Janesville teacher Deri Wahlert makes an impact beyond the classroom
Family: Son Avery, 3. "He's the light of my life." Wahlert and her younger sister, Devin Wahlert-Nelson, who lives in Fort Atkinson, were both adopted, although they are not blood relatives.
Unusual name: "My parents had a friend named Derith when they lived in Ohio. They shortened it to Deri."
Hobbies: Gardening. Watching the Brewers, Badgers and Packers.
On teaching: She did not set out to become a teacher. She got a degree in environmental-urban planning from UW-Whitewater and saw herself working for a greener environment. She worked for an environmental consultant but lost her job in the economic downturn after the 9/11 attacks. She took up substitute teaching to make ends meet and knew right away she had found her calling.
Influential: The now-retired Craig High School teacher Chet Taylor, with whom she student-taught.
Inspirational: Her parents, Judy Wahlert and the late Pete Wahlert. "My dad—every day of his life after he got sick was a struggle—and my mom, she just stayed by him, and not many spouses would do that. It was just amazing what they did."
JANESVILLE When Deri Wahlert was in seventh grade, her father woke up one day feeling bad.
She remembers him coming downstairs. That was the last time she saw him walk.
He eventually was diagnosed with an infection of the spinal column and was paralyzed from the waist down.
Her father lost his job a few years later.
"Then it got scary," she recalled.
Luckily, her parents had put some money aside, and they received Social Security and disability checks.
The family was middle class, she said. Her parents encouraged volunteering. On Christmas, they took the girls to sing carols at a nursing home. Summers, they'd deliver meals to shut-ins.
Wahlert, a teacher at Janesville Parker High School, points to that experience when asked why she has such a heart for students who don't swim in the mainstream of high school life.
Wahlert not only advises Parker High School's National Honor Society but also the Gay Straight Alliance. And she founded the Parker Closet after a student revealed to her that she and her brother were living on their own in an apartment with no electricity and little food.
Parker Closet supplies groceries, bus tokens, shampoo, deodorant and notebooks, among other things. It served 12 students in its first year. It now serves 138.
Wahlert also started a prom-dress exchange that expanded to include tuxedos, some donated by Nedrebo's, one of the many families, businesses and community organizations that have helped her help kids.
"Whatever is for kids—people are so generous. I wouldn't be anyplace with this program without the spirit of the community," she said.
More than an organizer, Wahlert is known among students as a teacher who will drop what she's doing to help, said former student Sara Pierce.
"She always knows what to say. You can tell in her face that she actually cares," Pierce said. "She tries to help the best she can, and most times she does help, even if it's just making us a little bit more emotionally stable while we're at school. …
"She just has a heart for people who aren't really sure who we are and helps give us an idea of what we should be or who we are inside," Pierce said.
And if a colleague needs a hand, Wahlert will stop correcting papers or preparing lessons to help, too, said fellow teacher Kate Bennett.
"If you ask her, she will help you right now. Not in a minute. Not a little later. She'll put other people's needs first," Bennett said.
"She motivates all of us."