Even while she was recovering from breast cancer, Brenda Middleton was taking care of her students at St. John’s High School on John’s Island, near Charleston, S.C. When Middleton heard that one student was in trouble, she sent her 23-year-old daughter to pick the young woman up and bring her to the house for counseling, with the student’s parent’s permission.
The young woman her daughter brought to the house, Middleton explained, is her biggest success story. “Shayla started with me when she was in sixth grade, and I developed a good relationship with her and her family. She has had a lot of challenges, including her academic record and a history of getting into arguments and fights. When she came to my house, I told her what would happen if she continued down the road she was on. Then I told her what her life could be if she chose another road by going to college or into the military. This year is the first year she has not gotten into one single fight, and she’s passing all of her classes. She decided to go into the military after graduation.”
Middleton figured out how to use her illness as a learning tool for her students, said Jane Riley-Gambrell, executive director of Communities In Schools of the Charleston Area. “She visited them between treatments and let them know how much this challenge has made her appreciate life and relationships. Sharing her experience has taught ‘Brenda’s girls’ about resiliency and determination. At times this spring when Brenda was too ill to go to the school, she sent her daughter to ‘check up.’ Toward the end of her recovery, she made the effort to attend the Senior Students Luncheon, understanding how much it would mean to her students.”
Prior to taking on the job of site coordinator, Middleton was a special education teacher at nearby James Island High School. “I took this job because it gave me a chance to be outside the box a teacher has to be in. Now I can do more to help the kids at my school. I can give my phone number to kids so they can call me if they need help. I can go to their houses or meet them somewhere if they need me.” Having started as a site coordinator at Haut Gap Middle School in 2006, she will watch her first class of sixth graders graduate this year.
“She is a member of the community in which she serves and parents trust her with their children. Brenda understands the culture created by generational poverty in a rural community and the relevance of relationships amongst this population. She makes more home visits than any other site coordinator on our staff,” Gambrell says. “The families that Brenda works with know that she means business when it comes to children attending school and that she will even come to their house and pick them up herself if necessary. She understands their challenges and will not be judgmental.”