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Phila. School District eliminates position of liaison to those suffering loss

As the Philadelphia School District's "guardian angel," Victoria Yancey has attended hundreds of funerals, held weeping mothers, and delivered personal tributes for students who died too young.

Victoria Yancey, the district's "special representative," helped students, staff, and families deal with loss. (April Saul / Staff Photographer)
Victoria Yancey, the district's "special representative," helped students, staff, and families deal with loss. (April Saul / Staff Photographer)Read more

As the Philadelphia School District's "guardian angel," Victoria Yancey has attended hundreds of funerals, held weeping mothers, and delivered personal tributes for students who died too young.

This summer, as the cash-strapped district laid off thousands of workers, Yancey conducted "healing workshops" for the employees who were left - teaching people how to deal with survivor's guilt and the worry that the next pink slip would be theirs. With end-of-the-year layoffs looming, she had planned her next session for Tuesday.

She never got to lead it. Yancey's position as "special representative" - the district's liaison to students and employees dealing with trauma and loss - was eliminated Saturday.

"The guardian angel's wings were clipped," Yancey said.

District officials said her work would continue, done by other staff. They said Yancey was eligible to work as a school counselor, but she said she had not received notice of any positions and was not sure she would take one. She said she was committed to working with grieving families.

An ordained minister and a therapist with degrees in education and counseling, Yancey viewed her work as a mission, not a job. She answered phone calls in the middle of the night, found funds for funerals, accompanied families to the morgue if they asked.

Yancey kept stacks of marble-front copybooks with handwritten details of excruciating losses - students, parents, teachers, and principals. She built a network of volunteers, mostly ministers, rabbis, imams, and monks, to help her.

"I've devoted my life to this work," said Yancey, a born-and-bred Philadelphian who graduated from Germantown High School and Pennsylvania State University.

Enolda Thorpe was the last person Yancey counseled before she lost her job. Thorpe's son Khalif was murdered in February 2010, and Yancey comforted the family in the days afterward.

Khalif Thorpe's dream was to earn his high school diploma. He wanted to prove to his father that he could do it, and he was three credits shy from graduating from Furness High when he was gunned down.

Yancey didn't forget that, and on Dec. 23 - the day before Khalif would have turned 20 - she knocked on Thorpe's door. She had navigated the system and gotten the diploma. Yancey hugged Thorpe as she cried - tears of joy this time.

"She's the sweetest person I ever even ran into in my life," Thorpe said Wednesday. "I never had anyone help me as much as she helped me. I never had support like that from the School District before. I don't know what people are going to do without her."

District officials said Yancey did good work, but given the fiscal realities, they could no longer justify the position.

"Our first priority has to be that everyday support to schools, for children," said Karren Dunkley, head of the district's Office of Parent, Family, Community Engagement and Faith-Based Partnerships.

Yancey, who was paid about $80,000, had worked for the district for more than 30 years as a teacher, counselor, assistant principal, violence prevention coordinator, and finally, "special representative," a job created by former chief executive Paul Vallas in 2003.

Vallas said he never wanted the school system to feel so big that it lost sight of individual tragedies.

In addition to her work with parents, she also supported school staff dealing with student losses. In some cases, she helped students whose parents or grandparents were killed.

And lately, helping other district staff cope with the layoffs stemming from a budget shortfall of more than $629 million was one of her most important jobs.

"There's hardly anyone there. People are going through all kinds of difficulties, all kinds of guilt and anxiety," Yancey said.

Now, she's coping with her own grief from losing the job she loved.

"I'm following my own mantra of talk, talk, talk about it," she said. "Thank God I have my family here to support me, and faith-based folks to pray with me in all kinds of different ways."

The Rev. Audrey Bronson, former leader of the Black Clergy of Philadelphia and Vicinity, was one of Yancey's volunteers. She has known Yancey for years and called her layoff "a tragedy."

"With all the violence that's happening around here, especially in the schools, you need somebody with authority, but with understanding, to do this job," Bronson said. "I think it's a terrible thing that she has to be laid off."

Lisa Parker, chair of the United Nations Peace Day local program, stood with Yancey recently when both were recognized at a School Reform Commission meeting for their work on the International Day of Peace.

As administrations changed and priorities shifted, Yancey was a constant, promoting peace and nonviolence activities in schools, Parker said. Yancey pulled together activities with no budget, and her removal is a "penny-wise, pound-foolish" decision, Parker said.

Parker wrote to Acting Superintendent Leroy Nunery II urging that he reinstate her position.

"We believe Dr. Yancey is a valuable and compassionate asset to the Philadelphia School District and the challenges it faces related to youth violence and youth trauma," Parker wrote.

Nunery, in an e-mail response to Parker, recognized Yancey's importance.

"There's no doubt that Dr. Yancey has played an invaluable part in the district's outreach to students, families and communities," Nunery wrote. "As you know, we are facing extraordinary budget pressures, and positions have been eliminated and restructured as a result. If things change - and I sincerely hope they do - I hope Dr. Yancey can return."

Yancey wants that very much, and holds out hope for a miracle. But she knows it's a long shot.

"One way or another, I want to continue my work," she said. "If not on a big scale, then one family at a time. I want to go wherever people need me."