URBANA – Without bowling pins or flaming batons, Karla Shelby has fast become a master of the art of juggling.
Handling a full-time job, full-time college and the care of five girls – and leading a motorcycle club – will do that to you.
By day, Shelby serves as a role model and support to children around Urbana Middle School. Though working with children isn't part of her job description – as an attendance secretary, she notifies parents of children who have been marked absent and unexcused from school, keeps track of student physicals, answers phones and other tasks – it's a big part of what she does.
Every student needs to find an adult for support somewhere in the building, Shelby said. If a student connects with her, she's happy to be that person. A product of Urbana schools, Shelby often knows kids' parents and extended families, so when those students come to school, they can see a familiar face early on.
"I can also be a sounding board, a listening ear," she said. "It doesn't have to be somebody that has all the labels with them; it just has to be somebody who relates."
That familiarity can backfire on students trying to skip school. Shelby has called home and recognized students impersonating their parents. And as much as Shelby likes to joke and laugh with the kids, she's the adult, and students learn that shirking responsibility won't fly.
"When it's time to be for real, they know that I mean business," she said.
Bonding with kids seems to be hereditary. Her mother runs a daycare center and has foster children. Her grandmother adopted her two foster children. "Kids are just part of us," Shelby said of her close-knit family.
Kim Facer, the office manager in Urbana Middle School, said Shelby is a natural at making students feel comfortable. "They can just relate to her," Facer said of Shelby. "She just treats them the way she would normally treat her own kids."
Facer calls Shelby "very upbeat, very fun and friendly, easy to approach. She's loyal, she's compassionate, understanding."
Shelby became a wife and mother when she was barely finished with her own childhood. She graduated from Urbana High in 1993 and married a few months later. She's 32 now, and she's been a mom nearly half her life.
When Shelby gets home, both house and life are full of girls. She's raising three daughters, ages 12, 13 and 15, with her ex-husband, and has taken responsibility for two more. One girl, her cousin's daughter, has lived with the Shelby family while her mom first served in Iraq and now helps train recruits in New Jersey. And Shelby's foster daughter has lived with them for the past few months.
Shelby tries to balance the emotional needs of all her girls. For her daughters, she'll hold meetings where the four can talk about anything on their minds – the house that can feel overcrowded, the changes in daily routines. "Including them helps out a lot for them to help me," Shelby said. "Sometimes I feel like the buddy, but they never get it twisted."
For her cousin's daughter, the family avoided watching much TV reporting on the dangers in Iraq, so the girl did not have "the reminder, 'My mom is at war,' " Shelby said. Frequent phone calls and e-mails from the girl's mother helped ease some fears, while the busy schedule Shelby keeps the girls on leaves little time for worrying and provides structure.
Shelby often gets asked "How do you do it with five teenage girls?" she said. "Prayer – plenty of prayer."
Shelby said the girls themselves are the biggest help. They follow the fuchsia sheet of chores stuck to the refrigerator. They help each other pick out clothes and stay on task, especially Kennetra, the oldest, who calls her mother her best friend.
"She actually inspires me," Kennetra said of her mom. "She's just a good person, and a lot of people look up to her."
That sense of responsibility helps out now that Shelby has gone back to school. As a junior at Eastern Illinois University getting a general studies degree, Shelby has big plans, including going on for a master's in either business or child psychology.
"I see myself still working with kids," she said.
Though it seems hard to believe, Shelby has carved a bit of me time into the schedule and filled it with a high-octane hobby – she is president of the Bubble City Babes, a women's motorcycling group named after Champaign (as in Champagne, as in bubbles) with riders up to age 70.
"We don't want to ride on the back of bikes," Shelby said.
Riding her Suzuki is her main hobby, and one she gets giddy talking about.
"The club scene, going out, it takes energy," she said. "If it's not something motorcycle-related, I've hung my party hat on the door."
None of these leaves much time for dating, though Shelby has found a "special friend." But, as in motorcycling, men take the back seat. "With my girls, this is the prime of their lives," Shelby said.
So the girls go out, shopping, bowling, skating, and watching many, many Urbana sporting games. "It's athletic things that keep us together," she said. "It's enough without having to add anything extra."
Shelby said the key to juggling work, school and parenting is just to keep going.
"Being pulled so many different ways, you just adapt to it," she said. "It's always the same, it's either my house or my job. ý I just jump in and do it."