Michele Lemee, a master teacher in the Urban League of Metropolitan St. Louis’ Head Start program, remembers when little Eugene walked into her classroom more than a decade ago. Although extremely bright, Eugene sometimes had trouble handling his emotions, she said. But by working with him over time in her preschool class, Lemee felt like she was able to steer him in the right direction.
“Eugene began to make a different mark in life,” Lemee said. “He began to grow into a different person than when he first walked in. And he wanted you to know that he changed as well.”
Now Eugene is almost out of high school and is a star on his football team. He’s one of many students who comes back to visit Lemee at her vibrant classroom.
“Knowing that I get to develop a young mind and be a part of someone’s foundation and be a part of who they are and where they’re going, it’s a wonderful feeling,” Lemee said.
On September 23, Lemee will receive the PNC Early Childhood Educator of the Year at the St. Louis American Foundation’s Salute to Excellence in Education Scholarship & Awards Gala. The proceeds from the event, held at the America’s Center, benefit the foundation, which distributed more than $700,000 in minority scholarships and grants last year.
Lemee has been with the Urban League Head Start program for 16 years, since its doors opened in June 2001. It was the first application she turned in after she graduated from Lindenwood University with a bachelor’s degree in early educational studies. She believes that the Urban League gave her a “head start,” even though she never attended the preschool program herself.
Mary Hairston, assistant director of the Urban League Head Start, said they feel equally lucky to have her as part of the team.
“Many of her peers, parents and children have grown to admire and respect her,” Hairston said. “She has shown a commitment to diversity and supports organized activities that encourage community-building and helps to create a collegial and positive work environment.”
The federal Head Start program was founded on the “social emotional” aspects of a child’s development, Lemee said. And she believes the curriculum gives children the tools that they need to be successful.
“I’m passionate about children,” Lemee said. “They speak to me. I liked to see the different personalities and being challenged by those different personalities. It keeps me on my toes.”
A single mother, Lemee has a four-year-old daughter named Ryleigh, who also attended the Urban League Head Start program and loved it.
Lemee, a St. Louis native, graduated in 1996 from Hazelwood East High School, where her school counselor urged her to attend Lindenwood to earn a degree.
“In my earlier years I struggled with my studies,” Lemee said. “This made me feel discouraged at times. Fortunately, I was blessed to have many influential teachers at school, home and my overall environment. Their relationships, positive feedback, listening ears and support helped encourage me to do my best and strive to be a life-long learner.”
Feeling grateful for her support system, Lemee began to understand that her calling was to empower others.
“It was clear to me at that moment I also wanted to be a teacher,” she said. “I could now intertwine the things I enjoyed most: children and learning.”
The greatest teacher in her life is her mother, Janice Robinson. Lemee remembers her mother as constantly moving and “having an answer for everything,” but now Robinson is now terminally ill. Lemee said her mother would never want her to slow down because of her illness.
“Even though you have other things going on around you, I try to remain positive and have a positive outlook on life,” she said. “A lot of things I’ve encountered in my life have made me stronger rather than tearing me down.”
The 2017 Salute to Excellence in Education Gala will be held at 6 p.m. Saturday, September 23, 2017 at the America's Center Ballroom, following a reception at 5 p.m. Tickets are on sale now. Individual tickets are $85 each/$850 table, and VIP/Corporate tickets are $1,500 table. For more information or to purchase tickets, visit www.stlamerican.com and click on Salute to Excellence, or call 314-533-8000.