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SES office staff a tightly-knit group
W Stillson staff
The front office staff at Stilson Elementary: Left to right, Jennifer Kniphler, Theresa Ernst, Gwen Kendrick and Billie Jean Plankenhorn. - photo by ROGER ALLEN/special
    The front office staff of four women at Stilson Elementary School consists of two seasoned veterans, Gwen Kendrick and Billie Jean Plankenhorn, and two relative newcomers, Theresa Ernst and Jennifer Kniphfer.
    Stilson, a school of some 400 students and 60 staff, sits in the far eastern corner of Bulloch County.
    Kendrick came to the school as a paraprofessional, working two years in first grade and two years in second grade before becoming school registrar for the past 13 years. Plankenhorn worked as a paraprofessional at Stilson for eight years before transferring to Langston Chapel, where she stayed for two years. She then returned to Stilson, where she has now been for the past four years.
    Kniphfer, a school nurse, worked in the Neonatal Intensive Care unit at Memorial Medical Center before coming to Stilson a year ago. Ernst worked for local businesses Farmers & Merchants Bank and Thigpen, Lanier, Westfield & Deal for some 17 years, before coming to Stilson three years ago.
    Despite their different backgrounds, the tight-knit little group, however, has come to see themselves as “big and little sisters.” Kniphfer said that sometimes on the weekend she misses her “big sisters” so much that she can’t wait for Monday when she and her son Hunter can go back to school.
    All four women live in the area, and see each other and their students on a daily basis outside the school. Plankenhorn recounted how one day at her church a new student at Stilson stood up and shouted as loud as he could (from the other side of the sanctuary) “Hey, you go to my school.”
    There is a sense of family in the office that is almost palpable. The students come in to share their successes and their troubles with the office staff, giving “high fives” or hugs as the need arises. If one or the other is away from their desk when they are needed, there is almost a competition to see who can get there first to fill the need.
    Then three of them spoke of how they had suffered a death in their family in the recent past and how their “sisters,”, were there in a blink of an eye: Ernst’s husband passed away after a heart attack, Kendrick’s mother recently passed after an illness, and Plankenhorn’s son died unexpectedly during athletic practice.
    Kendrick said, “Once you’re part of the Stilson community, you’re never alone. If a student gets hurt, or a staff member gets sick, every one comes to their aid. It’s just the Stilson way. It’s the way we feel: we have to take care of each other, no matter what, pure and simple.”
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