COLUMBIA — Lillian Hoell was always the kid who volunteered whenever anybody asked.
Some things never change.
Hoell said the big joke at Cedar Ridge Elementary School is to “Just ask Lillian,” because “they know I can never say 'no.'”
Hoell is a guidance counselor at Cedar Ridge, Alpha Hart Lewis and Mill Creek elementary schools and one of 20 elementary counselors in Columbia.
This year she was recognized as elementary counselor of the year by the Mid-Missouri School Counselor Association. She will now compete at the state level, with winners announced in November at the Missouri School Counselor Association's conference.
Apart from her never-say-never attitude, colleagues and students say Hoell is hard-working, always smiling and a friend to children above all else.
Nancy Amelunke said the public schools in Columbia are blessed to have such an outstanding counselor.
“She is loving, genuine, patient and kind,” said Amelunke, an elementary teacher at Cedar Ridge. “When a teacher comes to Lillian with concerns about a child, she is always there to help and understand with compassion for each situation."
With 207 students, Cedar Ridge is one of Columbia's smaller elementary schools.
“Cedar Ridge is like a family,” Hoell said. “I can tell you every kid’s first name and almost every kid’s last name here.”
While teachers get to know students in their classroom over the course of the year, Hoell gets to know kids from every classroom and over the span of their elementary career.
“It’s so neat to watch them grow,” Hoell said. “And once you build that relationship with them in kindergarten, they’ll keep coming back to you all the way through fifth grade, because they know they can always count on you. You’re their constant.”
Hoell didn't always have a clear set career path. As a junior at Westminster College, she was an undeclared major who had “no idea” what she wanted to do with her life.
After volunteering with an after-school program in Fulton called Back-Pack, she was redirected.
“I knew I was supposed to work with kids,” she said. "When anyone would ask me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I’d always say I wanted to own my own day care or be a teacher.”
But she didn’t think she could teach in a classroom all day, every day. That’s when she turned to counseling.
Hoell declared a major in psychology and eventually earned a master's degree from MU in elementary school counseling.
The job seemed like a perfect mix of teaching and working with kids in a deeper, personal setting.
“I wanted to help kids when they needed it the most,” she said. “When kids get older, they can talk to their friends. But when you’re in elementary school and you’re dealing with a trauma, you’re sort of lost with no one to turn to."
"I love that I get to be the person who comes to their rescue."
Growing up as the kid who always lent a helping hand to others, Hoell said she remembers, ironically, when she needed a bit of guidance.
“I was an over-achiever, a teacher’s pet. I always wanted to do right by my teachers, my family, everyone really,” she said.
“But I never felt like there were a lot of adults around school that I could be honest with, to admit my faults to, to let me know I didn’t have to be perfect all the time.”
That’s something she strives to be for kids — "a person that they don’t have to be perfect around,” she said.
As soon as a child walks into her office, Hoell tells them they can tell her anything, and she will still care about them. She wants them to know she's on their side.
"It's not my job to be mad at them, or judge them, and I’m certainly not there to punish them," she said.
Hoell considers her role to be a listener, a friend, a mentor.
“My job is to help them talk it through,” she said. “My only concern is helping them get what they need so that next time, they don’t have to steal or cheat or whatever it may be. I guess you could say I’m not very good at the whole tough love thing.”
After five years of counseling, she said she has finally gotten over her “new-on-the-job jitters.”
“It’s second nature now,” she said. "I just react."
That wasn’t always the case. The first year, Hoell was nervous, especially about working with parents.
“I was thinking — I don’t have kids, I’m 23, who was I to be giving these veterans advice on what they should be doing with their own kids?”
On the other hand, working with children was always natural, if often challenging.
“Sometimes it's overwhelming. Sometimes kids tell you things that make you say, 'Wow, you’ve been through something so tough,'” Hoell said. “And you hope with everything you have that you tell them the right thing.
"But sometimes you don’t know what to do, and that’s hard."
Things don’t always turn out the way you imagine, she has found. “Sometimes what’s going on in a kid’s life is just too significant, too big for a school counselor to help with.”
She's had kids yell at her, tell her they hate her or accuse her of hating them.
“That’s the worst because you care about them so much. But sometimes they’re in a place where they need to be mad at someone, so I’m OK with being that person for them.”
Occasionally she must force herself to stop worrying.
“If you take it home with you every day, it’ll kill you,” she said.
Thankfully, she said, she can often make a child's day better.
“I have kids that come into my office upset and when they leave, they say, 'Thank you Mrs. Hoell, I can have a good day now,'” Hoell said. “There’s just something so incredible when you talk to a child or help a child, and you can see the change in them. All because of something you said.”
Often, she isn't aware of how much she's helped until later.
“Right before Christmas I was out shopping and ran into a kid I used to work with and his mom,” Hoell said. “They both hugged me and told me how much the time I’d spent with him had made a difference.”
She went home and cried. “There are days where my job is hard and days where it’s very sad. But I thought, these are the times that make it all worth it.”
Gay Baer, district president for the Mid-Missouri School Counselor Association, called her “the epitome of an outstanding elementary counselor.”
Hoell is reflective when she talks about the accomplishment.
“You can’t be superman or superwoman, but this job is hard because you want to be,” Hoell said. “You want to save them all.”