Momence Special Education Teacher Nikki Bleyle shares that while she grew up twenty-five minutes south of Chicago, she considers Momence home. She accepted her first teaching position at the Momence Junior High School in 2014, and found herself relating to her new environment, describing it as a ‘tight-knit community.’
By Barry Engelhardt
“I grew up in Lamont. It’s a bigger town but still has that same small-town feel. So, when I came to Momence, it just felt relatable. My daughter is here. My husband is here. This is where he grew up and where I met him,” says Nikki.
She graduated with her bachelor’s degree in general education, focusing on kindergarten through fourth-grade education. When she finished college, she shares there was a teacher boom, making it difficult to find a full-time position. As a result, Nikki started as a substitute teacher and later transitioned into a one-to-one paraprofessional role, working in a self-contained classroom.
While the teacher’s boom created a momentary setback, Nikki quickly learned she was “meant to be a special education teacher,” classifying the students as “her people.” This realization led her to return to school to obtain her Learning Behavior Specialist 1 Certification and, ultimately, a permanent position teaching special education at Momence Junior High School.
Nikki spent her first five years in Momence teaching Special Education at the Junior High School before accepting a Resource Teacher role at Je-Neir Elementary School. She says she started ‘teaching the littles’ before eventually leaving the district to teach at St. Anne, which she considers another valuable learning opportunity. She taught in St. Anne for one school year before returning to Momence. “That small-town feel is really why I came back,” explains Nikki. She continues by adding, “Momence is just my home.”
While Momence is grateful that Nikki returned home, she had already established a legacy that will pay out for decades by establishing Momence’s Best Buddies Program. Best Buddies is a nationwide program that partners students with disabilities with non-disabled peers to build one-on-one friendships that enrich both parties’ lives. Momence’s program hosts monthly, onsite events and participates in the Boilermaker Games, a series of athletic competitions similar to the Special Olympics.
Nikki measures the program’s success through student involvement, knowing that as more students actively participate, more lives are impacted. The Junior High School has grown to thirty and forty active participants. The program has also expanded into high school, reaching another ten to twenty students in ninth through twelfth grade. “On top of all the sports the kids are playing, it’s really cool to see the program grow throughout the years,” says Nikki with pride.
While Nikki’s proud to have established the Best Buddies Program and describes it as thriving, she says she’s since passed the torch to free the time needed to work towards her master’s degree in leadership through Governor’s State University. Nikki’s goal is to be a Director of Special Education, which requires a master’s degree and will allow her to branch out even more to reach more people.
“I love helping kids reach their full potential. I’ve also coached for the district, so whether on the court or in the classroom, I love watching kids grow,” says Nikki. She then adds, “My goal is to be an advocate, no matter what. For any kid, whether they have special needs or not.”