Where were you born? I was born in Eugene, Oregon.
Did your family live in Eugene or out of town? We lived outside of Eugene in a small farming community called Coburg. My house was right next to a cornfield.
Was your family farmers? No, my dad was a truck driver and my mom was a secretary.
Did any relatives live nearby? I lived right next door to my grandparents and they lived next door to my aunt and uncle.
Did you go to school in Coburg or Eugene? We attended elementary school in Coburg, but took the bus into Eugene for middle and high school.
Where did you go to high school? Sheldon High School – The Fighting Irish, class of 1988.
How many siblings do you have? I have one brother. He is a science teacher at Huntington Middle School in Kelso.
Were you involved in any high school activities? Yes, quite a lot. I played varsity softball my freshman and sophomore year and varsity tennis my junior and senior year. I was a cheerleader too – I loved school.
When you graduated from high school, did you want to be a teacher? No, not at all. My goal was just to graduate college. No one on either side of my family had ever graduated from college.
What did your parents/grandparents say about going to college? My grandparents actually said, “Well, we really value education, but are you sure this is what you want to do?” It was just so foreign to them; it still makes me giggle.
What did you do after high school? I enrolled at the University of Oregon.
Did you work during college? Yes, I had to work to put myself through school because it was not something my family saved money for.
Did you live at home while going to school? I was adamant that I was not going to live at home even though I was going to college nearby. I got an apartment, went to school part time and worked part time.
Did you go to the University of Oregon all four years? No, I ended up getting married while I was in college. When it was time to move I was not finished with my undergrad, my husband and I relocated to Portland. I transferred to Portland State and became a Viking.
What did you earn your bachelor degree in? I ended up graduating with a degree in sociology. I continued to work while in school, I got a job at a private school – Catlin Gabel.
Did you enjoy working at Catlin Gabel? I fell in love with working with kids.
Did working at Catlin Gabel change your career outlook to teaching? I started substituting at Catlin Gabel and it showed me I really enjoy being in the classroom. I decided to get my master’s degree in teaching.
Where did you get your master’s degree? I went to Lewis and Clark College and got my degree there. I was lucky because I was linked to Catlin Gabel. I was able to do my student teaching, be a TA, and be paid at the same time.
After earning your master’s, did you consider teaching in private school? No, I grew up with a public education and I wanted to get back to that.
What did the family say about graduating from college? My grandmother gave me a lecture. She said, “Stefanie, there are people that waste their money getting degree after degree after degree because they just want to have a career being a student.”
What was your reaction to the family comments? I just laughed. I’m proud of getting these degrees and it’s giving me an opportunity that my parents never had.
What did you mother say about your career path? My mother had passed away. She died from breast cancer at the age of 41. She fought breast cancer for five years.
How old were you when your mom passed away? I was 24, just finishing up at Portland State with my undergrad degree when she died.
Passing away at 41 is young, did this make you think of your own mortality? It was my lifetime goal to make it to 41.
What is your perspective on aging? You are not supposed to ask a woman her age, but I always say how old I am with a lot of pride – I am 48.
So where was your first public teaching job? Beaverton school district.
What grade did you teach? I taught 5th grade. It was in a very large school, probably twice as big as St Helens. My teaching team consisted of five teachers.
How many years did you teach in Beaverton? For two years and absolutely loved it. At that time, my husband was going through medical school and later residency. He accepted a job at Peace Health in Longview, so we moved.
What did you do for a job in Longview? At that point, it was too late in the year to get a teaching job. I was reading The Daily News and learned Mint Valley Elementary wanted volunteers.
What was it like volunteering at Mint Valley? I was lucky to be involved in a classroom at Mint Valley with Sharon Shope, who was the teacher at that time. I volunteered in her classroom the whole year and just loved it. That was my connection to the Longview School District.
Did you get a teaching job at Mint Valley? Yes, through volunteering I got my first job in the Longview School District working part-time at Mint Valley.
Who was the principal at Mint Valley when you hired on? Jerry Westendorf. It was the year 2000, I taught part time. I taught with Jill Pospichal.
Why did you work part-time? My family started the adoption process to have kids, so part time work was appealing to me. The nice part about that is that Jill’s son and my son have become very good friends. Now they go to Mark Morris together.
Is adopting a child an emotional experience? Yes, we were chosen by a birth mother to adopt a little girl. We were very excited, it was the end of the school year, so we thought it was perfect timing. The baby was born and the birth mother ended up changing her mind. It was heart breaking.
Did you continue with the adoption process? Yes, we were heartbroken, but the neat thing about that is what came next. A few months later, a birth mother approached us through our adoption agency. She wanted to choose a couple who couldn’t give birth to a baby, who would like to experience the whole process.
What does experience “the whole process” mean? I would go to all the appointments, we chose if we wanted to know the gender of the baby. It was just an instant amazing connection – a tremendous gift.
Was it nerve wracking to be back in the adoption process? Yes, because we just had an adoption that fell through, we were leery about being out of the adoption pool for a long time.
