|Jean Zaleski |
Local resident described as an 'extraordinary woman'
The person who nominated Jean Zaleski of south county for inclusion in this year's series of Women in History stories described her as an "extraordinary woman.''
She hasn't walked on the moon or been to Hollywood and back, but Jean Zaleski is an extraordinary woman because she has managed to live her life in an extraordinary way.
Her decades of good deeds and daring adventures have left her loved and respected by countless people, including her six children and 20 grandchildren.
Born into a country that was just recovering from the Great Depression, young Jean McCorkle bravely left the comfort of her farm home near Maupin, Ore., to attend high school in Eugene. She was putting herself through Williamette College in Salem by working with blind children at the State School for the Blind when World War II consumed the hearts and minds of the country. She felt compelled to lay down her books, put her personal needs aside and join the Army.
At Fort Riley, Kansas she served as a driver and worked in supply headquarters.
There she met a dashing young soldier by the name of Edmund Zaleski. They fell in love and were married at Abilene, Kan., during a weekend pass.
The newlyweds remained in the service until they were honorably discharged after the war ended.
They returned to a country trying to pull itself back together after many losses and countless sacrifices. Edmund's parents offered a temporary refuge in the family home in Massachusetts where he began work as a salesman for Rockwood Sprinkler.
When Edmund was offered a transfer to St. Louis, the couple packed up and moved to St. Louis Hills where they lived for 12 years.
Soon they were able to fulfill their dream of purchasing a farm and raising a big family. They bought 200 acres in St. Clair, closed their city home, and moved.
After being married for 10 years, and being unsuccessful in having their own children, they decided to adopt Janina, whom they called "Jan,'' a toddler in 1956. Betty brought such happiness and fulfillment to the young couple that within the next seven years they adopted five more children: Roy, Jan, Robert, Richard — "Rick'' — and Patricia — "Tricia.'' Four were babies, one was 10 years old and another already was 11.
In search of a broader education, the family returned to the city. Edmund took a job at King Dodge, where he worked for more than 20 years and always was able to find a station wagon big enough for a family of seven.
In her graceful style, Jean Zaleski describes the process of raising six non-related children as "not much trouble. Oh, they were kids and they had their little problems but, nothing out of the ordinary.''
But the children she raised believe that what she did was not only extraordinary, but also selfless and exceptionally loving.
Mom always was ready to volunteer as a room mother, cafeteria mom, Girl Scout leader and Girl Scout cookie sales chairman.
"To completely tell you why (she is extraordinary) would take more space than an entire volume of the Call,'' said Tricia, the youngest daughter.
Credit for that title goes beyond the six children to whom she gave love and hope because after her own children were raised, she continued to put the needs of others first, helping, loving and extending herself daily to anyone who needs her help.
As a volunteer at Point School she shared her love for reading through the Parent Assisted Learning program and later worked with adults in a literacy program. When she finally decided to take a paying job, she did not let it interfere with her true work. As a real estate agent, she approached her work as a service, getting to know clients and helping them find just the right home. Through that work she simply extended her family, bringing more and more people into her circle of love and kindness.
Fifteen years ago, after Edmund died, Jean was a qualified "senior citizen,'' but instead of sitting down or hopping on a tour bus to Branson, Zaleski hopped into a challenging, and some would say, dangerous volunteer position as an advocate for children in the city's Court Appointed Special Advocate program.
Special training as a CASA volunteer enabled her to preserve and protect the rights and best interests of children under the guardianship of the Division of Family Services, now called the Children's Division.
Many young volunteers in the program would say that the work is draining and frustrating. Sometimes parents truly want to do better for their children, but they are not and will never be able to do so.
Sometimes, they just don't care. Sometimes the child has been placed as the result of the death of the parents and the lack of family support.
Many of the children with whom she works have been abandoned, orphaned, neglected or abused. They do not trust adults and they have lost their sense of hope. They need an adult role model who can provide guidance, emotional support and, just maybe, a soft shoulder on which to cry.
"Most of them have not gotten themselves into big trouble,'' she said. "They just have lost their parents somehow. They may be orphaned or their parents may have given up parental rights. It is rewarding, but it can really tear you up.''
"You get pretty close to these children. We have to keep the child's best interest in mind. Sometimes you can help them and sometimes you can,'t,'' she added.
The work might be draining for some, but for Jean Zaleski it is just another step toward making life a little better for someone else. Right now, she has nine children, mostly teenagers, whom she sees at least once each month.
When we spoke with Jean she was happy because she had just helped a child find a good home.
"It's very rewarding to help a child,'' she said.
And no one could say that she is not tenacious in that mission given the fact that she is honored as the organization's most tenured volunteer.
During her 17 years with CASA, she has improved the lives hundreds of children and brought joy to families who, like her, have a little extra room in their home and in their hearts.
The decisions of her adult children to remain in the community, not too far from Mom, is a testament to her value to them and their children. Of course, she believes "they are the best children in the world.''
Robert comes by every Saturday and Sunday morning for coffee and the others check on her often. Tricia, who is a trust administrator at Midwest BankCentre, talks with her mother almost every day.
Without hesitation her grandson Joe describes his grandmother as a woman who "has given a lot more to society than she has taken. It doesn't matter how it affects her or what it costs, if someone needs help, she is going to be there to give it.''
It is only fitting that for her decades of relentless generosity that she should be named one of south county's Women in History.