By Kristen Miller
DASSEL-COKATO, MN The job of a high school social worker can be challenging at times, but Heidi Kepley, who will soon retire after 31 years in the Dassel-Cokato School District, has also found it to be a rewarding one.
“I spiritually believe this is what I [was meant] to do,” Kepley said.
Originally from northern Iowa, Kepley and her husband of 40 years, Ross, moved to Minnesota in 1980, after spending the early years of her career in Houston, TX.
With a triple major in elementary education, psychology, and social work from the University of Iowa, Kepley’s first job was as a pediatric medical social worker in the university’s hospital.
From 1973 to 1978, the Kepleys moved to Houston during the oil boom.
There, she taught all-day, every-day kindergarten to a class of 33 in an inner-city school.
Kepley told of two difficult experiences she had there. One was being robbed at gunpoint, and having her wedding ring stolen. The incident occurred during a workshop day when there were no students in school.
The second incident was during school hours when an armed gunman was on campus and the school was put on lock-down.
“You don’t know how you’re going to handle those things,” she said.
Missing the change in seasons, she and her husband decided to travel the country in search for work and a place to call home. They eventually ended up back in Iowa City until her husband’s company - Telex, was bought out, and they moved to Glencoe in 1980. They currently live in Chaska, where Heidi commutes to work from each day.
Kepley got a job as social worker in the district, with the main responsibility of identifying obstacles to students’ success and working together with them, their family, staff, and other outside support.
Kepley came in the era when Russ Johnson was the school board chair.
“Russ really set a tone, that continues to this day, that every student can, and will be successful,” Kepley said.
In her early years, Kepley was involved in helping to create a support program for high school students facing various obstacles in their lives that could ultimately hinder their success.
In 1980, the FOCUS program (Facing Our Challenges with Unconditional Support) was created and for 15 years, the core group of people involved were Mark Herman, director; Linda Teske, lead teacher and EBD coordinator; Roxanne Anderson, para educator; and Kepley, social worker.
At the time when the program was adopted, the district had been experiencing a high dropout rate.
Instead of only focusing on the academic side, the FOCUS program took on a new perspective that would support students through various obstacles they may be facing, whether it be social, emotional, family, or even mental health issues.
Herman talked of Kepley’s dedication not only to the program, but the students involved, having taken many hours out of her own time to help them through tough situations.
“She saved lives,” Herman said.
Teske also commented on Kepley’s commitment to her students, as well as her professionalism.
“The example she set for me, made me a better professional,” Teske said. “I feel very fortunate to have worked with her . . . and blessed to have her as a friend.”
Because of the FOCUS program, the district has had far fewer kids on probation, which could lead to more expensive detention placement than surrounding districts, and far fewer kids in out-of-district mental health facilities, Kepley explained.
“There were even years with no dropouts,” she said.
“There are not too many places that understand the total needs of students in this complicated world . . . and willing to support them in every way,” she said of the DC School District.
Kepley recalled what a former student, Kyle McAllister, told a group of students last year, prior to his deployment to Afghanistan: “They will make sure you succeed if you let them.”
“This district will really do that,” she said.
Rich Dahlberg, a FOCUS instructor, in his second year, talked of Kepley as having a great heart and a desire to help kids.
“She is always looking at the best thing for the student and helping them through their high school career,” Dahlberg said.
Through these years, Kepley has enjoyed what she does, especially the relationship-building with students, staff, and parents.
She chose to stick with it for 31 years, “because I know this is who I am and what I am meant to do,” Kepley said.
She has also enjoyed the variety that has come with her work, and the pace has also been exciting to her.
Since she began her career in the district, Kepley’s job has “mushroomed” and the number of kids with challenges has also grown, making her job a bit overwhelming, she said.
“There are a lot more foster kids coming to our district with very complicated history and needs that require a lot of support,” Kepley said.
Taking over for Kepley beginning Monday, Jan. 3 will be Anne (Melin) Mahoney, a 1996 DC graduate. Mahoney has a degree in social work, and spent the last six years working at a charter school in Mankato.
“I feel very optimistic about this hire,” Kepley said. “I am very excited about her coming in.”
In her retirement, Kepley doesn’t have any immediate plans, but in less than two years, she and her husband will be moving to North Carolina, where they’ve purchased a lot over-looking the Smokey Mountain National Park.
“I’m ready to do something very different,” she said, even though her career has been really exciting.
“It’s been an amazing run,” she said.
Kepley’s last day is Wednesday, Dec. 22.