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Lionel Hope Jr.
Lionel Hope Jr.2019 West Virginia School Service Personnel & Employee of the Year
Highlawn Elementary School, Cabell County

When I was a kid in third grade, my parents divorced, and I went to live with my grandfather and my aunt. I never knew what it was like to wake up on Christmas morning and open presents with my parents. Like a lot of kids these days, I know what it is like when you don’t have your parents around.

I am an early childhood classroom assistant teacher at Highlawn Elementary School in Huntington. I’ve worked for Cabell County Schools for 12 years and 8 of those years I have been at Highlawn. Before that, I worked for 31 for Special Metals in Huntington. I retired from there and thought that it didn’t make sense for me to sit at home when I could be helping kids, especially since I knew what a lot of them were going through.

Every day, I find a kid that I can encourage. You can see it in their eyes when they are having a tough time. They come to school and their mood is different. They may be down, or depressed. I can see it and I reach out to them. They trust me because I let them know that I care about them and how they are doing. I try to build a relationship with them. Every day, I try to reach at least one kid. Sometimes it’s just an encouraging word, sometimes it’s more.

Three words kept me going when I was their age and my parents were gone – just try again. It’s very simple, but it helps, it really does. I tell our students, “Don’t give up, keep on trying and working.” I tell them that it’s okay to fail because you learn something from it. They see me believing in them and encouraging them, and I think it makes a difference for them.

I was at Walmart one day and a kid that I had six years before yelled for me from across the store. He was so excited that he ran up to me and gave me a big hug. He showed me his [high school] class ring and then he said, “Look, I keep an [ink] pen in my pocket just like you.” I couldn’t believe that something so small that I did had an effect on him like that. He was a kid that I always encouraged when he was in elementary school.

The other day, I was at a [fast food] restaurant and ordered my food. There was a kid working behind the counter. He said, “You’re Mr. Hope, I remember you.” I didn’t work directly with him at school, but he remembered me. He said, “Your meal is on me.” These kids remember me and that means the world to me. Our paths crossed and I tried to make a difference for all of them.

I’ve lived this way for years, just trying to help these kids. I know the loneliness that is there when your parents aren’t around. I see it in their eyes, and I want them to know I’ve been there. I think it connects us in special ways.