Jennifer Williams: Teacher, artist, author, advocate and animal savior

Kirk Williams describes his wife as a wild horse that someone tries to hitch to a wagon.

Jennifer de Grassi Williams once quit a job she absolutely loved out of principle. She has orchestrated a 40-year project that brings art education to rural Idaho schools. And she’s a devoted animal lover. She once brought a turtle back to life by giving it mouth-to-mouth resuscitation.

Retired Idaho teacher Jennifer Williams teaches art to kids in a one-room schoolhouse in Prairie.

While Jennifer is one of the most decorated teachers in Idaho history, she’d prefer to be known as the person who “never turned down anyone or turned away from anything.”

Educator, artist, author, advocate and animal savior. Teacher, wife, mother and grandmother.

“She is the most generous person I’ve ever met,” said Bobbi Kelly, her best friend of 30 years.

This month Jennifer will be the first Idahoan inducted into the National Teacher Hall of Fame. She’ll be honored in Washington, D.C., and likely meet the president.

It’s a time for her to reflect on a 40-year career in education, packed with a dedicated appreciation for art, hands-on learning and all living things.

The educator

Jennifer traveled the world in her 20s while married to her first husband, an Air Force pilot. She took college classes all over the country en route to earning multiple degrees in art and secondary education.

Brigham Young, University of Hawaii, New York School of Interior Design, University of Santa Clara, Mississippi State, Texas Technological College, San Jose State, Northwest Nazarene, Idaho State and Boise State.

She was a popular teacher in Mountain Home, Boise and Nampa, earning multiple school, district and national awards with nominations usually coming from her students.

“My art room was a plethora of everything from cow bones to pottery shards to scraps of weaving,” Jennifer said. “We just had it all, anything to get kids away from computer screens.”

Her classes were often filled with students at risk of dropping out, those who struggled to find success in traditional or advanced classes. She said hers was a “dumping ground,” but she embraced the challenge.

In an effort to help her at-risk students feel valued and experience other lifestyles, Jennifer launched “Project Van Go” 40 years ago. She loaded her high school art students into a van, drove two hours down a windy dirt road, and took art supplies and lessons to Prairie, a one-room schoolhouse with fewer than 10 children.

The younger kids were starved for outside visitors. The older kids were starved for attention. When they met, they embraced.

“My students who were nobody to anybody were somebody with this wonderful gift of art,” Jennifer said.

Leah Gerichs was one of those “misfit” kids, making poor choices as a teen and struggling to fit in. Jennifer changed her life.

“I survived high school because of her,” said Gerichs, now a successful, college-educated professional. “She’d let us express ourselves with a paintbrush so we didn’t need to turn to graffiti.”

The “Van Go” project celebrated its 40th year by returning to Prairie last week for a community celebration. Four of Jennifer’s former students made the trek to Prairie to inspire just eight students. One was Gerichs. The other three former students now teach art.

“She’s like part of the family,” 12-year-old Prairie student Connor Davison said of Jennifer. “I love every time she comes.”

Jennifer has continued Project Van Go since her retirement in 2006. Jennifer and Kirk, also a retired teacher and basketball coach at Borah High, pay all the costs of transportation and supplies.

“She gives a gift to kids,” said Lisa Hunter, one of Jennifer’s high school and college students, who now teaches art at Kuna High School. “She gave the gift to me.”

Mountain Home School District Teacher of the Year (1991, 1994), Governor’s Award in the Arts (2000), National Unsung Heroes Award (2000), Idaho Art Teacher of the Year (2001), Nampa School District Teacher of the Year (2002), Idaho Teacher of the Year (2002), Idaho Retired Art Teacher of the Year (2012) and National Teachers Hall of Fame Inductee (2016).

 The advocate

While at Mountain Home High School, Jennifer became determined to get at-risk kids to express themselves through art. She encouraged students to paint murals — hundreds of murals — on all the walls. They painted pictures that memorialized achievements, feelings and death. More than 25 years’ worth of murals illustrated an historic picture of the school and its patrons.

Sports heroes, planes and pilots, stars and rainbows, relationships, cultures, trees, faces, colors and mascots.

When a new administration decided the school was in need of a makeover, including painting over the murals, Jennifer was devastated. Her protests and letters from students didn’t stop the school’s transformation. It was cause enough for her to quit.

“I always told the kids there are times when you have to stand up for what you believe in and this was my time,” she said. “I was willing to leave a job that I absolutely adore.”

Jennifer moved on to Nampa’s Skyview High School, where she taught art for six years before retiring. She couldn’t paint enough murals and they reside there still.

“She did so many wonderful things as a teacher,” said her principal, Kevin Stanger. “She was an advocate for great teaching and an advocate for students.”

Jennifer, 69, retired 10 years ago but that didn’t stop Project Van Go. She still drives hundreds of miles to bring art to rural Idaho.

Almo, Arbon, Atlanta, Howe, Lowman, Three Creek, Peck, Cavendish, Stone, Pine and Prairie.

Prairie Jennifer Williams
Jennifer Williams taught Prairie students how to paint this mural on their classroom wall.

The animal lover

Jennifer may be just as passionate about animals as she is about teaching kids. Her own four children aren’t afraid of anything because their family home doubled as an animal rehabilitation center. They adopted anything — literally.

Squirrels, snakes, mice, tarantula, iguana, ferrets, cats, rodents, bunnies, birds, fish, snails and a pot belly pig named Otis.

“I used to babysit their four kids and caring for the animals was a lot more work,” said longtime family friend Amber Van Ocker. “Cages and cages — all with different feeding instructions.”

The Williams’ home became a dumping ground for turtles, a reptile challenging to care for because they live so long. Once one flipped onto its back and quit breathing. Jennifer brought it back to life with mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. Today she has 15 box turtles.

She used to care for two 80-pound African turtles before relocating them to Hawaii. They now live on the Makauwahi Cave Reserve eating invasive weeds, allowing the native plants to thrive. She visits them several times a year, volunteers on the reserve, and says Shell and Lily recognize her when she arrives.

“Because animals can’t talk we don’t give them credit for their intelligence,” Jennifer said.

She feeds stray cats on her morning walks and at least 35 squirrels hang out at her house for regular feedings. Many of the squirrels she nursed back to life after scooping up their car-injured bodies.

“I would never drive by an injured animal on the road,” she said.

The artist

Jennifer is adamant she is a teacher first, but being an artist is a close second. She has authored and illustrated five children’s books about the life lessons learned from her animal rescues.

The Williams Family Adopts Tiki Turtle, The Williams Family And a Very Beloved Dolly, The Williams Family Bids Aloha to Shell and Lily, The Williams Family and Andy Cat, and The Williams Family And A Curious Stinky Minky.

She writes the books for two reasons. She wants her grandchildren to know about the family’s adventures, and she wants to raise money for animal rescue and rehabilitation. She donates all proceeds.

“I stand on a pyramid of shoulders,” she said. “So many people in my life have said ‘Jennifer, go for it.’”

*Jennifer Williams’ children’s books are available at River City Coffee and Café (5517 W State St., Boise) or available on Amazon.

Prairie Jennifer Williams