Henri Goettel had not planned on retiring from the Independence School District in 2003. But the state’s public schools were in the midst of some of the worst financial periods in history. Millions of dollars were being cut by the state
, and like many districts, Independence had to make hard choices.
"I had this bucket list of things I was still wanting to do," Goettel remembers. "But I was offered early retirement with about 70 others. When I took it, there was this big hole left inside me where the kids used to live. That need wasn’t satisfied. I still had an appetite to help."
Relocating to the Midwest
Goettel is not a native Midwesterner. She moved to Kansas City from Baltimore, Md., in 1970 after her first husband was accepted to the Kansas City Art Institute.
"He did not like the Midwest," she said. "He finished his degree and went back to the coast. I felt very comfortable in the Midwest. I stayed. Sometimes I think in another life I would have been a cow."
Coincidentally, it was through her first husband that she met her second husband, David. She started spending time at the Grain Valley Airport because her first husband enjoyed flying sailplanes, or gliders. They have rigid wings used to soar, but many also have engines for longer flights and takeoff. After a while, Henri decided that she wanted to learn how to fly a sailplane as well.
David was her instructor.
"It took forever for me to learn how to land a plane," she said. "Every time I would line it up with the runway and prepare to land, he would say ‘we’re going to die,’ so I married him."
Goettel got into education in a roundabout way. Her first degree is in psychology. She worked with autistic children for the first few years before deciding that she wanted to work with "typically developing kids." So Goettel returned to school to get her teaching credentials and landed a position at what was then Meadowbrook Junior High School in the Shawnee Mission School District. Working in the learning lab, she helped children who were struggling with basic skills.
"This was before learning disabilities were defined as special services," she said. "Then I wrote a grant for the exemplary program and worked with teachers on how to make instructional decisions based on outcome data."
After marrying in 1978, she moved to the Independence School District to serve as principal at Procter Elementary, where she remained for 20 years.
"It was a fabulous place to be," she said, smiling. "It was the smallest school at the time, which made it possible to get to know every child and every family in the school. It was very much what you would have considered a community school."
Road to education
After leaving Procter, Goettel moved to the Central Office to oversee the gifted program as well as student residency and suspension hearings, among other things.
At the same time, she was asked to help create a program at the Truman Heartland Community Foundation. The idea was to get teenagers more involved in their future by gaining leadership skills and practicing in philanthropy. Only 12 students were involved that first year. Now, more than 150 students from six school districts and Tri-City Christian participate.
"They (the foundation) never knew if the decisions they were making were good decisions from the standpoint of the people they were giving to," she said. "It really is a win
-win for everyone. Kids learn so much about their own communities and each other’s communities, and they gain perspective on what is going on around them."
Faculty and staff at each of the participating high schools work with the foundation to determine which students would be good to serve on the council. Members are asked to serve three, one-year terms and help with a variety of programs including the foundation’s Community Grants Program, fundraising and community service.
Phil Hanson, president and CEO of the Truman Heartland Community Foundation, called Goettel an "incredible teacher." He said it is amazing to see her work with 100 plus students in one room and get something accomplished.
"Henri is an extraordinary volunteer for us. If we didn’t have Henri, the program wouldn’t be happening," Hanson said. "It couldn’t be done without her involvement and enthusiasm. This is one of those programs that is a great service to our foundation. We do a better job in decision making because they are involved in the process."
Working with teenagers in this way is not the first time for Goettel. She was approached in the 1980s by then Mayor Barbara Potts to put together a group of teenagers to gauge their opinions on the city and its programs. One of those members was current Independence City Council Member Marcie Gragg.
Goettel said for many of the teenagers that she works with, they might be the first in their families to go to college or they have never seen a financial aid form. She said others, come from neighborhoods where resources are plentiful. This allows the students, Goettel said, to learn about their differences, accept them and work together toward a common goal.
"These kids become very vocal advocates," she said. "And as they write their essays for college or scholarships, they have the opportunity to share an experience many kids have not. They are making funding decisions for other organizations. Our kids have had practice in practicing philanthropy. They give not only their time, but their talent to give away their treasures."
In addition to her work with the Truman Heartland Community Foundation, she is involved in a variety of other ways throughout the community. She has been a YouthFriend for 17 years and will now work with the Independence School District’s new volunteer program, Inspire
, and she is the director of the Florence Melton School of Adult Jewish Learning. She also teaches Hebrew classes at Congregation Beth Torah in Overland Park, Kan.
"He (David) thinks I’m crazy every time I say yes to something," she said.
Hanson said the foundation is grateful for Goettel’s work with the advisory council and is continually amazed at how many groups she continues to be involved with.
"I think when you talk with Henri, whether as an adult or a student, you get a sense that she really does care about what is going on with that individual," he said. "That somehow comes across. She loves people and is truly interested in what they’re doing. She’s kind of a cheerleader."