It went something like this: A man named Roger and his four kids would be seen pacing across the well-worn pavement of the apartment complex where they lived.
New residents nearby might arch an eyebrow, but long-timers likely nodded. There they go again, those Echols kids.
Buckets, brooms, sprays and cleaning rags. A small parade of purpose. Playtime would wait, for there was a job to do.
Roger made extra money for his family by preparing vacated apartments for the folks who’d move in next. The kids had their assigned duties.
Their mother, Louise, always told the brood that doing chores, inside their home or out, made the family stronger. She also made sure those four kids were listening at church, especially to the parts about giving back, about not judging, about how hard work is humbling.
One of the children on the cleaning cavalry, starting when she was around 8 years old, was Laura. Laura Echols. And this child paid close attention in church, too.
Now fast-forward to 2015 and the Durham Public Schools system. Glenn Elementary School. Laura Echols, Ph.D.
Today, she’s the school psychologist at Glenn. The post involves plenty of purpose, service, hard work and humility. She’s been with DPS doing her duties for 16 years.
“About 80 percent of our kids are on the free lunch program,” she said. “Things are often really tough at home. So many kids come in our door on day one already behind.”
Some of them already need special help, whether with learning disabilities, delayed development, speech therapy, reading deficits, social skills, self-esteem, health challenges. Hope challenges, too.
Laura Echols sees it all, puts her mind and her moral compass to work, and tries to make young lives better through carefully planned interventions. But there’s more.
“I treat the children with respect,” she said. “I want to build a relationship, in the short time I have. Kids are people, too. They have things to contribute. I ask them questions. And I listen.”
For most of her special education assessments, Echols goes down to the room to get each child. During their walk back to her office, the school psychologist seeks to bond in the minute or so the two have together in the hallway. A few moments to find some trust.
“Many of these children come from homes where their parents are working two or three jobs to put food on the table.” she said. “Or unfortunately, some parents just aren’t capable.”
Those kids hunger for help. In recent weeks, Echols has been running a reading improvement group with four little girls. Some of the children in the reading group call her Dr. Echols, and they can’t wait to see her.
“When I walk in, sometimes they run to hug me,” she said.
Echols knows if she misses a day, the kids will miss an opportunity. She says Glenn Elementary has a team of outstanding teachers, counselors, staff and leaders, but the school psychologist job is very specific.
“I do everything I can to stay healthy,” Echols said. “Because if I miss a day, there’s no one there to do what I am trained to do.”
Echols has also worked at E.K. Poe, George Watts, Hillside, Eastway, Club, Neal, and Riverside. Has she had opportunities to move up?
“Well,” she said, “some have said they think I might have something to contribute at central office. But I have absolutely no interest. I got in this to be around kids.”
In her spare time, beyond church, Echols has long been a member of FOCUS Organization, a Durham organization of 25 African-American women who carry out a wide range of community service and provide educational scholarships – $60,000 of scholarships to young women at last count.
Echols began her educating back when she was being educated. She and one of her brothers were the building blocks for a high school program called “Teen Peer Helpers,” formed by their mother, a long-time health educator.
That brother is Roger Echols, his dad’s namesake and now the Durham County district attorney. Laura played a crucial role in his 2014 primary campaign.
“I’ll say this,” Laura points out and laughs a little. “Everybody I know voted for Roger.
After being part of the Echols cleaning, mentoring, and worshipping teams, the siblings remain close. Chores and church did make them a very strong family.
I asked Laura how her brother is doing as D.A.
“He really likes it,” Echols said. “But being the person at the top, where the buck always stops, weighs on him more than he might have thought.”
School psychologist Laura Echols, too, makes decisions every day that can change lives.
She learned at home a long time ago and did not forget. “You just do what you can for people with the time you have.”
For Laura Echols, every minute matters.
You can reach Tom Gasparoli at firstname.lastname@example.org or 919-219-0042.