It’s not often that a person can say with utter sincerity, “I loved every minute of it,” after 28 years in a job requiring extreme patience and sometimes a touch of heartache.
But for Jan Ellis, a paraeducator who devoted herself to help special-needs students master life skills, the remark comes easily and with genuine honesty. In fact, she often uses the expression that the children she served “stole my heart.” She retired from Big Horn County School District 2 at the end of the past fiscal year after working eight years at the Children’s Resource Center and then two decades at Lovell Elementary School.
She notes that because of physical problems she had to retire and is extremely appreciative of steps taken by the district to make it easier for her to get around. But she needed hip surgery and now, “I’m looking at knee surgery.” So that was that and she observes, “If not for those problems they would have had to throw me out.
“I loved the work,” she stated, “although it was tough at times. A lot of patience and understanding are needed in such a one-on-one effort with so many lovely children, but I can say that they and I met with great successes.” Part of her labors to boost their life skills and build self-esteem involved taking her charges into the community to locations including Red Apple Supermarket and Minchow’s Food Court.
“I just love kids,” said Ellis. “They are so special; they come to trust you completely and each one is capable of learning, although they learn at different rates and you have to use a variety of techniques. They steal your heart, especially when you can see the light in their eyes that they ‘get something.’ I always felt that it’s up to us in that profession to find the key to open the door that will help them learn.”
With three of her own children and six grandchildren now, she fondly recalls one boy with whom she became close, as she worked to educate him to deal with daily living from kindergarten through high school. During the first eight years of her time with the school district, she was a volunteer at the resource center, including the time it was in Cowley and then Lovell. To bolster her talent for working with students who need some extra help she went to Northwest College in Powell for two years and she attended numerous seminars to bolster her skills.
“How to help them, whether they are autistic or have special needs of different sorts, is a challenge,” said Ellis. Some needed help “with everything, all the basics.” She recalls one youth she worked with for months “so that he could feed himself.” It sometimes was trying, such as the time he poured a bowl of cereal and milk on her head. She describes it as “a cute experience” adding that, “He did learn. It just took the patience to keep at it.”
Ellis also remembered a humorous incident with a student to whom she posed a banking question. “I gave the example of putting $100 under his pillow for a year or putting $100 in a bank for a year to gain interest at a certain rate. When I asked him about how much interest he would earn he looked me in the eye and said, ‘How would I know? You didn’t give me a calculator’.”
The retired aide is grateful for “the awesome friends and staff” from her time in school. “There are so many special memories,” she said. “That’s how I feel about it and I want to thank everyone for the memories. I just loved the work.”
As a native of Lovell, born in the hospital that was on Montana Street and which is now the vacant Cattleman’s Motel, she has plenty of memories. She also recalls that after the hospital was relocated, her uncles, the Doerr brothers, modifed the place into the Beverly Motel in honor of one of her aunts. Ellis has many friends, some of whom might recall that as a teenager she worked at the former Rose Bowl Cafe (now the Brandin’ Iron Restaurant) as a waitress and a car hop. In that capacity her tip jar didn’t have her name on it, but the word, “Hawaii.” Now she’d like to visit there when able.
“It’s going to be a new chapter in my life,” she observed. “Besides, I can keep busy doing yard work, hanging with friends and helping people whenever I can.”
by Bob Rodriguez