DECATUR — In a corner of Annie Brahler’s classroom at Harris Learning Academy is an overstuffed chair occupied by a giant teddy bear.
A soft foam brick wall surrounds it on two sides. Students having difficulty can go sit in that chair and pull that wall around to conceal the corner, to take a moment to compose themselves.
In the Social-Emotional Alternative Program, social/emotional coping skills are taught alongside academic subjects. The program uses a trauma-informed model and restorative practices, said Kathy Horath, executive director of Macon-Piatt Special Education District, and the students in that program have similar needs to the population served by the social-emotional development program. The two programs will merge in August.
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Several parents spoke at the April 26 school board meeting to ask the board to intervene and prevent those changes to the social-emotional development program. More than one of those parents said they would not accept a staff shortage as a reason for the change because teaching assistants could fill the empty positions.
“This isn’t about parents, it’s about the 36 kids that are affected at my son’s school,” said Lloyd Davis, one of the parents who spoke to the board on April 26. He surpassed his three-minute time limit and was asked to leave the podium, and when he didn’t, was escorted out of the meeting. “It affects my child differently. They’re crying for help and their voice cannot be heard.”
Parents also attended the school board’s May 10 meeting to ask again for the programs to remain separate.
“Some of these teachers have had those kids for five years,” said Barbara McCall, the grandparent and guardian of a student in the SED program. “That trust and kinship and growth is not able to be replaced just because we don’t feel the program is needed anymore.”
During board discussion later in the meeting, board member Alana Banks asked whether the Decatur school board could do anything about the decision, and legal counsel Brian Braun said those decisions are made by the Macon-Piatt Special Education District’s board. The Decatur board can express their concerns, he said, but so can the parents of special education students, and if those parents wish to attend the Macon-Piatt board meetings to speak to that board, they can.
Staffing shortages made the change necessary, Horath said.
At the beginning of this school year, she said, there were four classrooms at Muffley School devoted to the social/emotional program, with three full-time teachers, six teaching assistants, and one teaching assistant assigned to work one-on-one with students. During the first semester, escalating issues included administrative changes, complexities in student needs and staffing, leading to the program being moved to Harris. One of the teachers moved to another position and one teaching assistant quit to become a substitute full time. Sixth-grade students were moved to Stephen Decatur Middle School with a long-term substitute and the kindergarten through fifth grade students moved to Harris. After the transfer to Harris, things seemed to be on an even keel for several weeks, and then another teacher accepted a new position for the coming school year. That left only one full-time certified teacher.
“There are five (social/emotional development) teaching positions posted,” Horath said. “Three have been posted all year. There have been zero applicants to date.”
The plan is for this year’s sixth-graders to stay at Stephen Decatur for the coming school year, in the seventh/eighth grade special education program there. The current K-5 students will stay at Harris campus, and will be aligned with the SEAP program and work will continue to get those students ready to return to their home school campus.
“We start our day with morning meeting,” Brahler said. “I love morning meeting. I love the social/emotional part which is extremely important for our children. The kids know the routine and expectation every morning. I’ve come up with a super-interactive routine where we talk about our feelings, we identify a coping skill for the day so when I do have a moment of frustration, am I going to use a fidget, am I going to take deep breaths.”
Between subjects, the class of second- to fifth-graders takes a “brain break,” where they get up and move around.
The ultimate goal of the SEAP program, said Principal Jessica Ellison, is to help the student achieve and get back to their own home building. While there are kids who stay at SEAP for long periods because that’s what they need, an Individualized Education Program for a special education student includes the provision that the youngster is assigned to the “least restrictive environment” possible.
Horath said she hopes the merger is temporary.
“It’s unfortunate (that they have to be combined),” Horath said. “This is a short-term solution.”
The teacher shortage in Illinois is acute, with more than 6,200 positions unfilled in 2021, according to the Illinois Association of School Boards. Retirements have gone up by 50%, and fewer college students are choosing teaching as a career. And the problem is not limited to Illinois. The shortage is nationwide. Some states are using short-term solutions. Kentucky is hiring back retired teachers with no hit to their retirement benefits, and Wisconsin is loosening restrictions to allow teachers to teach subjects they lack certification in. Teachers who leave the profession cite low pay, lack of administrative support, inadequate preparation and mentoring options, a lack of respect and voice in school decision-making, and undue emphasis on standardized testing.
Meet the extraordinary Decatur-area ‘Heart of Health Care’ honorees
Heart of Health Care: Amber Brown, Senior Health Specialties
LINCOLN — Amber Brown’s road to becoming a nurse was not easy.
She was going to school and working full-time while raising five children.
Now, Brown is the regional administrator of five Senior Health Specialties facilities including two in Lincoln, one in Mattoon, one in Havre, Montana and one in Columbia Falls, Montana.
