JOHNSBURG – Dawn Vent’s office is painted a bluish gray, a color picked because it was meant to be soothing. A small water fountain sits on a bookcase filled with books and toys.
As the social worker at Bush Elementary School, Johnsburg’s elementary school for third- and fourth-graders, Vent’s office is designed to be a safe space.
Besides working with kids one on one and in groups, she runs a high school/elementary school mentoring program and the school’s Girls on the Run group, a program that works to empower girls and culminates in a 5K run.
Originally from Addison, Vent is in her third year at the school. She lives in Woodstock.Vent sat down with reporter Emily Coleman to talk about what she does.
Coleman: How did you decide you wanted to be a school social worker?
Vent: I knew I always wanted to do something with helping people, and I worked at [an Illinois Department of Children and Family Services] residential treatment center for eight years. Through that, I worked a lot with the kids who were abused or abandoned.
I learned that I really enjoyed doing that, really enjoyed helping them and being an advocate for them, just helping them through obstacles in their lives and being a role model for them.
Coleman: That must have been very different from what you do now.
Vent: Oh my God, yes, it was so different. When I first started, I was like, ‘Whoa, this is a normal school and kids aren’t punching each other every two seconds or swearing at each other.’
I remember my first internship ... I had to observe a kid because he had some attention problems. I was talking to my supervisor afterward, and I was like, ‘I didn’t see any problems.’ She’s like, ‘He’s constantly out of his seat,’ but I was like, ‘That’s normal for me.’ From what I was used to, I was waiting for him to whack the kid next to him or something.
It was a big change. It was nice not having them screaming or yelling at you all the time, where you can talk with them. They want to change. They want help. These kids, they want to do better. None of them want to misbehave. They come to me when they need the help, and they know they need the help.
Coleman: Are you glad you made the switch?
Vent: I am. Now, being in a consistent and stable job, I like that every day is different. You have to be flexible in this job. I mean, I have a schedule every day, but I’m never necessarily able to follow it. You have to be willing to, if so-and-so is acting up, go deal with that or go help them. You kind of have to be on call all the time and ready to just go wherever.
Coleman: Did you pick elementary?
Vent: I prefer elementary. I would much rather work in elementary. I worked with the younger kids at the residential, so all my experience has been with younger kids. I enjoy working with the younger kids. They’re excited to come work with me.
When I go in the classrooms – I teach classroom lessons once a week – they’re all really excited, and we sing and we dance. We do role-plays and all kinds of stuff. They enjoy it.
Coleman: What do you teach when you go in the classroom?
Vent: I teach a program called Second Step. It teaches skills for learning how to listen, how to pay attention. We teach them how to control their feelings. We do a stop, name your feeling, calm down dance that they love. Our other unit is on problem-solving.
Coleman: Tell me about the mentoring program.
Vent: We have a high school mentoring program. We have high school students who were identified by one of the special ed[ucation] teachers at the high school come to the school once a week. Me and the teachers, we designated students here that need help with their homework. Maybe they’re not getting their homework done, maybe they don’t have much support at home with their homework, or maybe they’re just in need of a positive role model.
Coleman: What about Girls on the Run?
Vent: Every Tuesday and Thursday, we have practice after school. It’s a curriculum about empowering girls and teaching about self-esteem and rumors and gossip and just how to grow up and be a healthy girl. It talks about body image and all that.
Eventually, we’ll run outside and we’ll run through the neighborhoods. The girls are all like, ‘Can we run outside? Can we run outside?’ It’s not really a running program; it’s more that if you make a goal, you can do anything you put your mind to.
Coleman: Why did you get involved with the program?
Vent: I just like how it empowers the girls. It shows them that they can do anything they want to do and not to let people tell them they’re not good enough at things.
Coleman: What’s the best part about your job?
Vent: The best part is probably just working with the kids and working with all the kids. I love going to the classrooms and knowing all the kids. Being able to walk in the hallway, and they’re like, ‘Hi, Ms. Vent.’ I really like the connections I form with the kids.
Coleman: What’s the hardest part?
Vent: The parents, I would say. Just communicating with the parents. A lot of times, there’s not much family support, which is kind of hard.
It’s hard because as a school, we can only help so much. I can teach them all I want about controlling their anger and how it’s not OK to punch people, but then if they go home and somebody says, ‘Oh, if he makes you mad, just hit him,’ well, that negates everything I just said.
Coleman: Were you surprised by the types of problems kids come to you with?
Vent: I was surprised. When I first started, I was like, ‘I’m just going to work in Johnsburg. What kinds of problems could they have in Johnsburg?’ Then I got up here, and I was very surprised by the numbers of the economically disadvantaged families, homeless families.
We try to do a lot for them with the giving tree and food baskets that we send home for the holidays. We always have extra snacks. A lot of teachers keep snacks, and I have a bunch of snacks for the kids who don’t bring their snacks and they’re not eating breakfast.
The Vent lowdown
Who is she? A social worker at Bush Elementary School in Johnsburg
Education: Bachelor’s degree in psychology from Purdue University and a master’s degree in social work from Loyola University in Chicago
Favorite food: Pizza
Favorite TV shows: “Big Bang Theory” and “The Voice”
If you hadn’t gone into social work, what would you have done? I don’t know. I wanted to be a nurse for a while, but I don’t think I could do that.