Mrs. Coleman Answers the Phone in the Welcome Center

The first person most everyone meets when they come to Walworth Jt. School District #1 is Mrs. Eileen Coleman, the main office secretary at the Welcome Center. She is also usually the first voice people hear when they call and is often the one calling parents about their children.

Coleman started in 1995-96 in the computer labs the school had at the time. She also worked supervising students in the lunchroom and at recess. After two years, she moved to the full-time, year-round office position that came with insurance coverage that she was seeking.

"My kids were old enough that I could work during the summer and I would not worry about them," said Coleman.

She said when she started the office job, there was one nurse who split time with Walworth, Fontana, Reek and Big Foot High School. So Coleman became like a "back-up nurse, health aide." She took online classes and trained for those duties and still backs up nurse Claudia Ortiz. "Once there were two broken noses in one recess, with middle schoolers playing football," Coleman recalled.

Caitlin Dowen, principal at Walworth, has great respect for what Coleman brings to the school.

"Mrs. Coleman is a wonderful part of Walworth. Her many years of dedicated service have assisted thousands of students and families. Mrs. Coleman is not only the face of the Welcome Center as people enter our building, she is so much more," said Dowden. "Her duties vary greatly on a day-to-day basis and often include greeter, health aide, student supervision, caring staff member, friend, and so much more.

"Mrs. Coleman is beyond dedicated to our district and our community; she is a blessing to Walworth and everyone in it."

Coleman has two study halls every day with non-band students in grades 7 and 8. Some days she has three or four students and, on the day she was interviewed she had four students for part of the day and nine others for periods of time.

She "officially" starts her work day at 7:30 a.m., opening up the front doors, the office and taking care of the lights. Her ending time is 4 p.m., but that is flexible.

"I feel like I can't (leave) if the kids aren't picked up," she said.

She has been at Walworth long enough now to know generations of people.

"I've been here enough time that the parents I knew when they were younger," said Coleman. "They grew up and have had kids in school."

Coleman, a Walworth resident who will be married to Bruce for 48 years this coming fall, had to work some time at home when the COVID-19 pandemic arrived. She said that was hard because if the phone rang, it went to her email. The next day, if she called someone, *69 showed up on home phones and people did not answer.

"After three weeks, I begged to come back," said Coleman about her talk with Phill Klamm, the district administrator. "He let me come back; I would be here by myself. I was making more contact with parents (if teachers said things were needed)."

Klamm knows Coleman's value.

"Mrs. Coleman can do it all - she wears so many hats here," said Klamm, noting  all that she does here at school cannot be summarized. "She does it all with a kind, loving heart. Mrs. Coleman truly loves each and every student that enters our building and works hard to create a positive relationship with every single one

" From being a friendly, familiar face for students as they enter the building to helping clean up a playground scrape to being a sounding board when things are not going well -- students always know they can go to Mrs. Coleman for anything and everything!"

How does Coleman keep track of everything that comes her way?

"I try to make lists," she said. "I don't feel good if (items are) not crossed off the list."

Some years ago Coleman even had a foreign-exchange teacher living at her house for about four months.

She also currently is involved, along with counselor Jennifer Ott-Wilson, with the school's backpack program. Families in need receive a backpack at the end of each Friday's school day. It is filled with snacks and anything students can do by themselves at home with a microwave or having nutrition bars and such. The backpacks are returned on Mondays for use the next Friday.

At the start of a school year, backpacks are filled with items that are purchased in bulk with financial support from community places.

"We get everything a teacher in that grade level asks for," said Coleman, noting the students get to keep those backpacks. "Everyone (leaves) with a backpack full."

It started long ago, said Coleman, when parishioners from churches, including St. Benedict's, gave the support. "When Covid hit, it wasn't as easy, so it kind of fell by the wayside (to do it that way)."

Since then, checks are sent to area schools. Community members also contribute now. Coleman, who has been involved with the project for at least 20 years, and others buy everything from crayons to pencils and folders. There are extra supplies for families that move into the school district area during the school year. Coleman takes care of much of the project in the summer, when she has more time available, she said.

She is also on the Walworth Children's Foundation, a non-profit spearheaded by Ott-Wilson. The organization takes care of families in need for other items, including medicines insurance does not cover, said Coleman.

Also, Project Pay It Forward has 19 families that donate so those involved can "go out and have fun and not worry about bills," said Coleman. A few examples of that which Coleman mentioned included a family that went sight-seeing in downtown Chicago at a time children could ride the train there for free, and a family that attended the Walworth County Fair to be able to eat "fair food."

Those are 'some things maybe they never would have done," said Coleman.

How busy is Coleman at school? The interviews for this article were done in two parts, sitting alongside her at the Welcome Center's front desk. Both times she was multitasking, as always.