“I became a nurse in hopes that I would be able to make a difference in someone’s life,” Brown said. When she isn’t working, Brown is typically restoring furniture or enjoying time with family.
Most aspects of her job are enjoyable, she said. But Brown has experienced tough times, especially during last year when the coronavirus hit.
One piece of advice helps get her through challenging moments.
“The concept of right and wrong does not change, situations and circumstances are very fluid and messy, situations and circumstances change, but they can not change concepts,” she said. It is important not to empathize to the point where you can create a new problem, said Brown.
Aspiring nurses looking to soon enter the field should head Brown’s advice. They should also remember that when things don’t go right, “go left and don’t ever give up.”
Heart of Health Care: Karen Carlson, HSHS Medical Group
DECATUR — Karen Carlson still has an autographed baseball hat gifted to her by a former patient.
“Frank and I shared a love for the St. Louis Cardinals and Ozzie Smith,” said Carlson. Frank was a patient at HSHS Medical Group, he spoke with Carlson each day about his lab results. During baseball season, the conversations shifted to a lighter note. “He became family.”
When Frank passed away, his wife brought Carlson a Cardinals hat autographed by Ozzie Smith that Frank gotten when he met the player. “I will cherish that baseball hat forever as well as the family who gave it to me,” said Carlson. She currently works as a registered nurse facilitator in Family and Sports Medicine at HSHS Medical Group in Mount Zion. Carlson received the Herald & Review Reader’s Choice Nurse Award, HSHS Colleague of the Month.
Working in family medicine can be tough, especially as you grow close to your patients. Carlson, who has been in the field for over 13 years, says it can be especially difficult to see patients who quickly become friends, pass away.
Family was the main reason Carlson got into nursing. Her father died of prostate cancer when she was 10-years-old. Having spent several days at the hospital visiting her dad, Carlson observed nurses in action.
“I watched the nurses taking such good care of him and knew that’s what I wanted to do,” she said.
There are several doctors and nurse practitioners whom Carlson worked closely with in Mount Zion and taught her “more than she could have ever learned in a textbook. But one mentor sticks out. Karen Vercellino, one of Carlson’s former professors and biggest cheerleaders, inspired Carlson during the early stages of her career. “She believed in me when I didn’t believe in myself,” Carlson said.
If Carlson could give one piece of advice to aspiring nurses, it would be to never give up.
“Do your best,” she said. “That’s all you can do!”
Heart of Health Care: LeAnn Clifton, Department of Veterans Affairs
DECATUR — Leann Clifton treats each of her patients like family.
Clifton is a registered nurse case manager for a community based outpatient clinic through the Department of Veterans Affairs. She loves being able to make a difference in veterans lives, no matter how small.
“I enjoy caring for the veterans I serve,” said Clifton. “They are the real heroes. They deserve the very best care available.”
The coronavirus pandemic made Clifton’s work challenging because she couldn’t see patients in person. “It is hard to practice holistic care over the phone,” she said.
Clifton, who has been in the field for 21 years, made the most out of her resources and continued to treat the patients as if they were members of her family.
She became a nurse because of her grandpa who was living in a nursing home when Clifton was eight-years-old. Her grandfather was not being treated properly and that was when Clifton knew she wanted to be a nurse. She vowed to make a difference in the lives she touched and treat patients the way they deserved.
But creating close ties with patients can be tough, especially if their conditions worsen or they pass away. What helps Clifton stay positive is remembering the high quality of care in Decatur.
“We all work hard to care for our patients to the best of our ability,” said Clifton. “We are all rock stars in my opinion.”
Heart of Health Care: Gail Fyke, Millikin University School of Nursing
DECATUR — Future nurses are in excellent hands with Gail Fyke, an assistant professor at Millikin University’s School of Nursing.
When asked what she enjoys most about her job, Fyke said she loves mentoring students to be the best nurses possible.
“…and to help them fall in love with nursing,” Fyke said.
As a nurse with 34 years of experience, Fyke has seen everything. Her favorite stories come from her time working in an intensive care unit, where she helped patients who were critically ill. She shares stories with her students about seeing patients’ miraculous recoveries.
Throughout this past year, nurses across the world faced a new set of challenges created by the coronavirus pandemic. For Fyke, this meant transitioning students to online learning rather than having them shadowing nurses in local hospitals.
Decatur healthcare facilities offer some of the best learning opportunities for aspiring nurses.
“We are blessed with excellent services in Decatur between the two hospitals, Crossing (facilities), the health department, Cancer Care, clinics and more,” Fyke said.
As COVID-19 restrictions loosen with the further distribution of vaccines, students will likely have in-person learning options to begin shadowing nurses again.
“Job shadow with a nurse that is working in a field that interests you,” advises Fyke.
Though she ultimately roots for their success, Fyke has a difficult time saying goodbye to students when graduation rolls around.
Her advice even after they receive their diplomas is to never stop learning.
