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Wagner LifeChanger nominee: 'Try to be there' for the kids

WAGNER -- She ties students' shoes, wipes their tears and gives countless hugs. Marilyn Zylstra is definitely deserving to be recognized as a life-changer, Wagner School District officials say. Zylstra is a first- through fourth-grade secretary i...

(Denelle Dvorak / For The Daily Republic)
(Denelle Dvorak / For The Daily Republic)

WAGNER - She ties students' shoes, wipes their tears and gives countless hugs.

Marilyn Zylstra is definitely deserving to be recognized as a life-changer, Wagner School District officials say.

Zylstra is a first- through fourth-grade secretary in Wagner and 50-year employee of the school district. Earlier this month the 70-year-old was nominated for the 2017-18 LifeChanger of the Year Award, which "recognizes and rewards the very best K-12 educators and school district employees" in the nation.

The 70-year-old is still shocked and overwhelmed she received a nomination for the honor. Having worked in numerous roles at Wagner School District since 1967, Zylstra said her philosophy in working with children is to act like another parent.

"You always want to try to be there for them," she said Thursday.

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While she claims to be "just a secretary," school administrators know she's much more than that.

"She has dedicated her life and heart to our students and family," said Wagner Superintendent Linda Foos.

Zylstra is a 1963 graduate of Wagner High School. Only a few years later, while she was working at a local store, she received a call from the then-superintendent who offered her a job at the school district. She still doesn't know how or why the district chose her at the time, but she's thankful she took the job in the superintendent's office.

She's also worked in the district as a paraeducator, employee of the business office and now as the elementary secretary.

Carol Ersland, Wagner's elementary principal, said it's common each day to have students go to Zylstra after school and ask where they're supposed to go.

"She is always telling the students if they are late, 'Glad you are here' and then checks to see if they had breakfast and sends them to class," Ersland said.

The unidentified person who nominated Zylstra said, "She knows every student by name, and they truly trust and love her."

Each school year, LifeChanger of the Year receives hundreds of nominations from around the nation. Seventeen individual LifeChanger of the Year awards will be given out, and a grand-prize winner will receive $10,000 to be shared with their school/district.

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Mitchell School District's Shane Thill, director of Mitchell's Second Chance High School and assistant principal of Mitchell High School, won the grand prize in 2016.

Winners are chosen by a selection committee of former winners and educational professionals. Zylstra is one of six South Dakotans listed as a nominee for the LifeChanger award on the organization's website. Hundreds of teachers nationwide have been nominated.

While she already retired once and realized it wasn't for her, Zylstra said she has no plans to call it quits.

"You're only as old as you feel," she said.

She lives in Wagner with her husband, Ed. She has an adult daughter, Christina, and two granddaughters.

Related Topics: EDUCATIONPEOPLE
Luke Hagen was promoted to editor of the Mitchell Republic in 2014. He has worked for the newspaper since 2008 and has covered sports, outdoors, education, features and breaking news. He can be reached at lhagen@mitchellrepublic.com.
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