Longtime Luverne educator takes 'leap' into retirement
After 41 years in education, Luverne Community Education Director Karen Willers decided this spring that her next lifelong learning activity is retirement.
“I made it public on Leap Day,” Willers said. “Right before all this COVID-19 stuff started.”
The coronavirus canceled all spring youth and adult enrichment activities and forced Early Childhood Family Education and Discovery Preschool classes to be taught virtually on the Internet and for Willers to work from home.
Since mid-March the Community Education offices and classrooms at Luverne Elementary School have been empty. “It has been really hard not to see the children every day,” Willers said.
Those early learners are what kept Willers working in Luverne for decades.
Willers grew up in Red Deer, Alberta, Canada, and immigrated to the United States when she was 10 years old.
She attended elementary and middle schools in Billings, Montana, and when her father’s fertilizer business expanded, she moved with her family to Humboldt, South Dakota, and finished high school in Parker, South Dakota.
Her future husband, Mark Willers, and his family were fertilizer customers. They first met when their families attended conferences.
The couple married in 1977 while she was a college student at South Dakota State University in Brookings. The couple settled near the Willers family farm by Beaver Creek.
Willers developed a passion for teaching while she was in high school. “My FACS teacher, Diane Morrison, was very influential,” she said.
Early years with early learners
Willers’ first teaching position was for Luverne Public Schools. In the fall of 1979, she was hired as a full-time family and consumer science (FACS) teacher, splitting her day between Luverne and Magnolia middle and high schools.
As the two districts settled into a pairing agreement for the 1980-81 school year, Willers’ position was scaled back.
She then took over the part-time grant-funded “Parent-Child Chain” as a coordinator and a parent educator. She had experience in this area through student teaching in the Castlewood, South Dakota, parent education and child development curriculum.
“This is where I discovered the area of parent education — I loved it,” she said.
Typically, grant-funded programs last one or two years, but Parent-Child Chain became a popular program and evolved into Early Childhood Family Education, which the state of Minnesota permanently funded in 1986.
Willers meanwhile earned licensure in parent and family education and early childhood/pre-K and early childhood education.
“I was lucky enough to do my EC student teaching with Jane Gropel in Discovery Time Preschool (in Luverne) — I consider her a master teacher,” she said.
Willers scaled back on her parent educator position in order to care for her growing family. She and Mark have four children — Brad, Patricia, Nicole and Natalie — and six grandchildren.
She helped form the ECFE program in Hills-Beaver Creek School District and then worked part time as coordinator for nine years, along with coordinating Luverne’s early childhood programs.
Filling Gropel’s shoes
In 1999 Willers became the Luverne Community Education Director after Gregg Gropel retired. This required Willers to go back to college for a Community Education administration license.
For the next two decades, the position evolved and allowed Willers to mold the local programs into what they are today.
“Gregg Gropel always expressed so much gratitude to everyone that did something for Community Education, and that was something I wanted to emulate,” Willers said.
“I always enjoyed leadership roles, and I was excited to develop more learning opportunities for our community.”
When she began her role as director, Willers oversaw the youth through adult enrichment classes, Adult Basic Education, Discovery Time, ECFE and School Readiness programs.
As her tenure comes to a close, in addition to the original three areas, Community Education now includes FamilyU School-Aged Care program, student driver’s education, Cardinal Kids competitive gymnastics, second language child care, day care and early childhood screening coordination.
Within the community, Community Education partners in the Family Services Collaborative, Blandin Broadband committee, and grants to expand early childhood enhancement classes, teen parenting, fatherhood, and most recently, early learning scholarships.
“When I started I was determined develop some kind of scholarship program so that everyone could participate in,” Willers said.
‘Educator of Excellence’
She said she enjoyed having a role in the outdoor classroom built with donations and sponsorships on the Luverne Elementary School grounds.
“The Nature Explore Outdoor Classroom was the most gratifying experience of my career,” she said.
“It adds a special element to our programs and to our community. The outdoor classroom has been the site of so much learning.”
For her dedication to education, Willers was awarded the Community Educator of Excellence for Region 2 (southwest Minnesota) award from her peers.
Willers said she looks forward to not driving to work on bad roads, but said it’s difficult to wind down her career amid the pandemic,
“I’m disappointed to not be able to finish my career working shoulder to shoulder with people I care about and who are just as passionate about teaching and caring for people as I am,” she said.
“Those people have made my job something to look forward to every day. I will miss them so very much.”
On Monday the Community Education office sent out a district-wide email celebrating Willers’ retirement.
“She has shared her passion for education here at the Luverne School District for 41 years, as a teacher and as the Community Education director,” the message said.
“Her dedication, inspiration, leadership, desire to serve, and love of children and families have benefited our community greatly.”