How did the situation turn out? So, we are going to appointments for our daughter and we find out she is going to be a girl. During the process, I had a weird feeling, so I called our adoption attorney.
What did your attorney say? I called and she said, “We have a baby boy that is going to be born in about a week and his mother had chosen another couple to be his pa
rents. The adopting couple found out they were pregnant and told her they were sorry but they could not adopt her baby.”
What else did your lawyer say on the phone call? She started to tell me more; this was going to be a boy; we were ready to have our girl; we knew our daughter was a biracial mix; this boy was the same biracial mix. It was amazing – I still get goosebumps when I think of it.
How long from when you received the phone call was your son born? From the call with the attorney to our son, Andrew’s birth was five days.
What are the feelings and emotions around a time like this? It was crazy; there was so much to be done. We had to check with the other birth mother to see if this was okay. We were very open and up front with both birth mothers and they were both excited their child would have siblings.
Do the kids attend school locally? They are both juniors this year. Andrew is at Mark Morris and Emily is at Kelso High. She has a nice network of friends and loves it. She loves the big school; Andrew loves the smaller school here. It is just perfect for each of them.
Was adopting two kids simultaneously like having twins? It was very much like raising twins. The first year I don’t remember a whole lot of. I got very little sleep. Needless to say, I took time off teaching.
How long did you take off from teaching? About five years.
Did you go back to working in school? Yes, I worked at St. Rose for 2 years and taught 5th grade part time with Mary Sue Hippi. She is such a dear friend. We both have the same philosophy on how we treat kids and how we like to teach them. It was just wonderful.
What is the philosophy? Just to be respectful of kids. It used to be that things were a little more authoritative in school, a little more rigid. Kids are smart, they sense when someone cares about them, loves them and wants the best for them. Developing relationships with my students is one of my favorite parts of my job.
What are the characteristics of a great teacher? They are caring, patient, and they have a lot of love. My students are my kids and I care about what happens to them and to their families.
What do you like to do outside of work? I like to read. I belong to a couple of book clubs.
What do you like to read? Gosh, that is why I love being in a book club. I like the variety. It stretches me in ways that I would not necessarily stretch myself, because different people choose the books each month.
What else do you like to do? I love to garden. I also love to bring cancer awareness to people. I am a two-time cancer survivor.
Can you tell me about your garden? I have a raised bed garden. I grow tomatoes, which is kind of crazy because my children do not eat them – I eat and give away a lot of tomatoes. I grow cucumber, basil, radishes, peas, carrots and all kinds of things.
What age were you diagnosed with cancer? I ended up discovering I had breast cancer at the age of 36, which was the same age that my mom was when she discovered her cancer. It was terrifying to think of the parallels.
Was the cancer caught in its early stages? Because of my mom’s medical experience, I started having mammograms when I was 30. They caught my cancer very quickly. I had to do radiation and a lumpectomy.
How did you manage being a Mom and cancer treatment? My kids were in preschool, so I dropped them off at school then would go do my radiation treatment.
When were you diagnosed with cancer for the second time? Four years ago, I discovered a lump. I was diagnosed with breast cancer again, but it was a different cancer. The treatment was a double mastectomy and chemotherapy.
How did the second diagnosis make you feel? I had made it past the 41, so that was good. I was single parenting at that time. I had just gone through a divorce and was raising my kids, so I felt like I had to fight to get better.
After the second cancer diagnosis what kept you going? I had a job I really loved, and a family who gave me tremendous support.
Did you keep working during treatment? I did not want to stop working, so I told my physician I needed to teach as long as possible. This is my whole life. I believe in being with kids and serving my community this way. It gives my life meaning.
Did chemotherapy make you sick? For the year I received treatment I would get chemotherapy on a Thursday, I would be fine on Friday, but then I would be sick over the weekend. But I stayed healthy overall, and I was able to teach the whole time.
Did you have any help? After chemotherapy on Thursday, a team of people who I worked with would come, volunteer their time, and wipe down this entire classroom with Lysol and Clorox wipes, so when I came back the next day I was coming back to a very clean environment. That continued the entire year. Their acts of kindness made it possible for me to teach and complete my treatments. I will always hold a great amount of gratitude for all of those coworkers.
Are you cancer free now? Thankfully I am cancer free.
Is life just a big circle? Yes it is. I think the longer you live and the more you go through, the more you see what is important.
Why did you want to work at St Helens Elementary? When Niki Reece agreed to hire me she asked, “Why do you want to come here?” I told her I wanted to be able to help kids who need the most help in our community.
What is teaching at St Helens like today? It is a mix of experiences. There are days that are challenging, and days that are very rewarding. We can have a lot of behaviors. We have many kids living hard lives for different reasons. The kids are often loved, but they are living in circumstances that are tough. It is just a real honor to be able to walk through that with them and be of help if I can.
What else? The most important thing I would like to convey is how special it is to be at St Helens. It is an honor to teach with the people I work with.