Wyoming — Four-year-old Alvaro hid behind a window shade in the Huntington Woods Early Childhood Center special education classroom.
It was Monday after a long weekend and Alvaro, who often takes time to warm up for the school day, was especially out of sorts. After sobbing on his mother’s shoulder on the way in, he rushed behind the shade and sat on the bench-style window ledge.
“Alvaro, what are you doing in the window?” asked a calm and cheerful Jerry Campbell, playing peek-a-boo with the little boy by peering behind the material saying, “There he is! There he is!”
Slowly, smiles began appearing between the tears.
“Are you coming out yet?” Campbell asked. “I’m still here. It’s all right, Alvaro.”
A moment later, the youngster, still clad in his winter coat, hat, gloves and backpack, timidly crawled out from under the shade and immediately ducked under a nearby chair. Campbell poked him playfully with a swim noodle and encouraged him to take off his winter gear and come out for good.
Finally, giggles. A quick game of tug-of-war with the noodle ensued, before Alvaro crawled out from under the chair and into a colorful play tunnel, He emerged at the end — a happy grin spreading across his face. Alvaro was ready to play.
Campbell was relieved and pleased. He knows what steps to take when Alvaro doesn’t want to be at school. It can take 15 minutes or so to get the tears to stop and for Alvaro to join his class.
‘The idea is to get them engaged’
Campbell, a paraprofessional, spends his mornings and afternoons three days a week at Huntington Woods supporting six preschoolers who have significant language delays in a classroom with teacher Amanda Kapolnek and parapro Christine Berg.
He works hard to keep Alvaro and other children engaged and happy through purposeful play. Campbell ingrains language and repetition into all activities. Cheerios are circles. Farm animals moo and cluck. Two cars are red and three are blue.
“Sometimes we get silly,” he said. Bananas at breakfast become happy or frowny faces when lifted to one’s mouth, or work as an old-fashioned telephone. “The idea is to get them engaged and get them talking, in their idea of talking. Just to get them verbalizing something and get them excited.”
He’s often on his hands and knees making pretend pizzas or playing with toys — emphasizing “stop” and “go”, “big” and “little”, “square” and “triangle.”
He described the moments when he witnesses things click for students.
“They start mimicking, and it’s like ‘Yes! We are making progress here.’
“To hear some of these children who don’t speak finally utter a word because you’ve been working with them is worth $100,000 easy, every time,” he said. “I’ve been able to see where they started and how far they have come. It is personally very rewarding to be part of that kind of educational development.”
Hard on the Knees, but Worth It
Working with preschoolers is Campbell’s retirement job. He was hired because of the rapport he developed with students and teachers as a custodian, a job he started a few years ago. Students followed him around like he was the Pied Piper of Hamelin, he said, especially when they wanted a turn picking up trash with a grabber on the playground.
He retired and returned to volunteer a year ago. That morphed into being hired as a parapro at the beginning of the school year.
“It is work, but it’s more fun than work,” he said.
“It’s been a good fit. It keeps me busy and active. It wears me out after two days. Three days is a little much on my knees, so I work Mondays and Tuesdays, take Wednesdays off to recoup and come back and do it again on Thursday.”
‘To hear some of these children who don’t speak finally utter a word because you’ve been working with them is worth $100,000 easy, every time,’— paraprofessional Jerry Campbell
Huntington Woods staff members appreciate the time Campbell devotes to the job.
“I’m always excited to see him in the morning when the kids show up and get off the bus,” Kapolnek said. “He’s always so happy to see them, and the kids are so happy to see him… He’s really great at making connections with the kids and making school fun.”
Tara White, speech language pathologist, called Campbell “wonderful.”
“It’s great to have a role model in the classroom for our students, but another level of it is that he is doing a lot of language modeling, so if a child says ‘ball’ he might expand on the language and say, ‘It’s a big ball,’ giving them more language opportunities to learn from others. He’s a great advocate for our students and he really helps promote language development, which is much needed.”
Education Worth Sharing
Campbell is a lifelong learner. Before he was a custodian, he held a variety of positions in different fields. He worked as a caseworker for the Department of Health and Human Services. He was an adjunct professor in political sciences at Grand Valley State University; he worked for a nonprofit called Community Rebuilders and at grocery stores.
He graduated from Wyoming Park High School in 1979 and his three children also graduated from Wyoming. (Daughter Mary is an English-language learner teacher at Kelloggsville Middle School.) He has a bachelor’s degree from Calvin College, a master’s from Aquinas College and has worked toward his doctorate.
“Education has always been important to me,” he said. “It was the idea that it was education, and there would never be any waste, whether I used it or not, because it made me who I am.
“If I have the opportunity to help these young ones appreciate education a little bit or enjoy being in school, then I am successful.”
He measures that success in the skills he sees Alvaro and other students develop while they play. In the classroom, one student colored on the whiteboard, another swayed on a large swing. Campbell rolled a ball back and forth — narrating the whole time — to a child who would be content to play ball all day long.
The children call him Dad, or Mr. Jerry or nothing at all. It’s all fine, he said. Regardless of their mood, language ability or what activities to which they gravitate, it’s about meeting them where they are at, he said.
Even behind a window shade.
“The children are the reason I’m here.”