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Health Advocate Jean Jilote: ‘Always Smiling, Always Available’

Making an Impact, Keeping Students Learning

It’s not two minutes into our interview, and already health advocate Jean Jilote is shedding tears.

It’s not that she’s suffered some recent loss or experienced pain or trauma.

She’s just so in love with her kids that the thought of them – and the difference she wants to make in their lives – prompts the opening of salty floodgates.

“When these kids succeed,” she says, “we all succeed. These kids are the same kids I see when I’m out walking my dog. It’s a job, sure. But it’s also personal for me. And yes, I get emotional.”

Meet the Grown-up Poster Child for Grand Rapids Public Schools, for its partner, the “Health School Advocacy Program” sponsored by Spectrum Health, and what the heck, why not just throw in “Health Care Workers The Whole World Over” while we’re at it?

This 46-year-old dynamo is like Florence Nightingale, Mother Teresa and Joan of Arc, all wrapped up in a set of sky-blue scrubs, though she would likely describe herself in much more humble terms: wife, mom, worker.

In the course of a typical day at Coit Creative Arts Academy, she’ll get barfed on, take temps, tame a cough, stem a stomachache, fetch ice, treat a cut, feed someone, and dispense everything from hugs to high-fives to meds.

Just now, in fact, she’s sliding a bucket across the floor of the cramped medical quarters she shares with supervisor Deb Pebley, R.N., in case a little girl who’s just come in decides to share what she had for breakfast – the hard way.

Jean Jilote takes the temperature of Banin Hassani

“I can’t stop coughing,” she says. “I feel like I’m going to throw up.”

And I, intrepid reporter? I immediately want out of there, and I squeeze my pen and notepad to make sure they’re close by, just in case I need to make a quick exit. I’ve seen a lot in my life, but just can’t stomach this.

I’m grateful when “Miss Jean” as she’s called, calms the little girl with soothing words and a stroke of her hair.

Just when I think the coast is clear, another young lady enters, complaining of the same thing. The culprit? A bounce house the school set up to reward kids for high math scores. “The bounce house made me feel nauseous,” she tells Miss Jean, and I wish I were anywhere else.

But this isn’t 1968, where most all schools had nurses to tend to students. Through years of budget cuts, those positions were all cut as schools struggled to keep enough teachers in classrooms, despite the need for medical help.

This is 2016, and health care is not only necessary, but a super-conduit and touchstone for how well kids sink or soar in the classroom as well as at home and beyond.

“We have data to show that we’ve made a difference in absenteeism,” says Ken Fawcett, M.D., Spectrum’s Vice President for Healthier Communities. “That’s a great start, and I’d like to be able to eventually demonstrate impacting graduation rates, reading ability, workplace readiness, matriculation to college and more. We’re only now beginning to ask those questions.”

Fawcett is head cheerleader for the unique program of which Miss Jean has been an integral part since its inception 20 years ago, a unique collaboration between GRPS and Spectrum Health, which funds the Health Advocacy Program to the tune of about $1 million and sponsors it in seven impoverished districts in Grand Rapids and environs, serving 30,000 students in all.

It largely targets “ALICE” couples who are “Asset Limited, Income Constrained but Employed,” says Fawcett: “We’re talking about couples holding down two jobs, incredibly hard-working, but just one break away from either making it or getting knocked down big-time,” says Fawcett. “So we’re here to do what we can to make a difference in their lives.”

That means not only providing medical care, but reaching out to help them navigate other barriers – food security, housing, literacy, transportation, cultural barriers. As for health care advocates like Miss Jean – who happens to be fluent in Spanish — “They’re the real stars of this program,” says Fawcett.

Born into poverty on Grand Rapids’ West Side to a fatherless household, Jilote (pronounced “hill-O-tay”) attended Stocking Elementary, then moved with her family to Texas, married as a young teen and eventually settled in Mexico with husband Gerardo, with whom she’s been ever since.

The couple returned to Grand Rapids in 1990, where Jean got a job in a nursing home, and five years later, the advocacy program at Coit, where all three of the Jilote boys — Daniel, David and Gerardo Jr. — have attended.

Now empty nesters, the Jilotes still live but two blocks from school. Gerardo works in town as a machinist, and Jean still talks about him in the endearing terms usually reserved for newlyweds. “Just an incredible hard worker and provider,” she gushes.

Nurturing is baked into Miss Jean’s DNA. When she sees a need at Coit, she considers it her honor to fill it – anything from securing warm coats to providing a babysitter to chipping in with a snack for some kid needing a little extra boost. She calls every one of the some 285 students there, hers.

Overwhelmed? “Yes,” she admits. “But I’ve never thought of quitting. I’m human. You get tired. And you can’t please everyone. But I know in my heart I’m putting it out there as best I can. Besides, this fits me. I mean, how many people have their dream job?”

Jason McGhee is Coit’s principal, and in his first full year at it. He’s savvy enough to understand, however, that when a kid hurts, that kid needs more than a Band-Aid. They need a Miss Deb or a Miss Jean.

“When a kid gets hurt, emotions are high. They’re in pain. Something has HAPPENED, and it’s urgent. It takes a special person to deal with that.”

He describes Miss Jean as “always smiling, always available, and always above and beyond,” adding that she helps them relax “to such a degree that it can impact student achievement.

“They can focus,” says McGhee. “They can learn.”

As Miss Jean’s supervisor, Deb Pebley appreciates the way Jilote manages the non-stop traffic of little feet, and “creates a safe space, a welcome space, with clear boundaries.”

Miss Jean’s world might look complicated to you and me, but to her, “It’s simple: Do the right thing.” And that translates to all kinds of intrinsic and extrinsic rewards.

“Why?” she asks, “wouldn’t we do everything in our power to make them healthy, and prepared to learn every day?”

Farryn Easdy, a Coit student, has an ankle wrapped by Jean Jilote

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Tom Rademacher
Tom Rademacher
Tom Rademacher was long-time reporter and columnist for The Grand Rapids Press, where he specialized in wringing the extraordinary from the seeming ordinary. Read Tom's full bio or email Tom.


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