Natalie's Everyday Heroes: West Bend speech therapist, Jen Mesko

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WEST BEND, Wis. (CBS 58) -- The pandemic has changed the way many of us do our jobs, and that has been especially true for educators. A speech therapist in West Bend shares how she worked to provide a sense of normalcy for students and coworkers.

"Baking is my stress reliever," Jen Mesko said with a little laugh, while standing behind a table filled with several varieties of baked goods.

And in this very stressful year, Jen Mesko has a done a lot of baking.

"Reese's peanut butter cup cookies," she said, pointing to a container. "My chocolate chip cookies, which are kind of my go-to for everybody because they're kind of the hit."

There are cake pops and Snickers cookies. It's something Mesko is known for in the West Bend School District.

"Jen bakes a lot," said friend and colleague, Dawn Goralski.

It's been a welcome treat this year.

"I mean, the way to a person's heart is through their stomach," Mesko said with a small shrug.

That may be true, but Mesko has found numerous routes to peoples' hearts. She's been walking the hallways at West Bend East and West Bend West high schools for 20 years.

"Oh, she's very sweet. Yeah, I love her. She's one of my best people in the school," said junior Jesus Melero.

Mesko works one-on-one with students like him.

"She'll give me great advice and how to work around those problems," Melero said. "And at the end of that, I just feel really good about myself."

Goralski said Mesko has that effect on everyone.

"Having her as a friend is like chicken soup for the soul," she said.

Goralski has been working with Mesko for the last 20 years, and she's seen firsthand the special care Mesko gives to each student.

"Jen is a role model. She's a mentor. She is a cheerleader, team mom," Goralski said. "She is the first person there when someone has a crisis. She's also the first person there to celebrate a life event."

And even a global pandemic couldn't change that. West Bend schools have been doing in-person learning for much of the school year, so Mesko has been able to provide that one-on-one experience.

"It just gives me such joy. I mean, you take a kid who's been struggling, and just to build them up, to give them that one-on-one attention that many kids don't get," she explained.

That personal attention also gave her insight into what her students might need.

"My storage room at my house is filled with Holiday Hope stuff," she said.

Holiday Hope is a year-round project. Members of the community donate money and items for the holiday gift drive. Already, fleece blankets are piling up in Mesko's classroom.

"It started so small, with just little bottles of lotions, or little purses. Things like that," she explained.

That was 15 years ago. This past Christmas, during the pandemic, the community collected gifts and essentials for 160 students. Things like fleece blankets, hats and socks. They were all festively packaged, and of course, there were cookies.

"We set up this entire thing and it ends up being packed with students," Mesko said, showing off the space in the Silver Lining Arts Center where the school usually hosts a large party.

Because of Covid, she handed out each bag individually in her classroom this past Christmas.

"It was almost more personal, because when you have 160 kids coming to grab a gift bag, you're just throwing the gift bags, like here's yours, here's yours," Mesko said. "So, this year it was a little more personal and I got to hear more of the stories from kids."

Goralski said the community is lucky to have her.

"Every school needs a Jen Mesko. Every community needs a Jen Mesko," she said.

Mesko, ever humble, gives credit to the community for making a difficult year a little brighter.

"I think our school and our staff have really done the absolute best job they can with all of the circumstances this year," Mesko said.

If you'd like to nominate someone for Natalie's Everyday Heroes, send Natalie a message at NShepherd@cbs58.com.

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