Volunteer Toni Huff laughs at a student’s joke at Milton Elementary School. Despite a hectic schedule and an ongoing battle with breast cancer, which includes daily radiation treatments, Huff always goes to the school with a smile and energy while carrying out her volunteer duties. (Staff photo by Ken Ritchie)
Volunteer Toni Huff laughs at a student’s joke at Milton Elementary School. Despite a hectic schedule and an ongoing battle with breast cancer, which includes daily radiation treatments, Huff always goes to the school with a smile and energy while carrying out her volunteer duties. (Staff photo by Ken Ritchie)
A volunteer at Milton Elementary began helping a little when her children began attending classes at there, and now she's now a familiar face to more than just her children's teachers.

Toni Huff began dropping by the school to volunteer with activities her children were involved with or in the classroom, yet time spent at the elementary continued to add up. She wanted to find something to fill her time on her days away from her part-time job when her children began attending school, she said. And she has. She now volunteers three days per week.

"You can only clean so much (at home)," she said. "The more I was here, the more I saw what needed to be done."

What started as just a few hours of help here and there with special events soon turned into help with bulletin boards, placing graded papers in student mailboxes, help with Accelerated Reading tests and simply being a friendly face for students multiple times a week. Soon teachers began to look for Huff whenever she arrived in the morning should they need an extra set of hands around the classroom.

Sometimes the errand might simply be retrieving an item from the main office or making copies, Huff said, yet the few minutes still allows the teacher more instructional time or one-on-one time with students. Yet Huff realized early on that teachers in the lower elementary grades often need a bit more help than the upper elementary grades.

Huff chooses to spend most of her time in the kindergarten to second-grade wing of the elementary - even though her own children have moved on to the Grades 3 to 5 wing - something that second-grade teacher Tara Isley appreciates.

"Without Ms. Toni, we'd be lost," Isley said.

Earlier this year, Huff, 46, faced a health issue that could have slowed most anyone after a routine screening identified a fast-progressing form of breast cancer.

"(There was) no inkling whatsoever," she said.

All factors indicated Huff as low risk for cancer, she said. Still, she regularly made appointments to check for the disease.

Her yearly checkup in March found Stage 2 breast cancer that hadn't been evident just a year before.

"In the big scheme of things, I was pretty blessed," she said.

Even after chemotherapy and radiation to fight the disease, Huff continues to keep her regular schedule at the school - with the exception of daily doctor appointments. She also found a group of supporters within the teachers and staff at the school.

Huff also took on more responsibilities at the elementary school just a month after her diagnosis. She ran for election as president for the Parent-Teacher Organization - and won.

"My friends suck me in because they know I just can't say no," she said. "I just can't say no to the kids."

Huff's new role at the school also comes with more responsibilities, like planning the school's annual fish fry and other fundraising efforts that make up almost 90 percent of the PTO funding for the school.

Because of Huff's efforts, she was recently recognized by PTO Today magazine as a Superstar Volunteer.

Nominated by the school, Huff's recent award recognizes her work with the school and the school's parent organization.

"We need a bunch of her," Milton Elementary Principal Sharon James said, "but there's only one Toni."

With her children leaving the elementary school for the middle school over the next few years, many administrators and teachers ask whether she will move to another school with them.

"Mrs. James said I can't go anywhere," Huff said. "She said my kids can graduate, but I can't."

Yet Huff doesn't see herself completely leaving behind all of the friends and daily smiles or hugs from students that make a hectic schedule worth all of her donated time.

"I can't imagine when my kids leave that my days will be done," she said. "What (the students) give me far outnumbers what I give them."