Inside Columbia
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Choosing Children

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photos by L.G. Patterson

Lynn Barnett remembers what she was wearing the day she interviewed for the director of special education position at the Columbia Public Schools’ district office in August 1984. She remembers each of the people in the room by name. Several were her former teachers and principal. She remembers confidently walking out and passing the next applicant, the then-director of special education for the state of Missouri. She didn’t have a chance.

But she got the call.

“I don’t know how all of this happened,” she says. “It’s still amazing to me today.”

A retired special education teacher and school district administrator, Barnett, 65, is a product of the school system she served most of her professional career. She was in the inaugural second grade class at Parkade Elementary when it opened in 1958. She attended Jefferson Junior High and graduated from Hickman High School. It was in junior high she knew beyond doubt that she wanted to go into education.

When she started teaching special education students in mid-1970, the school environment was starkly different than that of today. There were no computers, no cell phones, no drugs. Concerns have since shifted from earthquake preparedness to active shooters.

Barnett loved when she could “make that light bulb come on, when [a child] could grasp something for the first time, especially with the children that I worked with so much, the children with mental retardation. It took longer and it took different strategies, different ways, and sometimes it was another child that was able to get it across for them. But, for a child to learn something is just amazing,” she says.

Barnett’s shift from classroom instruction to administration seemed a natural course. The longer she worked in administration, the more her job evolved. As positions shifted, new responsibilities were bestowed upon her. By the end of her career, her job description encompassed special education and student services that included nurses, counselors and social workers. From her hiring in 1984 to her retirement in 2009, she became a conduit for services for children. She developed community teams, which included the juvenile office, social services and mental health. They held regular interagency meetings weekly. She was secretary for the Columbia Public Schools (CPS) Board of Education and in charge of communications for the district the last four years of her career.

In what might seem like an impossible situation, Barnett is almost unflappable, says CPS Community Relations Director Michelle Baumstark. “She is a very strong person. I don’t think a lot of people can do what she has done and do it so well. … If there’s a bump in the road, she smiles and says, ‘Tomorrow will be better.’ ”

To Barnett, “It was meant to be.”

“It was a vocation. It was never a job,” she says. “It was a vocation. It is my belief system.”

Barnett and her five daughters.

FAITH & FAMILY

Lynn Barnett is not particularly fond of board games, says her middle child Katie Hequembourg. Get her to a Mizzou Tiger football or basketball game and she is much happier. Hequembourg is one of Barnett’s five daughters she raised by herself and to whom she passed her love of teaching.

“She was my inspiration,” Hequembourg says. “She was always my biggest supporter and I’ve wanted to be a teacher since I can remember, kindergarten, first grade. We would play ‘school,’ and she would bring home a grade book so that I could write my pretend grades.”

Raising a family alone was daunting, but Barnett’s faith got her through, she says. “You could be very overwhelmed in the situation where you have five children to figure out who’s going to pay for college, where are you going to get money to pay for cars, car insurance and the things that need to happen, but I learned to just trust.”

With additional income from a few college courses Barnett taught at night at Columbia College and the University of Missouri, she was able to put all five through college.

“Those college courses came at the right time, every time,” Barnett says. “I wanted to get [the girls] to a point that I knew if something happened to me, they can support themselves. That’s through education, which is so very important.”

“Every day when I think, ‘oh my goodness, I don’t know how I’m going to do it another day,’” Hequembourg says, “I just think back to my mom and how she did it with all five of us, and she never seemed weak at all.”

RETIREMENT

“I don’t think she knows what that word means, “ Hequembourg says. “Even when she was first retired she was always on the go.”

Barnett admits it was hard for her to leave her job at the CPS district office. “I had a really hard time leaving the office, so I went back to the office (the day after I retired) for a bit of the day for a month,” she says. “I couldn’t leave it. I always found that there was something else I needed to do.”

Eventually, she did move on.

“I’m a doer rather than—I don’t knit and do needlework and do art and things like that. I don’t do that.” Instead, Barnett walks and bikes the Katy Trail with her husband, David Sleper. She also gardens with her brother on his mini farm south of Columbia. She canned green beans and beets this year. It was a good year, she says. The rain had perfect timing.

“The nice thing about it is — it’s a wonderful thing about retirement — I can choose what I want to do,” Barnett says. Though, most days those choices include serving someone else, usually children.

In the months of July and August, for example, there are a few weeks between the end of summer school and the new school year. Barnett made lunches in her kitchen and took them to the children at Columbia Square Apartments across from the CPS district office. In this time frame, she says, many of them don’t have lunch available. So, she made 585 lunches this past summer.

“I need structure in my life. I need to be productive,” Barnett says. “I don’t have any official jobs where I’m on a payroll, but I work best if I have a list of what I need to accomplish by the end of each day, or at least what I’m supposed to be doing. Because when I put my head on the pillow at night, I have to feel like I’ve done something.” She smiles and shrugs at the confession.

Indeed, since her retirement from the CPS district office seven years ago, she has “worked” for the health department, juvenile services and Community United Methodist Church, where she is a member. More recently, though, she fills two board seats for organizations she has long been connected with through her job at CPS: the chairperson of the Family Health Center Board and president of the Columbia Public Schools Foundation (CPSF).

Having worked with the Family Health Center for 22 years, on and off the board, she says, the organization does a nice job of making medical services available to more people. Her role at CPSF is new. CPSF supports the school district through grants to procure services, materials, books, guest speakers and more for educational needs and desires that fall outside of what the stretched district budget can provide. This year, the CPSF celebrates 20 years, and in that time, it has given out more than a million dollars to the district.

“What’s neat about this organization, is it’s made up of people that care about the school district, but they’re not all teachers,” Barnett says. People like her.

Barnett’s vocation has evolved

once again.

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