Debbie GrosseIt all started when her daughter entered kindergarten. Debbie Grosse joined the local Parent Teacher Association (PTA) because she wanted to be an advocate for Jennifer. Twenty-five years later Grosse is being hailed as an advocate for all of Hamilton Township’s school children—and the people who work with them. Her work before, during, and after the school day and has earned her the title of the 2011 NJEA Educational Support Professional (ESP) of the Year.

A lifelong resident of Mercer County, Grosse says she “always wanted to be a teacher.” But she married young and stayed home after her daughter was born.  When she returned to the workforce when Jennifer was eight, she applied for a job in a place she felt comfortable and where she knew she could make a difference.

For 24 years, Grosse was a Basic Skills assistant at Klockner Elementary School working with kindergarten through fifth grade students. When budget cuts affected the Basic Skills program, she became a building paraprofessional and later transitioned to a kindergarten assistant. At the end of last school year, her position was eliminated due to budget cuts. She was moved to Mercerville Elementary School and works in a kindergarten inclusion class.

Debbie Grosse“It’s so rewarding to help the students—especially when the light bulb comes on,” says Grosse, who is clearly willing to help in any way she can. She has supervised the school breakfast program, organized the Books are Fun Reading and Educational Program, and helped the Reading Is Fun coordinator.  She assisted with her school’s kindergarten tea and registration and even played Santa Claus in the re-enactment of the “Polar Express."  Grosse has served on the Teacher of the Year, School Beautification, and Sunshine Committees, and coordinated various charity collections like Pennies For Patience, Lee Denim Day, and Families in Need. As the Early Act Advisor, a Rotary service group, Grosse helped with service projects and created the club’s Installation Ceremony.

Klockner kindergarten teacher Beverly O’Connell worked with Grosse for over 20 years, and she can’t say enough about a colleague she describes as compassionate, dedicated, and just plain wonderful.

“The students lover her and Debbie will do anything to help them.”  says O’Connell. “When she saw a student struggling with a concept, she didn’t wait for me to ask her to help.  Anything you ask her to do –before, during or after school—she does with grace.

“I was devastated when her position was cut and she was moved to Mercerville. You just can’t replace someone who is always positive and smiling. I told the teachers at her new school, ‘You’ve got a gem!’” adds O’Connell.

Grosse especially loves those projects that allow her to be creative. She set up the school’s multi-purpose room for a Black History Month Program and turned the school library into a winter wonderland for the administrator’s  annual holiday breakfast. Grosse designed signs with landmarks on them to welcome visitors to the school and provide directions.

Association activities

A few years into her career, Grosse says a colleague encouraged her to get involved in the Hamilton Township Education Association (HTEA). For many years, she served as the senior building representative and on the building level liaison committee at Klockner; later she was elected corresponding secretary. Grosse has coordinated the annual candidate support mailings for the Friends of Education and organized fundraisers to help association members in need of assistance.

“I like the camaraderie of association work,” notes Grosse. “It feels good to be working for a common cause.”

She has served on the district level liaison team and HTEA’s Election and Membership Committees. In 2004, Grosse attended her first NEA Representative Assembly (RA).

“I was in awe of the size of this body and amazed at hearing about the poor working conditions that our colleagues from around the country have to endure,” Grosse says. “I found the meetings and diplomatic process to be energizing. I attended the next seven NEA RA conventions with enthusiasm and a commitment to vote for what was best for the education of the children.”

Community activities

Grosse’s desire to help extends outside of work. She remained very active in the PTA, taking on several leadership roles, including president and vice-president. She is particularly proud of her efforts to add student involvement to the PTA, and was the Parent Teacher Student Association president. Grosse co-founded and chaired the first Post Prom Event which provides activities to keep the students safe after the Senior Prom. She also served as the publicity chairperson for the Mercer County Council of PTAs.

Service to the community doesn’t stop at the school doors. Grosse is a past president of the Mercerville Fire Company Ladies Auxiliary and is a Eucharistic Minister at her church.

“We are a family of volunteers. My mother was PTA president. You need to be involved in your community.”

Looking ahead

It’s no surprise that Grosse’s daughter Jennifer chose a career in education; she is currently on maternity leave from her position as a fourth-grade teacher in west Windsboro-Plainsboro. That means that Grosse is the proud grandmother of nine-month-old and “absolutely adorable” Annika. But she may have to decline a few babysitting opportunities in order to prepare for some upcoming appearances as the ESP of the Year. Grosse is set to speak at NJEA’s ESP Conference and will attend the National Education Association’s ESP Conference later this month.

“This has been an honor every step of the way—from being chosen my school’s ESP of the Year, through the district, county, and now the state.”

Grosse says her career as a paraprofessional is full of memories that make her laugh and some that make her cry.

“What has made me cry are the children who have told me they were hungry.” One time she convinced the principal that he shouldn’t send the students home without lunch for a weather-related early dismissal. “Sometimes that’s the only decent meal they have.”

If it’s not already obvious, Grosse does what she does because of the children.

“Whether I was helping a student with a problem in the classroom, organizing an event for the PTA, or sending a card for HTEA, my goal was always to remember the kids. I have truly loved my job for the past twenty-five years.  Most of all, I have loved the children.”

2011 ESPs of the Year

Atlantic  Linda Thibaudeau – paraprofessional, Mullica Township EA
Bergen Floyd Foster – head custodian, Glen Rock EA                    
Burlington Jennie Wallace -- instructional aide, Delran EA
Camden Shirley Raff – instructional assistant, Oaklyn EA
Cape May  Lynn Frech – custodian, Middle Township EA
Cumberland Sheila Dilks – library/nurse secretary, Hopewell EA
Gloucester Susan Francis – secretary, Deptford EA
Hunterdon Cynthia Butler – instructional aide, Holland Township EA
Mercer Deborah Grosse – educational assistant, Hamilton Township EA
Middlesex  Coleen Ettenhuber – secretary, Piscataway Township EA
Morris Mae Hajjar – paraeducator, Association of Chatham Teachers
Ocean  Charlene O’Hara – paraprofessional, Manchester Township EA
Salem Mary Kay Finley – paraprofessional, Woodstown-Pilesgrove Regional EA
Somerset  Maria DeLucia – paraeducator, Hillsborough EA
Sussex Stacy Yanko – library/media assistant – Hopatcong EA
Passaic Lorraine Wardlaw – assistant to supervisors – Lakeland EA
Union Diane Kessler – teacher assistant, Cranford EA
Warren Marena Brons – paraeducator, Lopatcong EA

 No nominations were submitted from Essex, Hudson, and Monmouth counties.