If a student in Karen Fallon’s kindergarten class at Alden-Hebron Elementary School has shoes that are falling apart or a tattered coat that doesn’t keep out the winter cold, it’s a temporary problem.
Fallon, who has taught at the school since 2002, often pays out of her own pocket to make sure needy students have basic needs. It’s a philosophy she learned from her father at an early age, and it’s one of several reasons, including what her nominator calls Fallon’s outstanding teaching skills, and her very journey to become a teacher, why the Northwest Herald selected Fallon’s nomination as an Everyday Hero.
“I don’t know how it got started, but when you see somebody who needs something, and you’re in a position to help, that’s what you do,” Fallon said.
The generosity of the mother of three grown boys goes beyond clothes and shoes. One day, when students had to discuss their wishes – the letter of the day that particular day was “W” – a little girl from a low-income family said she wanted, more than anything, to have a bicycle. Fallon and another teacher split the cost and bought her one.
Generosity is a lesson Fallon learned from an early age growing up in Wonder Lake. Her father, self-employed plumber Ralph Gunderson, often would do work at a significant discount or free of charge for the poor or widowed. He would face lectures from Fallon’s mother – after all, free work doesn’t help pay their bills – but he answered that it was the right thing to do.
Fallon’s path did not include teaching until later in life. Growing up a block away from Harrison Elementary School, she always had dreams about becoming a teacher. But upon her 1976 graduation from McHenry West High School, her parents talked her out of it because, they said, there were no teaching jobs to be had and they didn’t pay anything.
Fallon started working at the McDonald’s in Woodstock, where she rose to the rank of manager, and where she met her husband. While she loved her job and the people she worked with, she decided after 20 years – and after being “dragged” to a McHenry County College counselor by her sister – to go back to school.
“Finally, it was time to fulfill my dream,” Fallon said.
She went to MCC full-time while still managing the restaurant and raising three sons, and graduated with her degree from Rockford College in 2002. Fortunately for Fallon, she was not the only McDonald’s employee with a desire to get into education.
One of her workers, and who became a good friend, was Debbie Ehlenburg, who became a teacher and then principal of Alden-Hebron Elementary School. She told Fallon about a vacancy that had just opened for a kindergarten teacher, and the rest is history. Ehlenburg since has become Alden-Hebron District 19’s superintendent.
The choice of hiring Fallon was a good one for the school and its students, said Principal Kim Qualls, who nominated Fallon for the Everyday Hero award.
Qualls in her written nomination called Fallon an “extremely dynamic” teacher whose enthusiasm has earned the respect of her students, parents and peers. Almost as an afterthought, she mentioned Fallon’s willingness to spend her own money on needy students, and called her “one of the most compassionate teachers I have ever encountered.”
“She teaches kindergarten – that’s hard, and she’s all about providing an atmosphere that is conducive to learning. Whatever gets in the way, she tries to fix, and with our demographics, a lot of that is socioeconomic,” Qualls said.
More than 40 percent of the school’s 241 students last year were from low-income households, according to its 2014 Illinois School Report Card.
Fallon was humble about the honor.
She would much rather talk about the good feelings that come when parents and former students stop by to show their appreciation for their education or Fallon’s clandestine acts of kindness, such as a little girl for whom Fallon bought a large number of clothes because she often wore the same thing to school.
“She came back years later to thank us. That was so special,” Fallon said.