I am a protector. I do this because I love it. If I didn’t love children I wouldn’t be out here this long, twice a day, at my age.”
Her instinct to be a sentinel for children appears to go back to her youth, a period during which she was constantly bullied her peers, she said.
The daughter of a Russian immigrant, Ms. Sakovich, who wears glasses, said she and her dad, who passed away when she was 12, were often ridiculed as “stupid Russians.” She was called “four-eyes” in school, she said.
“I used to go home crying,” she recalled.
“I was very insecure and afraid as a child. And when I see the bullying now, I go right back there.”
She is quick to break up incidents of bullying on her watch, although she carries a soft spot for kids who don’t allow themselves to be bullied, she said.
On Friday, Stephanie Sheehan brought her son Andrew, who suffers from ADHD, to visit Ms. Sakovich at the intersection. He had been suspended from school the day before - his birthday - for misbehaving.
“What people don’t realize is that kids like that get stepped on, but he won’t get stepped on because he has that tenacity,” Ms. Sakovich said.
“When he does wrong I don’t condone it, and I tell him he can’t do that, but inside I am cheering that he is standing up to bullies.”
In addition to losing her parents, Ms. Sakovich has also lost her only child, Andrea, and her brother Dmitri, which makes her crossing guard job one of the most steadying influences in her life - second perhaps only to the love and generosity of her sisters: Annie, who lives in Worcester, and Sonia, an engineer who lives in Virginia, she said.
The schoolchildren, she said, are like an extended family. She follows their journeys from childhood to adulthood and she is often aware of their successes as well as their failures. She cheers for those who do well, and hopes those who are struggling get a second chance, she said.
And while she has held a number of other jobs over the years while performing her crossing guard duties, none has come close to giving her the satisfaction she gets from being a sentinel for children at her intersection.
“It feels as natural as putting my socks on in the morning,” she said.
“Every year when the back-to-school ads come on, I get more excited than the kids. The day that stops, then I’ll know it is time for me to stop."