Each weekday morning at Palo Alto High School’s health office has a similar rhythm. The first patients to come in each morning tend to be students involved in bike accidents. As the day progresses, students who are rethinking their decision to go to class despite mild colds and fevers drop by. Sitting behind the desk of the health office to give each student a friendly greeting and attend to their needs is nurse Jennifer Kleckner.
Ever since Kleckner graduated with a bachelor’s degree in American history and Economics from UC Berkeley, she has devoted her life to helping people in her own community and around the globe.
She has been a Palo Alto Unified School District nurse for a decade; however, she didn’t discover her passion for health until she pursued her dream of joining the Peace Corp. After college, she set out for the Democratic Republic of the Congo at age 22.
She spent her first two years in the Congo teaching local children how to read, write and speak English.
While serving there, she also had the opportunity to help locals and fellow volunteers set up a maternity clinic in a small village. The maternity clinic was set up to provide expecting mothers with prenatal care and trained midwives to assist women in childbirth.
“That [a maternity clinic] is what this village particularly wanted because they’d had some tragic losses,” Kleckner says. “I helped raise the money for the clinic and get it started.”
Kleckner then volunteered for a local hospital and mobile clinic, providing vaccinations and monthly check-ups for people in the area. These experiences inspired Kleckner to pursue a career in public health at university after the end of her three years of volunteering in the Congo.
It was also during her time in the Congo that Kleckner met people who had a lasting impact on her. Kleckner recalls one woman in her group whose family helped a fellow volunteer pay his tuition for graduate school at Stanford.
“She came from a wealthy family, but in the program, she seemed like any other person who was there,” Kleckner says. “Her family supported him [the volunteer] going to Stanford and he got his degree. I thought that was really inspiring.”
Many of Kleckner’s fellow volunteers continued on to do work in public health, working for causes such as AIDS prevention.
When Kleckner completed her time volunteering overseas, she continued to work toward her newfound career interest in public health by earning her nursing credentials and finding work in maternity, internal medicine, and orthopedics. Since earning her credentials, Kleckner has married and had three children of her own.
According to Kleckner, her passion has always been working with children and helping others. Because of her love for working with students and caring for others, Kleckner decided to become a school nurse.
“Watching … students grow up is so exciting,” Kleckner says. “Getting to see the paths that they take and the passions that they develop is great.”
Though she changed her career path, Kleckner is still involved in teaching English through her volunteer work with Reading Partners, a program that provides tutoring for elementary school students reading below their grade level. Kleckner hopes she will be able to make a difference in students’ lives while volunteering with the program.
“Reading is such an essential tool and it builds,” Kleckner says. “Some kids can feel left behind if math or reading is not for them and I don’t want to see some kids check out.”
After working with students at Jordan Middle School, Kleckner was asked to be Paly’s nurse because there was no nurse and a large student body in need.
Kleckner appreciates that she is able to assist students who are struggling physically or mentally.
“I can start asking questions and help the student figure out what the problem they’re having is related to,” Kleckner says. “I like solving the mystery of why someone isn’t feeling well and if it’s something I can help them with then it’s very gratifying.”
Kleckner says that the students she has met as a nurse have taught her a lot.
“I’ve learned from the kids in my life that when I have to do something that I’m not exactly looking forward to, I usually find out afterwards that it was great,” Kleckner says. “They have taught me not to make snap judgements.”
Whether working as a nurse in Palo Alto or as an English teacher in the Congo, the people Kleckner has helped have had a profound impact on her life.
“It’s not just the big names that are my heroes. It’s a lot of the kids I see here [at Paly],” Kleckner says.