As the needs and challenges facing children at Stone-Robinson Elementary School have changed, one thing hasn’t: the care and attention they receive from school counselor Don Landis.
For three decades Landis has worked in public schools in the Central Virginia area, spending the last eight years at Stone-Robinson in Albemarle County. Schools and the area have changed a lot in that time, Landis said, but the needs of the students and their families have stayed the same.
“They need to be loved and cared for, and they need a place to sleep and they need food and they need to have those basic needs taken care of so they can come to school ready to learn,” he said.
Growing up on a farm in Pennsylvania, Landis said his parents instilled the values of hard work and caring for others in him at a young age.
“I saw their hard work providing for others and I think that experience really provided an example for me for knowing and living my values of wanting to help other people as well,” he said. “We raised crops and we had livestock and a small retail shop where we sold products. So understanding how to work with others and work to serve the public are two things that I really understood from an early age.”
While attending Temple University in Philadelphia, Landis studied psychology as an undergrad and then school counseling in graduate school before graduating and moving down to the Charlottesville area. Landis said that working in school counseling has been incredibly rewarding but not without its challenges — challenges that have only grown amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
The challenges facing schools and students were multitude, Landis said, and he quickly realized that some of the students’ families were likely having a difficult time putting food on the table. With this in mind, Landis and his colleagues started a monthly drop-off food drive. Through the efforts of the school and its community partners, which included Kids Lift and Foster Fuels, Landis said they were able to help around 30 families a month.
“We’ve been doing the food drives for the last year and a half, and it’s just really created a stronger partnership with our families and it’s great knowing that we’re really looking out for all of their needs, not just the kids’ academic needs,” he said. “It’s important to understand all their social, emotional needs and their basic needs of food and shelter so that they can be ready to come to school prepared to learn.”
Landis said the work he does as a school counselor has also changed as the county schools grappled with how to teach students and give them a sense of normalcy in a world turned upside down.
“The work that I do as a school counselor has really changed into helping kids get back into the normalcy of that routine of what school looks like and feels like again,” he said. “That looks like helping them to understand what the normalcy of school is: working with others and cooperating and being kind and being in person with each other rather than on a video screen.”
To those around Landis, the compassion and thoughtfulness he extends to every student and colleague is apparent. According to Cindy Anderson, an office associate at Stone-Robinson, Landis makes sure each year that every student receives a special birthday card.
“When students were learning virtually, he took the extra time to hand address and mail each student’s card,” she said. “He greets all the students as they get off the buses each morning. His warm, welcoming smile starts everyone’s day feeling loved.”
Anderson said the students look forward to having lunch with Landis, knowing it’s a safe time to share their feelings, discuss concerns and learn healthy coping strategies. Landis also takes time to show his thoughtfulness to his colleagues, she said, baking treats to brighten their days and buying holiday hams for the cafeteria staff.
“At Stone-Robinson we believe that kindness matters,” Anderson said. “Don Landis exemplifies kindness each day & this has been especially needed during these challenging months.”
Kelly Oehler, talent development resource teacher at Stone-Robinson, echoes Anderson’s sentiments and said Landis’ calm and collected manner influences and inspires his colleagues as well as the students.
“He is always there to lend a hand wherever it is needed, be it covering a class for a teacher or lending 50 cents to a colleague that needs a soda,” she said. “He takes on many roles at Stone-Robinson including bus duty, testing coordinator, or acting administrator.”
Landis is an asset to the school who, above all else, put the students first, Oehler said.
“He know every student by name and speaks to as many children a day as he can,” she said. “This makes the students feel important and valued.”
Looking back on his life and his work, Landis said he believes that communities can make the biggest positive impact on children during the elementary years, preparing and equipping them with the tools to build a brighter future.
“Helping them get along with each other, understand cooperation, respect. Helping them understand those core values happens both at home and here at school,” he said. “I just encourage families and those in our community to keep supporting our schools and to keep reading to your kids and holding them accountable for their words and their actions. If we keep doing that we’re going to be in a better place.”
Name: Don Landis
Hometown: Lititz, Pennsylvania
Residence: Albemarle County, Virginia
Occupation: school counselor at Stone-Robinson Elementary School
Pastimes: disc golf, hiking, playing with his dog