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Counselor at Agawam's Doering School awarded for dedication

Date: 2/15/2023

AGAWAM — Karen Cree “truly loves” being an adjustment counselor. Her passion is to improve the lives of children and see them succeed and reach their maximum potential.

The Westfield resident doesn’t feel her work is anything extraordinary. But her colleagues around the region felt differently. That’s why the Western Massachusetts Counselors Association recently named Cree as its 2023 Counselor of the Year.

According to Dawn Ruell, Cree is adored by students she works with, appreciated by families and respected by colleagues and administrators at Doering School in Agawam. Ruell and Pam Gentile, two of Cree’s fellow counselors at Doering, nominated her for the award.

“Karen is a truly dedicated school counselor and tireless mental health advocate for children and families,” said Ruell. In addition to her daily responsibilities, Cree has been a part of several initiatives, including running an afterschool Kindness Club, a Cognitive Behavioral Intervention for Trauma in Schools group, “Fun Nights” and an annual spring talent show.

Three years ago, when the coronavirus pandemic forced Doering and other schools into remote learning, Cree was determined to remain connected with her students and families. During that time, she often made home visits. This helped students feel supported despite not being physically in the school building. It also helped many students who were struggling to attend school become reconnected to school.

Cree said her two biggest challenges as a middle school counselor are having enough time and dealing with social media. “My days with students fly — there’s always more I want to accomplish. As counselors, we spend a lot of time working through issues caused by a lack of social boundaries on social media. Kids often come to school exhausted because they struggle to shut their brains down at night and get adequate rest.”

A 1990 graduate of Agawam High School now living in Westfield, she started working in schools as an inclusion behavior specialist, primarily working with students with autism or brain injury and their school team to increase their opportunities to engage with peers.

“I spent about 12 years in that role before I decided to get my master’s degree in social work. I wanted to work more with the whole child and also their families,” said Cree, who had worked mainly with families in Springfield and Holyoke as an in-home therapist before joining the Doering staff. 

Cree added that middle school students — Doering School serves grades 5 and 6 — are her “favorite” age group: “I want to enter into their ’yuck’ and equip them to find their way and come out even stronger than they were before.” 

A former student who is now an eighth grader at Agawam Junior High School wrote this about Cree: “She helped me come out of my shell. She was born to do what she does. She has still helped me, even though I’m not in the same school anymore.” The student added that Cree is “the most kind, open-hearted person you will ever meet.”

Cree said one of her proudest moments as a counselor was born from a tragedy. In October 2017, almost two months after she started at Doering, one of the school’s sixth graders was hit by a car and killed.

“Our school was in deep mourning. Some students closest to this young boy began to come up with ideas to help our school community heal,” she recalled.

They put notes of affirmation and hope on sixth grade lockers. They decorated doors with kind words of Doering’s teachers. They planted flowers and created a memorial in the school’s garden. This was the beginning of the Kindness Club that Cree still runs.

“Each year the club bursts with students who desire to make a positive impact on our school and community,” she added. “The best reward for me was that some our graduating students went to the junior high and created a Kindness Club there.”

Doering Principal Thomas Schnepp calls Cree a “truly dedicated” staff member.

“She’s usually one of the first staff members to school in the morning and often runs clubs after school,” he said. “Karen’s always looking for ways to improve the students’ experience. Her heart for students is amazing — we can’t measure the impact she has on these young lives. We are very fortunate to have Karen on our staff.”

Although Cree doesn’t believe she’s doing anything special, she does believe her award is important because it recognizes the valuable work of counselors. She said they can often feel overlooked in schools.

“Our colleagues know that social-emotional needs are increasing, but with the focus on academic rigor, our contributions can be overshadowed,” she added.

Cree said while the importance of social and emotional learning for students has been a hot topic in the media, she wishes community members could get a glimpse of a day in the life of a middle school student. She said pressures from social media are significant on an already taxed emotional psyche. 

“This year, we’ve also seen an increase in 10- to 12-year-old students vaping. Video games and social media are causing a decrease in physical exercise and even sleep,” Cree explained. “The world is growing ever more complicated — and their brains and bodies are reacting. They need our help so they can be ready to engage in learning.”

A compassionate, hard-working and devoted counselor, Cree will serve as an effective ambassador and advocate for counselors in Western Massachusetts who are working to help children and families.