Stacey Bess, author and award winning educator, has a great insight into the hearts of children in need. Best known for her book “Nobody Don't Love Nobody", which was made into a Hallmark Hall of Fame movie "Beyond the Blackboard.” Stacey is someone who will leave an imprint on your heart and inspire you to act.
After Bess published her first book and gained the support of the Utah community, people began to notice Bess and her unusual success with “hopeless” children. She has won prestigious local and national awards. A highlight came when she was honored with the esteemed National Jefferson Award, along with First Lady Barbara Bush, Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackman and Ambassador Walter Annenberg.
A dynamic, speaker, Stacey Bess engages groups large and small, sharing the lessons she learned that changed her life as she taught hundreds of homeless children. Her story continues to change lives as her audiences are inspired to become involved in their communities. She continues to be a leading advocate in the nation for the educational rights of impoverished children.
In 1987, at the age of 23, Stacey was exhilarated to land her first teaching job but soon her excitement turned to fear when she learned the school had no name and the address was a homeless shelter near the viaduct in Utah.
Take us back to the first day of school, how did you feel when your map said you reached your destination. You were only 23, it was your first teaching job, what stopped you from not walking out that day?
Stacey: “I married really young and I had a couple of things happen in my life that really developed me. I had cancer at 23, I was married at 16, almost 17, they were events that taught me great empathy, they taught me that I could rise above and gave me understanding, so when a mother or father were terrified about this new situation they found their families in, I understood fear.
In the beginning I taught K through 12 and that was hard, but I wasn’t a young naïve 23-year-old. I had married young, I had a pregnancy young and I had cancer young. I had lived and understood some of the trauma they were going through.”
Under normal circumstances as a teacher, you can rely on the on the teacher across the hall or the principal, who was your biggest support system?
Stacey: “I was quite alone in that building, on the outside of the door was the Travelers Aid Society and they ran the homeless shelter and their philosophy was different to my philosophy, because I was dealing with the children’s needs. I had superintendents who would come down, but it was often quite lonely.
A handful of school administrators were amazing, but I was pretty much on my own, there wasn’t a janitor, there wasn’t a principal, there wasn’t a secretary. I didn’t have any good books when I first got there. I had to fight my way to have access to things and luckily, I had a bold enough personality to do that. I did have a superintendent who was very gracious to me, he was a calm older gentleman and perfect to listen to a young teacher who didn’t really know you couldn’t barrel into the superintendent’s office and ask him for help.
I had remarkable college students that spent hours with me, I even wrote letters that helped them get into medical school. Moms volunteered, we were well loved by the community. The school district didn’t know what to do with us because we were the first in the country ever to do this. It was a pilot program and it wasn’t loved everywhere."
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Your novel “Nobody Don’t Love Nobody” was made into a Hallmark Hall of Fame movie “Beyond the Blackboard” how involved were you in turning your book into a teleplay and staying true to your story?
Stacey: "They were extraordinarily gracious to me, Gerald R. Molen purchased the writes to my story, he met with me and told me, “We absolutely have to have every teacher in this country know you.” I said I wanted it told right, I wanted my hands in it, I didn’t want to hurt the families or the kids or give false information about poverty. The screenwriter, Camille Thomasson was incredible, in fact the whole Hallmark family was incredible.
Camille and I spoke at least twice a week and she would read the script to me. They invited me to be onset the entire time and I think one of the most tender things was when Emily VanCamp met me, she was teary eyed and she said "I’m afraid to play you.” I asked why, “Because I love teachers and I wouldn’t want to do anything less than they would want.”
She believed this story should be told correctly, she also said to me, “They have not written in the script that you were a tough and forceful being and I would like to play you that way. Please tell me that you were?” I replied, “Emily let me tell you I would not have succeeded if I had not been forceful.” They wanted to portray me as a sweet tender teacher at 23, and I was but I had incredible passion for these kids and their moms and dads."
Page after page you could feel the heartache for the children at the school with no name and somehow you made each of them feel safe and loved, at the end of the day how did you find the love for your own family?
Stacey: “I have an unusual amount of patience in my soul and when I was tired, we had a family rule that I would lay on the bed for an hour with the kids. They would tell me about their day and their homework and then I was fine. The beauty of it was that I had a really good life at home, I had happy kids, a very supportive husband who loved what I did and a mother who lived a few blocks away.
My mother has been a real example to me, showing me how important it is to love everyone. To reach out and not judge and be happy with everybody and I was raised like that. Everybody had value and that we could lift people up and work with them. it was an easy thing for me to do. If there is a need we step in, no matter what.”
Often you would bring children into your home when they were in dire need, how did your family cope with it?
Stacey: “My husband and kids all loved the kids from the school and welcomed them into our home. Angel, a beautiful African-American girl and her 2 brothers, the Johnson family, came to live with us for 4 months. I have a remarkable love affair with the 3 of them, now adults, and their children.
My son Brandon was 3 when they came to live with us, when he was in 6th grade, he got extra points to read out loud to your parents. So, I said to him “You’ve never read my book, so let’s lay on the bed and we will read it.” We got to the chapter about the Johnson family and I looked at him and he had big tears running down his face. So I asked him what he was feeling, and he said, “Mom, I loved them, I absolutely loved them and I was devastated when we gave them back.” And that speaks volumes. These kids came into our lives and we loved them, the school loved them, our neighbors loved them and it was painful to send them back."
