OUR PEOPLE:  Bulkeley Students Praise Their ‘School Mom’ Hometown Hero Gretchen Levitz for Keeping Spirits High

OUR PEOPLE: Bulkeley Students Praise Their ‘School Mom’ Hometown Hero Gretchen Levitz for Keeping Spirits High

“My passion is helping students,” says Gretchen Levitz-Kimball, program director at Bulkeley High School. “I am like the mom for all of the kids,” she adds.  Levitz-Kimball helps to provide students, including newly-arrived refugees, with donated toiletries and warm weather clothing.

Vencent Hamilton-Bell doesn’t hesitate when you ask his opinion of Gretchen Levitz-Kimball, the program director at Bulkeley High School.

“She’s the female version of Mr. Rogers,” Hamilton-Bell, a senior at the school, said recently, comparing Levitz-Kimball to the beloved television icon because of the work she’s done with Bulkeley’s special-needs students.

“They’re both helpful, both inspire people to be themselves,” he said. “She is the perfect person to have in general as a teacher and a friend.”

Gretchen Levitz (center) with students at SpiritHorse.

Within the halls of Bulkeley, Levitz-Kimball is referred to as the “school mom” to a select group of students. It’s a fitting comparison. The 20-year veteran of the high school oversees SpiritHorse,  a school-funded program to help them cultivate confidence and relationships, all while earning a small stipend as farm hands. The students muck the horses’ stalls, feed goats and plant seeds for a garden. Many of the kids involved are immigrants new to the country, and the work helps them adjust to their adopted home. It’s a tight-knit group, steeled by the camaraderie on the property in Canton.

Students take their very first horseback ride, and get a high-five from their “school mom.”

“We’re like a family, the students are so diverse, come from all over, many of them are refugees, many are here for the first time and are just learning about our culture and what it means to be a student,” Levitz-Kimball said. “They can use the help and they’re really appreciative, and I’m motivated to get them whatever they need to be successful.”

The “needs” are taken literally, as Kathryn McLean, a junior at Bulkeley, explained. Levitz-Kimball maintains a storage room filled with donated supplies such as deodorant, toothpaste, socks and even spare uniform pieces for students who can’t otherwise afford them.

“It’s great to be able to go to school and see Ms. Levitz to get the things I need,” McLean said. “I know I don’t have to worry about anything.”

Students care for the animals at the farm.

Adjusting to Bulkeley from Texas was hard enough for McLean last year. But the first few friends she did meet all directed her to Levitz-Kimball as a guiding voice, the teen said. And, soon, being in a new school, a new city and even a new state wasn’t so bad.

“She helped,” McLean said. “She made me feel at home.”

Levitz-Kimball’s classroom is designed with that intention in mind. It’s filled with comfortable chairs and a sofa, and even has a faux fireplace to tie together the living-room decor. The design was steered by a former student who passed away shortly after graduation from a terminal illness. The room is dedicated to her as “Melissa’s Magical Mansion,” and her picture rests on the mantle of the “fireplace.”

“I try to be nurturing,” Levitz-Kimball said. “I think that’s something everyone needs. Even the most hard-to-reach students respond well to that.”

After a morning at the farm, the student community gathers for lunch and affirmations; positive compliments which they give to each other.

Before her time at Bulkeley, she worked with Greater Hartford Legal Aid. And after years of helping students who were neglected or abused, she wanted to switch sides, to help prevent those situations from developing.

“I just have such high hopes for them that I don’t want them to give up,” she said. “I try to be as optimistic as I can and show them that there are more things out there.”

By Vinny Vella, Contact Reporter, Hartford Courant, re-published with permission; originally published here:

Photos by Hartford Public Schools