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A Shelter Island mother reflects on child raising, work and life

BEVERLEA WALZ PHOTO Shelter Island School District Clerk Jacki Dunning.
BEVERLEA WALZ PHOTO Shelter Island School District Clerk Jacki Dunning.

Advice passed down from one mother to another: “The biggest secret in parenting is to laugh a lot, smile a lot.”

That’s one lesson Jacki Dunning learned from her mother. “There’s plenty of laughter in our house,” Ms. Dunning said in her office at the Shelter Island School where she is the school district’s clerk.

She and husband, Kevin, are about to see their nest emptying as their youngest child, Elizabeth, 18, heads to college in September. Their son Matthew, who will be 20 in August, is completing his second year at St. John’s University.

Last September, as Ms. Dunning contemplated Elizabeth’s last year in high school, she was “pretty cool” with the idea. But as the months have ticked by and graduation approaches, she is realizing that come September, her tight-knit family of four will be forever changed.

Result? She’s feeling more emotional.

“It’s sad; it’s exciting,” Ms. Dunning said. “But it’s their turn to find out who they are. I really look forward to their lives unfolding.”

Both her children have done well academically. She’s proud of the people they have become, but she’s already feeling the pangs that typically afflict empty nesters.

Looking back at what many would say has been a parenting success story, Ms. Dunning said that in addition to the healing art of laughter, teamwork with Kevin is what has contributed to their children prospering.

“We were always a team and his strengths are my weaknesses and my strengths are his weaknesses,” she said.

As they go forward building their futures, she hopes the children carry with them advice to not to rely on conventional ways of thinking and ideas and to remember that home is a safe place to share their views.

Besides the efforts the couple has put in raising their children, she credits the Shelter Island community.

Communities That Care was in its infancy when Elizabeth and Matthew were young and the support that came from that organization of other parents was vital. Relationships were established that have flourished and provided a touchstone when they faced difficult parenting decisions.

“The Island helped raise our children,” she said.

She and Kevin try to support their children’s choices, but that’s not always easy.

When Matthew wanted to change his college major from education to sports management, his parents had their doubts. They didn’t simply buckle under to his idea, concerned about the type of job he would get and what kind of commitment a future company might give him.

Before embracing the switch, they required that he do some homework by speaking to people in the field to find out what’s involved and where such a job might take him.

“We made him work hard,” she said.

It was only after he had explored the field thoroughly that they approved the change, Ms. Dunning said.

As for Elizabeth, Ms. Dunning is happy her college choice, Stony Brook University, won’t take her too far from home. As she begins her college career in the fall, Elizabeth plans to major in physics with a goal of earning a doctorate degree and becoming a college teacher.

Besides raising her own children while working full time, Ms. Dunning has helped other parents, welcoming their children to Shelter Island School and nurturing them on tough days when they need a bit of extra attention. She makes it a point to greet students in the cafeteria at the start of each school day and to return at lunch to see how they’re doing.

While it was easier when the school office was located in a more central area of the building in years past, she goes out of her way to touch base with the students, speaking to them if she senses they’re having difficulties.

“I try to be attentive to all kids,” she said, adding with a smile, “I do love being a mommy.”

When parents of students ask her for advice, she tells them, “We have to build each other up, not tear each other down. We have to reach out to one another.”

Her caring attitude also extends to the administrative staff with whom she works in the school office and with the Board of Education.

Both Superintendent Leonard Skuggevik and his predecessor, Michael Hynes, have praised her, acknowledging her support and knowledge, saying it has made their work easier.

“I’m not always the most popular person because I think outside the box,” Ms. Dunning said about her role with the professionals she works with. It’s less about the people occupying various roles in the school, she said, than about her concern about what’s best for the district. If it doesn’t feel right to her, she’ll advise against certain actions, which is another key to successful parenting, she said.

“That’s not always easy,” she added.

Asked what’s ahead for her, Ms. Dunning said, “I would definitely like to do something for myself.”

What that something is, she isn’t sure. She loves cooking and crocheting, but might also want to get involved with something entirely new.

Whatever she chooses, she knows her family will always be the most important part of her life. Matthew and Elizabeth, she said, are “my greatest accomplishment.”

As for Mother’s Day this Sunday at the Dunning house, mom said the family doesn’t have any “true plans.”

But her birthday is on Saturday, so she expected “a whole lot of spoiling,” Ms. Dunning said with a laugh. “Actually, I prefer it when Mother’s Day falls the week after, so it’s a week of celebrations.”