Jon Steimel '75
By: Jennifer Niester
Alma Accents Editor
Since the first grade, Peggy Smith's* son, Jared*, has been in special education classes. Jared, an emotionally impaired student, struggled when he was placed into the unfamiliar environment of middle school. The teachers had difficulty managing Jared in the classroom and suggested he be transferred to a special needs class. Peggy struggled emotionally for two years, watching her son barely pass his classes.
When it came time to start high school, Peggy explored options in her school district. She found that her son would be able to achieve only a certificate of completion instead of a high school diploma. Her hope that her son graduate high school seemed less and less likely. Then she was able to get a meeting at Central Montcalm schools. It was there her hope was rekindled, thanks in part to Jon Steimel '75.
"Thanks to Jon Steimel's strong will, compassion, intuition, loving and superior guidance, my son graduated in May 2003 with a diploma," Smith said. "He has not only been a major support for my son but also for myself. He's always been available to address issues and concerns or listen when I felt I had no more energy to keep pushing."
Smith's glowing words come from one of many letters nominating Steimel as Outstanding Professional of the Year in the secondary education category for the State of Michigan. He received the award at the Michigan Occupational Special Populations Association State Conference in May 2003. The association is for professionals who work with students who are not traditional learners due to learning disabilities or emotional and cognitive impairments.
The work of Steimel is not limited to a traditional 40-hour week. It is a life's devotion. Steimel has worked the past 13 years as a school social worker for Central Montcalm Public Schools. During this time, he has also worked as a foster family/adoptive family trainer and as a clinical social worker/psychotherapist. When the school year is over, he travels to Estonia to work with orphanages for two months. This summer will mark his eighth trip since 1993.
"I have a strong sense of advocacy for the rights of children and teenagers," Steimel said. "I think their rights get ignored."
Robert Marston, a colleague, said, "I marvel at the way he interacts with disabled students. He treats each of his students with dignity and respect. Jon exhibits a characteristic that I have not seen in other school social workers and that is to impart a warm and caring feeling, but also hold students accountable for their behavior."
Steimel's mother tells him he always wanted to work in schools, though that isn't how he remembers it. "What drove me is seeing that emotional wounds can be as painful as physical wounds," he said.
Steimel's expertise and compassion led to an invitation two years in a row, 1991 and 1992, to be a speaker at the International Foster Care Conference in Sweden. He declined attending subsequent years to work with orphanages and the foster care system of Estonia. He met one of the Estonian welfare workers during the 1992 conference and was asked for help. "He said we can't pay you but we can show you our country," Steimel said.
While in Estonia, Steimel trains child welfare workers and gives lectures on foster care. He stays in a small apartment inside an orphanage while he works with the staff. "The goal is to help the staff understand the kids are mad and not bad," Steimel said. "These kids are powerfully influenced by their pasts, which are checkered with abuse, separations and losses."
At his "regular" job, Steimel has helped develop the emotionally-impaired high school curriculum. He also leads the program with the common theme, "What is best for the child." Other programs he has helped develop include the high school crisis plan and a weekend retreat to train a cross section of high school students in communication skills.
The impact of Steimel is evident in an award nomination letter from a student. "He is more caring than any teacher or counselor I've ever had. He's been more like a friend than a counselor. He's been there when my life got bad. I thought my life meant nothing, but Mr. Steimel told me my life will get better and never give up," wrote the student.
* Names have been changed for confidentiality.