Suzanne Koehler and her dedication to special education

LEOMINSTER — City resident and published author Mark Bodanza said it best in his book “Risk Takers & History Makers: The Story of Leominster”, when he wrote: “When you spend a lifetime loving your community with your time, talent and care, they love you back.”

Two Leominster residents — Suzanne Koehler and Joseph DeCarolis Jr. — who have spent a lifetime loving their community, and their families, will be honored at this year’s 29th Starburst celebration

Starburst will be held at 4:30 p.m. on Saturday, Aug. 27, at Doyle Field, ending with the traditional fireworks display at 9 p.m. The event will feature live music by the 40-piece Starburst Band and local music groups, food provided by local vendors, and the presentation of this year’s Citizens of the Year.

Suzanne Koehler honored for her dedication to special education

Suzanne Koehler may not be a Leominsterite by birth, but her heart has resided here for the past 43 years. This includes raising her three children, Erich, Jen and Shawn within these city limits.

Providing for and exposing her children to all that Leominster offered was the motivating factor for her entrance into volunteerism.

Suzanne Koehler is pictured with her grandchildren, left to right, Liam Shay, Owen Shay, Luke Shay, and Lily Shay, in Newport, RI. (COURTESY THE KOEHLER FAMILY)

“This began when my youngest child, Shawn, was an infant,” Koehler said. “He had health issues and that is when I recognized the necessity for reaching out to others and forging a communal foundation, especially not having my family close by.”

Education was always important to Koehler as she earned her bachelor’s degree in accounting attending night school while working full time. She was active when her children started school. She served as treasurer for St. Leo Boy Scout Troop 11 and followed her daughter, Jen, through her many sports endeavors whether playing for Leominster Youth Soccer or St. Bernard’s Central Catholic High School.

“What any parent of a special needs child is never prepared for is the many challenges that lie ahead,” she said. “I embraced the challenge and sought out all opportunities to learn about the laws, availability of services, and the power of networking with other parents and educators.”

At the encouragement of many friends and acquaintances, Koehler ran for a seat on the Leominster School Committee in 1993, when the Massachusetts Education Reform Act of 1993 called for dramatic changes in public education.

“Among the major provisions of the act were greater and more equitable funding to schools, accountability for student learning, and statewide standards for students, educators, schools and districts,” Koehler said.

She successfully served for the next 28 years, helping to enforce the education reforms in Leominster and made a difference in the lives of Leominster students, especially those with special needs.

She became an advocate for implementing the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, providing equal access to education in the least restrictive environment.

“I enjoyed serving as a member and chairperson on the MA Association of School Committees Special Education subcommittee for several years, working with school committee members across the state to promote equity, funding and IDEA compliance,” she said.

Koehler was later awarded the honor of Life Membership by the association in 2019.

She also served many years on the CAPS Collaborative Board, as a voting member for Leominster and as finance chair. She served in many roles on the Leominster School Committee, including vice chair of the School Committee and chair of the Finance subcommittee, where she focused on fiscal accountability to taxpayers.

“I served on the Friends of the Leominster Public Library Board for several years,” she added. “And continue to maintain finances and serve on the St. Leo’s School Advisory Board.”

She currently serves as treasurer of Ginny’s Helping Hand, is a fundraising volunteer for Beacon of Hope and a member, and former treasurer and president of the Leominster Lions Club.

Koehler retired from Hanover Insurance Co. after 32 years in the financial services industry and then started a second career at her current employer Sterilite Corp. as a cash accountant.

“What I am most proud of, however, is successfully raising my three children as a single parent and sharing in their accomplishments,” Koehler said.

“Erich is a captain in the U.S. Park Police and lives in Virginia with his spouse, David. Jen is a physical therapist and lives in Connecticut with her spouse, Nate, and their four children — Luke, Owen, Liam, and Lily — Grammy’s pride and joy,” she said with a smile. “Shawn is active in Leominster, working at Hannaford on Lancaster Street and volunteering at Ginny’s Helping Hand, St. Vincent de Paul Food Pantry and is a member of the Beacon of Hope and the Leominster Lions Club.”

Koehler says she is very humbled to be chosen as Leominster’s 2022 Citizen of the Year.

“I count my blessings of my family and friends and their support of my community involvement,” she said. “It truly takes a village to raise a child and I can think of no better place to raise children than Leominster!”

Co-chairs of the Citizens of the Year Committee, Nancy Koski and Diane Sanabria are responsible for selecting two worthy Leominster residents, a man, and a woman, to recognize at the Starburst celebration.

“Nancy and I would like to congratulate Joe and Sue, whose volunteerism, contributions to our community, and civic pride help make Leominster such a wonderful city to call home,” Sanabria said. “They are stellar examples of why this award was established.”

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