As school nurse, a different kind of starring role

Posted: May 30, 2014

School nurse Tina Kemps loves her students. Even when it hurts.

"I've been smacked, I've been hit," she laughs. "That's nothing."

What really matters is not the occasional incident, she says, but that the students regularly "come in here and feel very loved and very safe."

"Here" is Kemps' never-a-dull-moment office at Durand Academy, a special-needs school that often takes students others can't handle.

"Many of our parents have tried everything," says Kemps, 61, who once planned to be retired by now. "I wouldn't do this if I didn't love it."

A striking woman with a distinctive personal style and a wry wit, Kemps worked as a runway model for 25 years, appeared in print advertisements, and continues to act occasionally.

That sort of training - "never lose your composure," she says - can come in handy at Durand.

The leafy little campus in Woodbury serves about 50 youngsters of elementary, middle, and high school age. Most are profoundly autistic or emotionally disturbed; some have multiple diagnoses, including bipolar or obsessive-compulsive disorders.

Operated by Durand Academy & Community Services, of Mount Laurel, the school has a high (1.5-to-1) ratio of staff to student - and a coziness that surprises a visitor.

And then the startling shriek of a student in the hallway reminds me that a school for challenged kids can be a challenging place.

"I never know what to expect," says Kemps, a grandmother of five, who lives in Haddonfield with her husband, Anton, a retired Cooper University Hospital internist. She met her husband of 36 years at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital in Philadelphia.

"You don't really know nursing until you've sat with a dying patient, comforting them, getting to know their families," says Kemps, who worked in a 40-bed oncology ward. "You get to encompass the whole picture, like I do here."

At Durand, Kemps works closely with parents, many of whom have exhausted other educational and treatment avenues for their children.

"She exudes fundamental caring and compassion," says Thomas J. Ryan, the director and principal of the school.

"We often have parents who have had very bad experiences with their public school system," Ryan notes. "We have to rebuild trust."

"We're a small school, so I know them," Kemps says. "They cry on the phone. I cry with them."

Some kids deliberately injure themselves and must be restrained. Others don't speak, communicating instead with noises, gestures, or body movements.

"Often, what you're seeing is anxiety," Kemps says, as Matan Efrat, 13, arrives in her office for a midday dose of medication.

A slender, alert boy with intense brown eyes and an appealing mop of curls, he's accompanied by Josmary Reyes, his "one-on-one" aide.

Most of the students have a "one-on-one." Some may need more than one, like Irina Buroughs did at first.

"She was a handful," Kemps says, as Buroughs, a little charmer of 7 in a pink shirt, arrives for her medication with aide Brenda Pollosco.

Another student drops by for a drink of water, still another needs a T-shirt, and staff members pop in and out. A parent calls on the phone.

"The real heroes here are the teachers," Kemps says. "They are amazing people."

Seconds later, art teacher Rachel Bush comes in to ask whether a student can take an over-the-counter pain-reliever. "Tina," she says, "is heavily involved" with the kids.

A student's progress may seem minuscule, but mean much: A good day here, a bit more eye contact there, an occasional moment of sweetness.

"To do this every day, you have to come in here with an open mind," says Kemps, as another student enters through her open door. "Some days, I'm really surprised by what I learn."

856-779-3845 @inqkriordan

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