Heart of Health Care: Jill Gossett, HSHS St. Mary’s Hospital
DECATUR — Most nurses follow a common mantra — treat your patients the way you would want your family to be treated.
That is Jill Gossett’s approach as a nurse at HSHS St. Mary’s Hospital in Decatur. Gossett works in the Cath Lab, which is a critical care area equipped with cardiovascular support.
“(Patients) are someone’s loved one, treat them the way you would want your treated,” says Gossett.
She recalls one patient who was incredibly grateful for Gossett and her colleague spending extra time with him when he visited the lab for concerns about low heart function.
“He was very negative about the heart cath and taking the medications he had previously been prescribed,” said Gossett, who, along with a fellow nurse, took the time to understand his story and talked him through potential concerns. “By the time he left, he had a better understanding of why we were so concerned about his heart and agreed to start taking his medications like he should.” The next day he sent the two nurses lunch and called to express his gratitude for their patience and for making his experience at the lab a positive one.
People are the best part about Gossett’s job. Patients, doctors and co-workers she is surrounded by daily bring joy to shifts. She especially enjoys working as a team in high-pressure situations.
“…when we get called in and someone is having a heart attack, it’s amazing to be part of the team that opens up a blocked artery causing the patient discomfort,” said Gossett.
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit early last year, Gossett quickly learned she would be working with new teams. Her biggest challenge was learning nursing outside of the cath lab, where she has been stationed since she became a nurse 15 years ago.
“It was so challenging to learn several different areas in a short amount of time due to the cath lab decreasing procedures in April of 2020,” she said.
But learning new things is what nursing is all about. And Gossett can’t picture herself doing anything else.
Heart of Health Care: Tess Massey, Memorial Medical Center
DECATUR — Tess Massey finds inspiration in her work everyday.
Massey is a registered nurse with Memorial Medical Center in Springfield and she serves as an intensive care unit nurse. In January, she began working as a flight nurse for the Air Evac Lifeteam in Mattoon. She’s finding that there are many challenging aspects to her new role, but the most difficult being making decisions about patient care.
“In both of my jobs as a flight nurse and as an ICU nurse, I get to take care of the sickest patients on their worst days,” said Massey. “It is one of the most rewarding jobs that I could imagine.”
She saw many patients during their worst days after the coronavirus pandemic hit early last year. Massey was working in the ICU at the time, which was converted to a COVID-ICU. Many patients were seeing their health drop to an all-time low, according to Massey.
“We felt helpless a lot of the time and faced many challenges that we never expected,” she said. “I was also always scared to get infected with the virus or pass the virus along to a loved one.”
The hard times during her career came with inspirational moments, too. Massey remembers one ICU patient who became an organ donor. Everyone who was available at the hospital lined up for an “honor walk” to pay respect to the patient donating his organs to save others.
“To see nurses, doctors, respiratory therapists, housekeeping, administrators etc., all lined up to honor my patient was the most profound experience I have had as a nurse and one that I will never forget.”
Massey advises those entering the field of nursing to recognize the hardships but remember those moments can be the most impactful. Figure out what you like and where you feel comfortable.
“It is a difficult, but very rewarding profession,” Massey said.
Heart of Health Care: Amber Probus, Cancer Care Specialists of Central Illinois.
DECATUR — There are three words that will take you anywhere you want to go in life according to Amber Probus.
Choices, chances and changes.
“Don’t be afraid to make a choice that gives you the chance to make a change,” she said.
Probus has been in the field of nursing for 10 years and currently works as a clinic nurse in oncology practice at the Cancer Care Specialists of Central Illinois.
She made the choice to become a nurse when she was 25-years-old.
“My mother, the hero of my life, was diagnosed with a glioblastoma, and given a year to live,” said Probus. Feeling lost and clueless about the medical field, Probus’ mother made her the health care power of attorney, meaning her daughter would act on her behalf of her well-being. Probus was determined to keep her mother’s best interest at heart.
“It was definitely one of the most difficult things that I have ever done in my life. Watching the strongest person you’ve ever known slip away is completely miserable, heartbreaking and it changes you,” she said.
The nurses assisting her mother saw something in Probus.
“After her passing, her hospice nurse walked up to and said ‘just breathe, if you don’t go to nursing school you’re an idiot.’” Ten years later, Probus has helped dozens of patients in their most difficult moments.
From her first day walking through the doors at Cancer Care, Probus says it has been a pleasure working with people who show so much compassion, heart and dedication for what they do.
Probus walks patients through their cancer journeys. She forms bonds with families, which can be one of the most difficult aspects of her job.
“Sometimes, holding on to hope is really hard. I always want to see the best outcome for each one of them,” said Probus.
Compassion and care are two of the most important traits a nurse can have. Probus says that those looking to enter the field should possess those traits and know they are doing something not just any person can do.
