In her more than 20 years as counselor at New Hope Elementary School, Kelleher wore a lot of hats — motivator, philanthropist and even arborist. Managing editor Cole Stanley sat down with Kelleher to talk about her time at New Hope and her retirement.
Southern Neighbor: When people talk about New Hope, they always do so with such an affectionate tone. It’s been called the best elementary school in the state, and everyone seems to want their kids there. What would you say makes New Hope so unique, other than having had you on staff, of course?
Kim Kelleher: There are tremendous people that work there — completely professional and dedicated. There’s not a time you would ride by New Hope and there aren’t cars in the parking lot. The administration gave me a lot of freedom to develop any and all programs that I thought might help our students succeed — there’s a lot of positive experimentation.
SN: Similarly to the school, people in this community have such an appreciation for the work that you’ve done all these years at New Hope; you’ve won so many awards and been recognized as the counselor of the year. Whatever you’ve been doing obviously worked, so what is it that you did differently that has worked so well?
KK: I’ve always run what we call a comprehensive counseling program. That means you provide a program that helps everyone in the school, not just the thirty or forty that are having the most trouble. That way, when problems do arise, every child in the school is comfortable enough with you that they will come to you straight away with the issue. Counseling should be ingrained into every aspect of the school, not just limited to one little office. I made sure that was the case by teaching classes myself — on everything from social skills to preventing bullying.
SN: So, as part of your comprehensive counseling plan, what are some of your favorite programs you established that really worked and you feel especially proud of?
KK: Well, one that comes to mind is Operation Care Package. So, for background, every month I focused on a certain word, like ‘respect’ or ‘responsibility,’ you get the idea. In the month of January, we focused on ‘kindness’ and ‘caring.’ So what we did is get the whole school involved in collecting things to send to service members that were related to students at the school — dads, uncles and aunts, siblings.
One of the groups of soldiers in Afghanistan that we sent these packages to was so overwhelmed by our students’ thoughtfulness that they flew a flag for us in Afghanistan, saluted it and flew it that day. At the end of the day, they took it down, folded it and sent it to us along with a letter. And that flag is still flying in front of our school.
And how we accomplished a lot these things was by the students’ own initiative. Just this past year, the student council donated over $5,000 to organizations in the community. They raised all of it themselves through collecting box tops, the fall festival and by running the school store — we sold things like pens and notepads for a nickel or a dime each. We gave to the American Red Cross, we ran a clothes drive for Hurricane Matthew relief, we did a canned food drive for Orange County families who had need during the winter, we donated over a thousand dollars to the Make-a-Wish Foundation. And all those initiatives were chosen by the students.
And there’s one more piece to this, which I think is extremely important. We didn’t just send a check in the mail. Each time the kids donated to a cause, I had someone from that organization come to the school to talk to them. So they actually saw a person, heard how the money was going to be used, and I wanted the organizations to hear from the students what they did to raise the money for those donations.
SN: A lot of people know about the nature trail at New Hope. It certainly seems to have been a huge hit with students and parents at the school. I was hoping you could tell our readers who may not know a little bit about it.
KK: I think as a counselor it’s our job to really understand the kids that we’re helping, and this is just one instance of that. I looked at the kids at New Hope, and recognized that a lot of them were having trouble staying in their seats and really concentrating for seven, eight hours a day. They might have ADHD, they may have a learning disability. If all you do is keep putting books in front of them, it gets frustrating — if trying to force you to try something that doesn’t work for you is the only solution anyone ever tries, that’s how you end up sitting in the office all day instead of learning. So what I started doing is taking my kids outside. I wanted to figure out how I could get these kids excited about learning.
You would be amazed how much of a difference it makes for some kids to go outside and look at a real cloud, instead of a picture in a textbook, when they’re learning about the weather. To actually look at and feel a river birch, and then see another and another throughout the forest — that teaches them better than memorizing names of plants out of a book.
So I got the kids out there with me to help prepare a nature trail. It took two years, and after that, we added 24 station markers that each indicated something special at that spot on the trail — whether it was a particular plant or an animal’s den or a creek. That’s how we taught our students about the natural world — actually showing it to them.
SN: So another thing some of our readers might not know about you is that President Obama wrote you a letter. Could you tell us about that?
KK: Well, yes, he did actually. But the full story is I wrote him first. So I wrote a letter to President Obama as he was getting to the end of his presidency, and we were getting ready to have our 25-year anniversary celebration at New Hope and I wanted him to come, because I’m proud of our school and I really wanted him to see something wonderful going on out in the world. I wanted him to see something that was truly working — I wanted him to be proud.
So in my letter, I told him all about our school and our students and about Orange County — which, of course, he knows about us because he’s a huge basketball fan — and he ended up writing me back…
He said, “I am pleased to join in celebrating your school’s 25th anniversary. America’s schools serve as gateways to opportunity and engines for progress, inspiring our students to be the best versions of themselves. By equipping them with the skills to thrive, our halls of learning can instill in our next generation the fundamental belief that with hard work, nothing is beyond reach… I hope your community takes pride in the way your school has touched lives. As we celebrate this special milestone, I wish you all the best for the years ahead.”
SN: So what is going to be your next chapter? What kind of plans do you have going forward?
KK: I think I’ll do a fair bit of traveling. I also am continuing my own education. I’m becoming certified right now to be a science educator and I’ll be trying to get a curriculum that I’ve written published.
SN: That sounds great. I was hoping you could share a word or two of advice for those looking to make an impact like you have over the years.
KK: Honestly, I would just say to remember that the world doesn’t change in a day. You won’t be able to do everything in a single day, but you can do something every single day. If you wake up every day and set a goal and achieve that goal, you will never stop progressing, never stop learning and never stop making a difference.