Meet Kristin Wikel: Manager, Riley School Program
Kristin Wikel can trace her inspiration to become a teacher back to a refugee camp near Kassel, Germany.
That’s where Wikel’s father was born in 1946 after his family fled Lithuania during the period of Soviet occupation. His own father – Wikel’s grandfather – had worked as a police officer in Lithuania and was at risk for being confined to a Siberian internment camp. Later, at just 3 years old, Antanas Alfonsas Tekorius passed through Ellis Island and settled with his family in the United States. (His name was changed to Anthony during the immigration process.)
Like other refugees, they had to rebuild their lives in a new country. His parents didn’t speak English, and young Anthony was placed in different classes until second grade when he became more fluent in the language. As he grew older, he continued to struggle in school and didn’t hold big dreams for his future.
Then he met a teacher who coached the high school wrestling team. The teacher said, “You’re going to make a good wrestler,” Wikel explained. “Through encouragement by this teacher, my father turned his life around. He worked hard and graduated from Indiana State. My father has always stressed the importance of education. He frequently says, ‘Education is one thing that no one can take away from you.’”
Her dad went on to have a successful career in finance and became plant controller for Crossroad Farms Dairy.
All because one teacher took an interest in him.
“He’s my hero. He’s my best friend,” Wikel said of her dad. “That’s why I want to be a teacher – to help students like him. I want to advocate for kids who need special education and related services, and for kids who would benefit from extra supports at school. I want to make sure that every Riley kid has a positive experience in school. That’s why I work here.”
The Path to Riley
Wikel first joined the Riley School Program in 2003 through a bit of serendipity.
She was working toward her master’s in special education and was slated to complete a practicum at the old Larue D. Carter Memorial Hospital. But the practicum unexpectedly got canceled. Her advisor scrambled to help her find a new placement. She ended up in the inpatient rehab unit at Indiana University Health Methodist Hospital, which relied on the Riley School Program to support school-aged patients.
When she finished her degree, the Riley teacher who mentored her happened to be moving away for family reasons. Wikel stepped into the full-time position in 2003 and was promoted to manager of the team in 2011. Under her leadership, the Riley School Program has grown from five teachers to today’s team of 13 teachers and one assistant.
Like all Riley school teachers, Wikel is licensed by the state of Indiana. In addition to her master’s degree, she graduated in May 2020 from Ball State University’s Director of Exceptional Needs Program. Now she’s working toward her doctorate In special education at Ball State.
About the Riley School Program
In a typical year, Wikel and her colleagues support approximately 1,000 students in both the inpatient and outpatient settings. Some have chronic conditions like cystic fibrosis or rheumatologic disorders, are in treatment for cancer, or may be awaiting a transplant. Others have an acute illness or injury requiring a hospital stay.
It’s a big undertaking: The Riley School Program is one of the largest such programs at a U.S. children’s hospital.
All students remain enrolled in their home districts. The Riley School Program coordinates with local teachers to gather lesson plans and homework, works with students so they remain up-to-speed, and offers supplemental learning opportunities such as STEM programs. Most inpatient units have an hour a day of instruction. After a prolonged stretch in which that looked very different, Riley classrooms are beginning to open again under strict COVID-19 protocols and with reduced capacity.
Beyond direct teaching, the Riley School Program advocates for students who may need individualized education plans or accommodations and helps ease the transition back to school.
While the School Program receives important funding from the state, it relies heavily on philanthropy to offer robust programming. And while a state directive surrounding medical homebound requires students to be provided out-of-class support once they’ve missed 20 days of school, Riley doesn’t wait that long to step in. The Riley School program begins coordinating and supporting kids from the very beginning of their hospital stay.
“It’s all through donor support that we’ve been able to do this,” Wikel said.
As for Wikel, she walks into Riley each morning with the goal of helping kids fulfill their potential despite whatever challenges they are facing.
It’s a safe bet she’s making her dad very proud.
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