At the end of your first year you were diagnosed with thyroid cancer and then a possibility of blood cancer, but you still managed to stay strong. how did you find the strength?
Stacey: “I got an unexpected call one day. I had been to the doctor and he looked at marks on my legs, he was worried it was blood cancer. I remember going home and there was no one in the house, I started crying , I said out loud, “Why me, I have so much work to do.”
Then my telephone rang. I hadn’t heard from any of the 3 Johnson kids for 10 years and on the other end was this beautiful adult male voice, “Mama, it’s Robert and Opal and we just thought you needed us, we're calling because we wanted to tell you that you did a good job.” That was amazing to me, we had many tender moments with these kids.
These children were superheroes to me. They lived in such terrible circumstances and yet they were happy, they wanted to learn, they listened to me, I had this ability to make them believe that they could be somebody. They were so hungry to be somebody.
I would call my husband, Greg, because I wanted to bring this little girl, Naomi, home. She was a perfect human being. Greg would always say, “If they need a home bring them.”
The beautiful thing is I chose all of this, I really am who I am, when people say, "Do you really love kids that much?” I simply answer, "I really do." I enjoy their company, when I go into a public place and have a choice of interacting with adults or the children, I immediately go to the children. I prefer the joy on a child’s face over anything else."
You went above and beyond, pushed boundaries and even broke the rules for the wellbeing of the children and their families, have you kept in touch with any of children?
Stacey: “Yes! All the kids that I’m still in contact with would love to meet up, it would be amazing if we could make that happen.”
What are you currently involved in?
Stacey: “I taught for eleven years and loved every single minute of it. When I broke away, I was devastated, my kids were devastated. They kept saying “Mom, what will the children do?” I came to the knowledge that I had learned so much, that I had gathered a vast amount of knowledge from these people, that I owned it to the people in my profession, social workers and many professions, the understanding that these people had given to me. My intent was to share what I had learned and to write about what works with at risk families.
It’s been a remarkable life. It’s been really eye opening it’s been very tender, I’ve got to meet some incredible people who love kids and I’ve had moments where I can’t believe I’ve had to come and teach this. This should be natural to everyone.
I have a message that needs to be in every school in this country. My wish in life is to be able to speak to as many schools as possible. I have my audiences laughing and crying and in the end I leave them knowing they are in the best business in the world, if they are in the kid business. I am willing to go every day to speak, I just need sponsorship to help me fund getting to as many schools as I can around the country.”
You’re such an inspiration, how can someone get involved in and make an impact for those less fortunate?
Stacey: “Just do it! Get involved in a way that is appropriate for you and your circumstances. My number one thing I would like people to do is go volunteer at a school, find a school that really needs you or an after school program. Donate your time, your money, our schools don’t have enough money, I have school principals calling me all the time saying they’d love to hire me, but they don’t have enough funds for all the basics. You can make a difference in your very own neighborhood. You see a kid in your neighborhood who walks home from school every day and no one walks home with him, find a kid to walk home with them. I always say to my kids, don’t ever let a kid eat lunch alone.”
People need to understand that your good work is remembered, when we do the simple things, like give away a coat and we bend the rules for humanity, then we teach people they are a part of our community. That is something we are missing in our country now, there are people on the outside who don’t have somebody to attach to, and the simple act of reaching out, teaches people a whole lot more than the regular way of teaching.
That is the message that needs to be taught, that we all can do something. When you work at a shelter, you do come to realise that the work you do is well loved by the people.”
What advice would you give to any young woman embarking on her first teaching job?
Stacey: “First, love them, love them, love them. Stand up for them, don’t use negative discipline wherever possible. Build a safe, happy classroom because children will work for you if they feel loved, give them a job and they'll feel a valued part of your classroom, they will do anything for you. I taught the toughest kids in the state and I never kicked out anyone. They wanted to be there and they wanted to be children.”
What special memories of Thanksgiving do you have at the school?
Stacey: “Every year at Thanksgiving I would read to the kids the story of Stone Soup, about two little pigs who are starving and they can’t get anyone in their community to come out and help them. Then they come up with this magical idea of making the most delicious pot of stone soup. They call on all the people in the neighborhood to each bring one ingredient to add to their magical stone soup.
They put it all together and everyone says, “Wow this is the best soup we ever tasted, how did you know how to do this?” They explained to them they wanted to build a community to help each other and it was the first time people had come out to help each other. I always read this to them to show we are all responsible for each other and when we come together and contribute, we turn out something magical.”
Who inspired you the most?
Stacey: “I had a male sixth grade teacher , I was in desperate need of a good male role model in my life and he told be all day long how smart I was. I also had a grandmother and grandfather who would sit at our table at night and tell us how smart my sister and I were.”
You started your family at a very young age, has it grown much?
Stacey: “Greg and I have been married for 36 years, we have six children and nine grandchildren! I love having the kids around, if you think you love being a mom, just wait until you have grandchildren, it’s an incredible feeling.”
What’s your favorite quote?
Stacey: “As long as there is poverty in this world, no man can be totally rich even if he has a billion dollars. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. You can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be."
- Martin Luther King Jr.
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