Above and beyond to bring smiles to students

Manawa Elementary School health aide Julie Peterson visits and entertains students in costume (photo provided)
Manawa Elementary School health aide Julie Peterson visits and entertains students in costume (photo provided)(WBAY)
Published: May. 29, 2020 at 2:38 PM CDT
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As students of all grade levels remain at home, missing out on the fun days the end of the school year always brings, a Manawa Elementary School health aide is doing her best to put smiles on faces.

It's been a long time since Julie Peterson put on a high school cap and gown, but she says it feels like forever since Manawa Elementary was bustling with energy.

"When the kids left school on March 17th it was very difficult. I stayed a little later on that day just to say goodbye to the kids, and it was very quiet, very glum as they walked out, and it was very strong on my heart that we might not see them until next year," says Peterson.

At least in the traditional way.

The following day, Peterson and seven other staff members began delivering meals -- 350 a day -- to students throughout the district.

And over the first several weeks, she noticed something: students at home but feeling lost.

"I remember one girl, I go up to the door and she's at the window and I'm like, 'How are you doing? How you doing?' and she's like, 'OK.' I said, 'Just OK?' She said, 'Just OK.' So it's hard, it's hard to see the children like this," says Peterson.

That's when Peterson decided it was time for a little fun.

She went to her closet, then she called family and friends.

Twice a week since the end of April, Peterson has arrived at homes in a full costume, from barnyard animals to Batman to Princess Leia.

"It's just wanting to raise spirit, whether that's a child or an adult, or somebody, I just wanted to raise spirits," says Peterson.

Bus driver Jim Quinn, a retired Manawa teacher and administrator, says Peterson has become the talk around town.

"A lot of people that see us and wave every day -- and we wave back, of course. She goes and taps on windows sometimes if she sees a child there. I'm sure that they'll never forget it," says Quinn.

"She cheers me and the kids up, just seeing her, that interaction, even through the window, has just been so kind and so nice and generous of her, and it's just been a really, really bright spot during this crazy time," says Manawa parent Courtney Zemple.

On the final day of the school's meal delivery, Peterson chose the cap and gown to honor the Class of 2020.

While classrooms and hallways are usually buzzing with anticipation for summer vacation, it sure isn't the same this year.

"And you can see the playground is quiet and there's no interaction now, so it's bittersweet. It really is," says Peterson.

Since schools shut down because of the pandemic, Peterson and staff in Manawa delivered more than 37,000 meals.

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