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The Heart and Soul of a Teacher With a 'Calling'

"It's easy to make a buck. It's a lot tougher to make a difference." ~Tom Brokaw

Kelly Stopp has a cheerful smile, a warm heart and the true soul of a teacher.  The second grade reading specialist from Meadowcreek Elementary School in Norcross will do anything to help a child, especially when it comes to learning - and particularly in the area of literacy. 

It’s one of the reasons she and two other Meadowcreek Elementary School teachers started Sunset Stories - to help children and their parents enjoy reading together.

“It’s something we wanted to do for our community,” says Stopp, who points out that the program is designed to work on two levels.

“We observed low parent participation,” she explains, “not because they don’t care or don’t love their children, but because of time or financial restrictions they have within their family that doesn’t allow them to come to all of the school functions like PTA meetings or parent-teacher conferences.”

So, Stopp and Sunset Stories co-founders, Suzanne Vogt and Kathryn Funk, began the group as a way of helping Kindergarten and elementary grade students with their reading skills while, at the same time, reaching out to the parents that could not come to the school.  In doing so, the parents could be more involved with the educational process of their children because, as Stopp says, “Parents are actually a child’s first teacher.”

“We wanted it to be a family event,” says Stopp.  “So, from the beginning, we asked the parents to come with the kids and stay with them.  That way we could talk with the parents and show them what we do and how we do it in the classroom.”

Stopp, Vogt and Funk began Sunset Stories in early 2010, meeting at the clubhouse of the Oakbrook Pointe apartments in Norcross, where approximately 75 percent of their students live.  Once a month, the students, their parents and the teachers would read a book.  The teachers would even provide each student with a copy of the book they were reading to have for their personal library at home.

“It’s been an amazing experience,” says Stopp. “During the school months we have 50 to 60 children attend, plus their parents.”

They did this – these three teachers - out of their own pockets, on teacher pay, because they believed so strongly in the program and because the school system’s budget was already stretched to the limit. 

“We don’t leave our profession when we go home at night,” says Stopp.  “Our kids don’t leave our hearts and our families don’t leave our minds – we serve them year round.  We just felt like it had to be done.”

Then last November, something very special happened; “a blessing” according to Stopp.

The Milken Family Foundation sought out and then surprised Stopp in front of her entire school with a National Educator Award (watch the video of the announcement)

“I absolutely couldn’t believe it,” Stopp recalls. “I thought ‘there are so many other incredible educators that I work with on a daily basis that this should go to.’”

But, that wasn’t all.  Along with the prestigious award, the foundation presented Stopp with a check for $25,000.  She and her Sunset Stories co-founders suddenly had the money needed to sustain their efforts and buy even more books for the children to read and keep.

“It was a blessing - perfect timing,” Stopp says with joy in her voice. “We suddenly had the funds to buy books and pencils and paper and crayons and everything we needed for Sunset Stories.

It has also helped Stopp fulfill a dream she has harbored since childhood.

Stopp had a couple of educators that, as she puts it, “I can’t speak too highly of.”

As a result, she had a very difficult time with reading as a child and, as is often the case with children who have difficulty reading, it affected her other school work and, ultimately, her self-confidence.

“I remember how hurt I was, how low my confidence and my self esteem was,” Stopp recalls.  “I began to get stomach aches and not want to go to school because it was just too hard for me.”

Stopp’s parents did everything they could, from hours and hours of homework help in the evenings to hiring professional tutors.  Then along came a high school program that allowed Stopp to volunteer with a teacher in a nearby elementary school.  The experience changed her life.

“I loved what the teacher did,” Stopp recalls.  “I loved how caring and warm she was with her students and how they absolutely adored her and loved school - and didn’t dread going to school.”

Through this connection with a caring teacher, Stopp finally overcame her problems.  She also realized that she wanted to teach.  “And I thought that if I can get my kids, my students to love school as much as she can, then maybe there won’t be as many of me sitting in that classroom that hated school early on.”

So, the little girl - the one who once had a reading problem and hated school - went on to college and received her bachelor’s degree and her master’s degree in early childhood education from Ohio State University.  Two years ago she completed her Specialist degree in early literacy and language acquisition and is now not only a nationally recognized educator; she is currently working on her doctoral degree in Literacy. 

“It’s been a ‘calling’ for me to help struggling students the way that I needed help when I was in school,” says Stopp. 

Sunset Stories has continued to meet over the summer and, in fact, will meet again this Thursday evening at 6:30 p.m. at the Oakbrook Point clubhouse, as the students and their parents read another book and the organization prepares for the new school year that gets underway in a few weeks.

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