Woman Who Makes a Difference Profile

Age: 46.

Location: Dubuque.

Title: High school counselor.

Employer: Dubuque Community School District, Hempstead High School.

Number of years employed there: 21 years.

Educational background: Clarke University and University of Santiago de Compostela, Spain (undergraduate degree in Spanish secondary education); Loras College (masters in secondary education and counseling).

Family: Husband, John; and children, Julian and Lauren; as well as my parents, brother, sister-in-law, nieces and nephews.

Describe the work you do as a counselor at Dubuque Hempstead High School: Counseling is extremely challenging on a variety of levels, but it’s also the most rewarding job. I am so fortunate that I have the most amazing team of women I work with every day in the counseling department. We wear a lot of hats and collaborate incredibly well as a team to meet the needs of our 1,700-plus students in the areas of academics, career and college planning and social/emotional needs. No two days are ever alike, and the time flies. Long ago, my daughter said, “Mom, you have the best job ever. You get to play with toys (I keep stress balls and fidgets on my desk) and have candy and sit and talk to kids all day.” That makes me laugh because I do have the best job ever. I love connecting with my students.

What inspired you to create an outreach program for young women at the school? The administration at Hempstead has been so supportive of outside-the-box ideas related to teaching and connecting with students. Years ago, I had the great fortune of creating and teaching a leadership course at Hempstead. I

co-taught it with a variety of talented teachers, and I was lucky enough to team with Tracy Patrum. From that, we developed a service club. Through daily interactions with female students at school, in our club and in class, we saw a great need to help empower the young women we were meeting. We also knew the positive impact of small-group learning by collaborating with peers. Instead of tackling issues individually, we started the group. When Tracy transferred schools, my new partner in crime, Becky Fellenzer, jumped on board, and we kept it going. It’s grown from a group of eight each year to about 30-plus girls. There are new students each year to reach a greater number of young women.

Why did you believe it was important to do? We saw, and continue to see, young women struggling to navigate the complicated, pressure-filled, world we live in. We know that when young women have confidence, connections and education, it can help alleviate some of the stress and poor choices that come with being a teenager. We celebrate big and small accomplishments, connect them with other girls they would not otherwise spend time with, discuss a variety of topics concerning teen girls, share opportunities of service, provide opportunities to learn from women leaders in the community and empower them to be the best young women they can be.

Through that outreach, what are some of the things you have successfully implemented that you believe is helping make a difference in the lives of these women? Becky and I were so lucky to receive local grants during the past three years to create a women’s empowerment conference for our past and present women’s group members. The Women’s Giving Circle, the James B. and Melita A. McDonough Foundation and the Foundation for Dubuque Public Schools helped make our vision of the conference a reality. It was a challenging undertaking, but again, I am surrounded by the most powerful women from Hempstead and our community to put on a spectacular event for about 65-75 girls each year. The feedback from our young women about what they learned and the connections they made were, for many, life-changing. To see our students’ excitement and eagerness to learn and grow intellectually, emotionally and regarding their future was overwhelming to witness. I was incredibly grateful to have a day filled with female community members who were passionate about helping our students grow. It was awesome in the truest sense of the word.

What positive changes have you noticed since doing this work, and ultimately, how do you hope it influences these young women? Past participants share that they believe they have skills to be confident, to manage stress, to navigate relationships in a healthy way and have time for self-reflection to be their best selves. Our group doesn’t allow cell phones. It allows us uninterrupted time to think, reflect and connect. Our world is so fast-paced, and kids are bombarded with constant stimulus. We pause and take time to celebrate each other.

One of the most positive outcomes from the group are the connections our students have made, building relationships with us as counselors and with peers they would not have otherwise. Through our women’s conferences, they connected with powerful women making a difference in our community with their unique skills. Our students learned that they have the potential to do more, be more, hope more. There is a ripple effect of good things happening from our women’s group, and it spreads out to their friends, their classmates, their homes and the community.

My students have made a positive difference through involvement in our service activities such as the Red Basket Project (Hempstead is independent in obtaining our feminine hygiene supplies by donation to our school and our kids monitor the baskets); Friends of Homacho, promoting clean water for Homacho, Ethiopia; Operation Backpack project for Hempstead students who can’t afford quality backpacks; a PSA group getting information in bathroom stalls with a variety of help lines for our students to stay healthy and safe; and our Rotary Club Holiday Help project to help Hempstead families in need.

What is the most rewarding thing about the work you do? To meet with and to see the growth in my students, to really connect with them on an intellectual and also an emotional level every day. Each student offers something special. I am honored to have the opportunity to have their trust and confidence that I am here to support and help them in their journey in life.

Who do you credit in mentoring you?

My mom, grandma and great aunt, as well as incredibly supportive men, including my dad and brother. I knew no limits growing up. I remember looking at my mom’s ERA pins and my parents talking about fighting for the rights of women at that time, especially Title IX. Throughout the years, I heard about their legal battle with the school district when my mom was pregnant with me. In the early 1970s, women would be called to the office and asked if “they had something to share” if they looked pregnant. If they were, they were done. If they were not, it was just humiliating. My mom wanted to keep her job as Spanish teacher and to teach until delivery. She knew what they were doing was against Federal Law, and it was her right to keep her job. The DEA helped her fight the practice that was happening, and she won. She was the first female teacher to wear maternity clothes in the classroom as a teacher in Dubuque. She shared with me that there were many men who would hassle her and tell her she should stay home where a mother belongs. My mom loved being a teacher and wanted to be a working mom. She showed me from a very young age that I could work and be a good mother, if that’s what I wanted in life. I also learned to not be afraid to fight for what I’m passionate about in life and know to be right. Both of my parents loved teaching and inspiring kids. Our talks at the dinner table were centered around their passion for helping all students learn and grow. They inspired me on so many levels.

As for mentors in my teaching and counseling role, there are far too many to mention. I have been incredibly lucky to surround myself with the most intelligent, passionate, creative, hardworking and loving women and men. They make me a better person, counselor, teacher, mother, friend and wife. Life is too short to not surround yourself with people who bring out the best in you.

What is your advice for other women when it comes to the importance of lifting other women up? I tell our young women in group that there is enough room for all of us to finish on top. There’s no need to be jealous or destructive and put other women down. It feels amazing to shine on others and be your best self. By the year’s end in group, we believe our girls really get that concept. Sometimes, the hardest person to lift up is themselves, so we spend a lot of time on the skill of confidence and loving themselves.

When you’re not doing this kind of work, what else do you enjoy doing? I love spending time with family and friends. I love to tell stories and laugh. I get positive energy from being with them. I enjoy travel, playing tennis, singing with the women’s group Heartland Harmony and following all of my kids’ activities.

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