Mary Meyer prides herself on making connections with her students.
That’s one of the aspects of her job as a Cody School District paraprofessional the past 27 years she misses the most.
It’s also why, while she left her full-time gig, she’ll probably still be taking the time to volunteer or substitute.
“I don’t want to grow older anymore than I have to,” she said. “Kids make you young.”
Connecting with her students means never forgetting what it’s like to be young, and working to stay up on what youths are listening to and talking about.
When Meyer started at the school she had young children just entering school herself. Now they’re 30 and 31. She said in the first five years or so after they graduated she would ask them what the young people were listening to.
Whatever it takes to connect, she does it, a key reason she is so valuable to the school, said middle school principal Kelly Merager.
“She just has an innate ability to work with any kid,” he said. “She can warm up to kids who need a little extra guidance or love.”
Meyer said she’s a people person above all else and the two careers she’s had have both involved helping people.
After college, Meyer went to work as an licensed practical nurse for 12 years. Then she had two children and took off five years.
When she was ready to return to the workforce, she considered returning to school to become a registered nurse, but then saw an opportunity to become a parapro in the Cody School District.
She jumped at the chance.
“I took it and never looked back,” she said.
She started as a special education para at the high school, working with students who needed a varying amount of extra help.
At the time she was one of only two in her position at the high school – now there are at least 10.
After five years she moved upstairs to what was then the Transition School – now Heart Mountain Academy – working with at-risk students.
She remained there for 18 years with another para and a director, working often to guide students through tough times.
“Sometimes it was just keeping them at school and in a safe place,” she said. “We can read that book tomorrow.”
Where special education students often have a host of support, from family to staff, Meyer said many of the youths she dealt with at the alternative school were in dire straights specifically because they lacked any support.
In that time she believes she made a lot of impact and said she still gets baby announcements and invitations to showers from former students. A few years ago a former student asked her to come to her wedding in Billings, so Meyer took her husband along.
As they waited in the receiving line, the young woman ran up to her crying and embraced her.
“She said, ‘You were my mom throughout high school and I’ll never forget you,’” Meyer recalled.
She said often with at-risk students the key was simply to let them know someone cared about them.
When Heart Mountain opened four years ago her days working with at-risk students came to an end, as certified teachers took over the main roles in assisting students at the alternative school.
So Meyer went back to being a special education para, this time at Cody Middle School.
She’s mostly worked with eighth-grade students and said she makes a point to be available to all students so as not to draw attention to those she is actually there to assist.
“Before you can expect a kid to trust you, you have to build that relationship,” she said. “Especially at the middle school, it’s an awkward age. You try to make that relationship.”
For her principal, how effective she is at her job is only one part of what she has meant to the school.
“She regularly has a smile on her face and brings that happiness to everybody,” Merager said. “She takes tickets at basketball games – she’s always willing to lend a hand.”
That’s why she said she agonized over retirement and doesn’t plan to go away quietly.