In Amor Kok’s native South Africa, hundreds of estuaries cough fresh water onto the coast. The intersection of river and sea acts as an essential connector of water to water, as well as a striking resource in its own right: a tranquil harbor for an ecosystem to develop and a community to flourish.
Amor knows what it means to be both channel and harbor. Since she moved to America, she has spent her life providing resources for the disconnected and disadvantaged. And in the process, she has become one vital resource herself.
Last month, Amor retired from her position as exceptional children’s counselor at the Fayette County Board of Education. For 15 years, she brought opportunities to students with special needs, serving them within the school and as well as outside of it. The position of exceptional children’s counselor didn’t exist until Amor began working in the school system, but it didn’t leave with her; someone else will continue her work after she leaves, a testament to a job well done.
Her influence is not limited to her job description, although at least one other Georgia county has since copied the idea. Her work was with people, and fittingly, their stories tell hers. Her career consisted of resolving difficulties with solutions, some simple enough, but all impossible without someone to see what could be done. Some of her challenges:
An Australian girl eating lunch in the bathroom to hide from a cafeteria full of strangers.
A homebound student with an immunodeficiency disease hoping to take classes his senior year.
An autistic high schooler wanting to take a date to prom but not knowing how.
Her solutions? Easy: A hand-picked group of friendly students. A once-a-week, tailored class schedule. A push and a piece of advice (Compliment her!).
Amor is the kind of person you might expect to become a high school counselor: soft-spoken, attentive, and organized. With her lilting South African accent, she used to tell students, “Listen to what I’m saying, not how I’m saying it.” To which they would affirm, “You go girl!”
But becoming a liaison between children with exceptional circumstances and an entire school system takes more than patience and poise. It takes grit.
Dr. Timothy Aycock, a licensed psychologist who has worked with Amor for 10 years, called her “courageous.”
Aycock has referred patients to Amor so she could help them at school or facilitate referrals to other experts.
“The typical situation involves a frustrated parent who is unable to articulate what their child needs very well, and if someone is too upset, they can have difficulty advocating positively for their child,” he explains. “Amor is good at creating a positive environment by empathizing with the family and their needs, being able to identify the areas of conflict, meeting the child’s needs, and putting energies into resolving that conflict.”
He says he and his colleagues speak very highly of Amor and her mixture of directness and compassion, both “confronting and supporting.”
When she moved to the U.S. in 1991, Amor had no idea she’d become a school counselor. She began as assistant to the principal at Sandy Creek after she and her family moved to the States, for more opportunities for work and for their three children.
Growing up in Zimbabwe, Amor attended boarding school and learned to speak Afrikaans. Her family had lived in the country for five generations, but in 1977, during the Rhodesian Bush War, she moved to South Africa for more stability. Her brother had moved to the United States, so when she and her family decided to follow, they chose Peachtree City to be near him.
Dan Langford, the mayor of Brooks, was one of the first people the Koks met in the U.S. since he had worked with Amor’s brother for years. According to Langford, Amor — and her family — contribute empathy and effort to the community:
“It’s just a top drawer family,” he says. “You can count on any of them to do what they say they’re going to do and more. You can count on a job to be done as well as it can possibly be done.”
Amor explains she has felt that hard work was her duty to the U.S., where she eventually gained citizenship. She describes the experience of immigrating with a mixture of culture shock and extreme gratitude toward the country she now calls home. Today she cherishes an American flag that counselors at McIntosh had flown over the U.S. Capitol the day she became an American citizen.
The biggest culture shock she experienced was a lack of time, she says: fewer vacation days and busier schedules. What time she does have, she uses prudently because, “Children spell love T-I-M-E. When people say, ‘I don’t have time’…Yes you do. That’s the only thing you really have control over.”
Because she understands what it’s like to struggle to adjust to a new country, she has become the unofficial resource for South Africans in the area (she says there are about 70 families) and has also served as one for immigrant children in the schools (“Just because they find me”).
One immigrant who found her was a Croatian exchange student, Željka Karnakovic. Amor would host her on the weekends, cooking for her and leaving chocolates on her bed. On a trip to Europe this year, Amor stopped by Croatia to see Željka, whom she had taught 20 years ago.
Amor met Željka during her second job, teaching economics and international business at Sandy Creek for almost a decade. In 1998, she was honored as Economics Teacher of the Year in Georgia with fellow teacher, Marlene.
After that, she became a counselor at McIntosh. Finally, the superintendent and director of exceptional children’s services approached her with a new opportunity.
As exceptional children’s counselor through the school system, she would help students with academic, personal, or social issues. Some would eat lunch in her office. During one-on-one sessions, she would encourage them to focus on their strengths rather than lingering on their weaknesses. And she would always, always follow up. One student still sends her Christmas cards.
“I followed him to nine different schools,” she explains. “I would go out and buy him a nice lunch. I said, ‘Over my dead body will you be a statistic that’s not going to graduate.’ But he graduated. When I became the special education counselor, I would follow them for years. I always used to tell the students, ‘If you don’t see me it’s good news. That’s the goal.’”
What did having a special education counselor do for graduation rates? Amor reports that for graduation in four years, involved students had a graduation rate of 68 percent, verses a state graduation rate of 57 percent. If students in exceptional children’s services took another year to graduate, the rate increased to 82 percent.
In 2008, Amor was a National School Counselor of the Year Semi-Finalist. Another year, she spoke at the National Autism Convention with two other teachers.
Rosie Gwin, the director of Exceptional Children’s Services for Fayette County Public Schools, says Amor’s effectiveness doesn’t just come from her ability to work with parents, school administrators, and community programs. It comes from her long-term commitment.
“She might get to know a student in elementary school and continue to check in on them as they move through the school system,” Gwin says. “She might only check in with them from time to time, but if something comes up, she already knows that family.”
Amor’s work with special needs students also included local organizations, like AV Pride, Fayette Factor, Southside Support Group, and Exceptional Ops. With Exceptional Ops, she hosted social skills training classes for students. For some students, social skills are as important to learn as any academic subject. The students would discuss etiquette before getting the opportunity to practice it, at dinner or the theater.
In the classroom, sometimes Amor would have students help her give presentations on a subject she knew well: South Africa. She would share South African cookies with a class and ask one of her students to help her with the presentation. They would introduce each other as friends (Amor wouldn’t risk the stigma of “counselor”) and the leadership activity would provide the student with “a little bit of self-esteem.”
Amor, the connector, stays very attune to how things will come across to others and helps students blend in, in a good way. “I don’t want them to feel singled out,” she explains.
Now that she’s retired, Amor will be working at The Life Change Group, a local counseling practice. Counseling part time will free her to take care of her 85-year-old father who lives next door. Years ago, Amor won a green card for him and bought him and her mom a home when they immigrated.
As she continues counseling, Amor hopes to work with immigrants and especially people with special needs. And she will continue to be involved with local groups supporting special needs students, like Exceptional Ops and Fayette Factor.
“Amor is one of the most empathetic, kind, and generous people that I know,” Gwin says. And she will be missed in the school system: “When we had her retirement celebration in May, there was a large group of people gathered from across the district. I asked, ‘How many of you have been to an event she’s had or she’s brought you food?’ Hands went up across the room.”
If what she will continue to do after she leaves the school system where she worked for more than two dozen years feels similar to what she’s been doing all that time, it’s because her passion hasn’t changed.
Always the counselor, Amor can keep doing what she has done, and acting as she has been: Vital, but calm. Persistent, but generous. Dogged, like a river, winding toward the South African shoreline.