It was just more than four decades ago that Shirley Mabon walked into an orphanage in Western New York looking to lend a hand, not realizing at the time her life was about to change.
Mabon, who had just completed an English degree, was having trouble finding a job and decided to do some volunteering.
“They were starting a school and they asked if I would like to interview for a position. I did, and ended up working at the school for kids with emotional disabilities for two and a half years," Mabon said.
That training would be the catalyst for a career in special education, the last 37 years of which has been at
But when the school year comes to an end this June, Mabon will be saying goodbye to Wolftrap, along with the families she's helped there along the way.
“I have been working for 37 years in Fairfax and it really is time,” she said. “I decided I needed to do some other things in life. I’m going to travel, do some gardening, visit family and see daylight a little more.”
After leaving the orphanage in New York, Mabon earned her master's degree at the University of Virginia. After a fellowship in Charlotte, she came to Vienna, interviewed at Wolftrap, "and I never left,” she said.
Mabon's "gentle and patient nature" has made an impact on countless children, those who have worked with the teacher say.
“She is intelligent, always on top of what is going to be the best learning aid for children and she is very patient," Wolftrap Elementary School Principal Anita Blain said. "Sometimes, working with children and being able to have that is really to me one the of the outstanding characteristics of any teacher.”
Wolftrap parent Becky Nayak said Mabon has made all the difference for her second grade son Drew, who has been working with Mabon since he was in kindergarten.
“When he began at Wolftrap, he was not a confident child. His speech delays were affecting his confidence to speak up in class, and he was not meeting the bench mark for reading,” Nayak said. “He began working with Ms. Mabon in a small group setting and slowly began to come out of his shell. Now he is a confident and chatty second grader who can’t wait to get to school. He looks forward to his time with her each day and will miss her dearly.”
In some cases, Mabon has helped entire families, or close to it: parent Kerry Farley, who has seen Mabon work with three of her children, said she feels as if the teacher's dedication and devotion has changed their lives.
“When my oldest child was in first grade, he was struggling quite a bit. He had above average intelligence and was extremely bright, but he just wasn’t reading and writing up to his intelligence level,” Farley said. “She worked with Matthew and gave him extra support and gave him a safe environment to learn.”
Through their work, Mabon discovered the boy was severely dyslexic, Farley said; Mabon was instrumental in getting the Wilson Program, a multisensory reading curriculum, at the school to help. Farley’s two other children, upon entering school, were each also diagnosed with dyslexia.
“She went out of her way to bring this to Wolftrap and he blossomed,” Farley said. “The Wilson Program prevented my daughter from having to experience the trauma my son had. She has touched my whole family’s life.”
It's those kind of experiences Mabon says she'll miss the most, though she plans to continue to do some tutoring for kids who are having trouble reading.
“I’m going to miss the day-to-day contact with kids most,” she said. “It’s been very fun and enjoyable through the years, watching them grow and finding ways to help them with their issues. I love to see them flourish.”
“She will be greatly missed,” Blain said.