“…be ready for anything and everything at any given moment,” says Probus. “You’re going to learn something new every single day (and) your patients come first. You’re never ‘just a nurse.’”
Heart of Health Care: Diana Voiles, Randall Residence of Decatur
DECATUR — Some people grow up knowing what they want to do with their lives. Others find their calling at just the right time.
Diana Voiles realized she wanted to be a nurse when she was 36-years-old. After 18 years in the field, she says it is the best decision she has ever made.
“This is a lifestyle. It’s not a job,” says Voiles. “It is the most gratifying thing you will ever do, but you have to balance it and life.”
She currently works at Randall Residence of Decatur as the director of Health and Wellness. Voiles built a reputation in the community as being a go-to person for questions only nurses can answer. And the community counts on her.
“I am available 24/7,” Voiles says. “…I value that people will trust to call me when needed and know that I will help or get them in the right direction.”
Voiles is a people-person through and through. People make any challenges of her job worthwhile.
“I love the residents and their families,” she said. “I enjoy my co-workers almost as much as my residents.”
She is consistently going above and beyond for residents, especially during the hardest months of the coronavirus pandemic when morale was low and residents couldn’t see their families. Voiles purchased a dog just to make residents smile.
“I purchased a specific breed of a dog that I knew would be a good companion and wouldn’t get too big for a lap or a snuggle just for the residents at Randall,” said Voiles. Now, Cindy Lou Who visits the facility’s memory care side and residents of the assisted side take turns babysitting her.
Being a nurse means going the extra mile to help patients. Voiles is living proof of that.
Heart of Health Care: Skyler Zinn, Decatur Memorial Hospital
DECATUR — Starting a new job can be nerve wracking, especially if your job duties include caring for people who are fighting for their lives.
Skyler Zinn began working as a registered nurse in the intensive care unit at Decatur Memorial Hospital 16 months ago. She works the night shift and when she isn’t at work, she is thinking about those back at the ICU.
“We get attached to our patients and sometimes it’s difficult to let someone else take over their care, especially when they are critically sick,” says Zinn.
The 23-year-old Decatur resident says the best part about her job is making connections with people.
“I love guiding people through difficult situations,” she said. Having the opportunity to interact with and build relationships with patients brings Zinn joy.
One of her patients, an elderly man, is particularly memorable. He was in the COVID ICU and offered life advice to every staff member who entered his room.
“None of us realized that he was doing it to everyone until someone shared one of his quips in the nurses station,” said Zinn. “We all quickly recited our tidbits of his wisdom and couldn’t stop laughing.”
The light moments carry Zinn through moments of frustration. She is particularly challenged by members of the public who “shrug off the pandemic.”
“I believe in medicine and I trust that God will take care of me, but I have seen too many kind souls die from this virus to not wear a mask out in public,” Zinn said.
Zinn believes in local health care efforts and said she is proud of how Decatur Memorial Hospital has been handling the global pandemic that hit early last year.
“I admire how our local health care groups rallied together to take great care of our community,” said Zinn.
Heart of Health Care: Rebekah Zuniga, HSHS St. Mary’s Hospital
DECATUR — Sometimes all it takes to make a significant life change is the kindness of others.
Rebekah Zuniga recalls countless nurses who were compassionate and patient while her son, Noah, struggled throughout the first year of his life.
“This was ultimately what convinced me to go back to school and embark on a new educational journey and change in career,” Zuniga, 39, said. Her new career aspirations was to become a nurse.
Now, Zuniga is a registered nurse in HSHS St. Mary’s Hospital Cardiovascular Unit and she finds the experience incredibly rewarding. Zuniga sees the worst-case scenarios for patients more often than not and has to work through those challenging situations. Her mother also worked as a nurse and was a key inspiration to Zuniga when deciding to change careers.
“We as medical professionals work rigorously to provide care and treatment in hopes of overall healing, however each patient is different, thus affecting their outcomes,” says Zuniga.
She gets to know each of her patients on a personal level. Zuniga has heard loves stories, tales of bravery and adventures about patients living in other countries.
“I have held the frailest of hands that have been the strongest I have ever known,” Zuniga said. She sees life through her patients, which is a constant reminder of why she chose this path.
She recalls one Army veteran she cared for for several days. At the time, Zuniga was struggling with the loss of her father who was also an Army veteran. The patient shared many beautiful memories of the time he served, which happened to be around the same time Zuniga’s father served. The nurse and patient discovered that Zuniga’s father was likely in Korea at the same time as the patient.
“Hearing his stories was like hearing them from my dad and brought such peace to my soul,” she said.
Zuniga passes on to future nurses the best piece of advice she has ever received.
“Time will pass no matter what, you might as well fill it with something meaningful.”
Contact Valerie Wells at (217) 421-7982. Follow her on Twitter: @modgirlreporter