Small steps, big impact for UW-Green Bay student Michelle Haapala

Success is in sight for UW-Green Bay’s Michelle Haapala — the 2018 P.E.O. Reciprocity Scholarship recipient.

Michelle Haapala likes the little things, the small achievements that she witnesses while working with a client with traumatic brain injury, for example. Or a compassionate smile for a child with special needs, making their school day easier. Haapala herself has taken many small steps, even steps backwards, to finally realize her goal of a bachelor’s degree. She is determined; she has persevered; she has made sacrifices; and finally, success is in sight.

One step forward, two steps back in her college pursuit

Haapala grew up in southern California, and after graduating from high school, knew she wanted to pursue a career in education, specifically with kids with disabilities. Two of her brothers have special needs, including autism, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), and bipolar disorder.

Shortly after starting college, her biological mom had a massive stroke, and as the oldest, Michelle suddenly became caregiver to her mom and younger siblings, driving them to and from school every day. The pursuit of her own degree quickly became less of a priority, and she began working for the school district as a special needs aide.

Michelle Haapala-1Haapala got married, had her son Hunter, and after 10 years of on-and-off schooling, graduated with an associates degree in Humanities — her five-year-old proudly watching as mom received her degree. Shortly after that she and her husband divorced, she moved to Arkansas to live with family, and continued to work in the special education area.

“I like the little growth that you see, especially with students. If they are supposed to do a task for a minute, and they do it for 30 seconds, that’s tremendously better than the 20 seconds they’ve spent on it before.”

She had definitely found her calling.

After a year in Arkansas, Haapala and her son moved to Green Bay upon the invitation of her best friend, and Michelle started taking online classes in special education through UW-Superior. She was undaunted and determined to finish her bachelor’s degree. But the online classroom was not for her. “I missed the face-to-face interaction and support,” she says. She looked into the local college, UW-Green Bay and after speaking with an advisor, starting classes working towards a major in history and a minor in secondary education.

At the same time, she started working two jobs to manage the bills and support her son, now almost 10 years old. He enrolled in the Ashwaubenon School District and soon Haapala became an aide in the special education department there. In addition, she started working with adults with disabilities at Curative Connections, specifically with adults with traumatic brain injury. She loved it — “it is a lot like special education because of the speech challenges, pre-planning and communication tools.” She reveled again in the small steps of success that she saw the clients achieve. “I applied for a program tech job (at Curative) and got passed over because I didn’t have my bachelor’s degree.” This motivating force resulted in one of her best semesters at UW-Green Bay.

Juggling her schedule was still a challenge. She was a sub-aide for the Ashwaubenon School District, part-time at Curative, her son’s Destination Imagination (DI) coach, and den leader for his Webelo den. Being on-campus helped her re-center and made her more determined to finish her degree. Yet, funds were running out and her schedule was increasingly hectic.

Moving forward with help from UW-Green Bay and P.E.O.

At the end of the fall semester, her faculty advisor recommended she apply for the Arnold Lelis Memorial Scholarship; she did and received a $1,000 check to help pay for her books. She also applied for the P.E.O Reciprocity Scholarship. In the spring of this year, she received news that she had been awarded a $7,000 scholarship. After “freaking out” with one of her close co-workers, Haapala couldn’t wait to share the news with her family and roommates.

P.E.O. stands for Philanthropic Educational Organization, a nationwide sisterhood that awards scholarships to women based on financial need and other extenuating circumstances, that have prevented them from completing their education. Candidates need to be within two years of finishing their degree.

Michelle Haapala-2P.E.O. Reciprocity Scholarship committee chairperson, Carol Wilinski became involved with the local P.E.O. Sisterhood because of her love of education and empowering women. “It’s amazing to see the tenacity of the women who apply, and what they go through and yet they forge ahead to get their education,” says Wilinski. The sisterhood organizations within the Green Bay area host one fundraiser for their scholarship program, The Gallery of Shops, that raises around $40,000 every year. This money stays in Brown County and every penny is used to help women further their education. “We can have a huge impact on education in Brown County.”

Life for Haapala feels a bit more balanced knowing that her schooling for the year will be taken care of because of the P.E.O. Scholarship award. “On Mondays, I would drop Hunter off at his school, go to (UW-Green Bay) school, then go to work, and not get home until he was in bed,” she says. With this award, she is able to spend more time with Hunter and is not working a third job to pay for tuition. Now in fifth grade, Hunter is successful in school and loves animals and scouting and may follow in his Mom’s footsteps. “He spent a year with my brother and is so comfortable and sweet with kids with special needs,” says Haapala. “Disabilities don’t scare him.”

Exemplifying the Wisconsin Idea

According to plan, Haapala will finish the needed classes that allow her to student teach in the spring of 2020, and she’ll accept her diploma that same spring. “My goal in life is to make an impact and use my degree to reach the most people, so I can help the most people.” As a parent, she’s acutely aware of how her determination is showing Hunter that you have to finish what you start – with small steps forward – even if it takes longer than expected.

She may not realize (yet!) the ripple effect that her seemingly small steps have on the lives of everyone she comes in contact with. Whether it be her clients at Curative Connections, her 10-year-old son, or the students with special needs that she can’t wait to start teaching. Armed with her drive, compassion and soon, a bachelor’s degree, her impact on the people in this community will be felt like an earthquake.

Story by freelance writer Kristin Bouchard ’93

Photos by Dan Moore, Marketing and University Communication

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