Shirley Van Dresser was one of those special people who made an impact on everyone that she met. As a child, her father’s job required the family to move a lot. At times she would be in two different school systems within the same year. She learned that the best way for her to fit in during these transitions was to be kind and to be the smartest. And, she was.
She loved to read and learn. She graduated from Hillsdale College with B.A. in Psychology and a Teaching Certificate in German, Social Studies, and English. To her disappointment, a career in Psychology was not readily open to women, so she pursued the accepted career of being a teacher.
She taught for four years, until she started her family with a set of twins, and ultimately had six daughters. The girls didn’t think much of having such an educated mother, it seemed quite normal to them. However, when the youngest daughters were in 6th and 7th grade, she went back to Radford College to earn her Masters in Guidance, and they were well aware that she aced the oral and graduated with accolades from her professor.
As the sister’s eye roll, “of course she did”. One of the twins pursued education, coached for 43 years, and worked in afterschool programs before COVID-19 hit and she moved into Food Distribution to help families and children in need.
While only one daughter went into education, helping others was a quality that transferred to all her children. By having a mother in education, they all learned early on that they needed to do well and work hard. They always had books around them. Each night at dinner, they were required to sit down as a family and encouraged to have conversations.
Often, they were given a new word for the night to use in a sentence during dinner. The words often required you to think – but she made it fun! In the classroom, Ms. Van Dresser always made sure that every child was provided the best learning environment, social support, and that no child was left behind. Her passion for helping children influenced one of her daughters to start a community mentoring program for children with social needs.
While she loved teaching, she was interested in guiding children and helping them cope and thrive in life. She felt that formal education was important because it exposed you to information that might ignite your interest and give you the basics to enable choices in life. However, she felt that experiences were also important for all children and young adults. Through experiences such as traveling, going to camp, doing community service, and interacting with those who are different than you allowed you to gain confidence and broaden your mind.
After her passing in February 2021, her daughters received and continue to receive an outpouring of letters of appreciation from former students. They were not surprised by this because of how their mother lived her life. She said that she “had a strong belief in people”. She lived her entire life with generosity and was always extending a helping hand.
If she saw a child in need, she reached out. They recall not so long ago, she met a grocery store cashier and discovered that she was working extended hours to help put her daughter through college. She encouraged her to start a college fund, explained the benefits, and even contributed to it over the years – she was then in her 80s.
She stayed in touch with the family, and the fund that was started ultimately allowed the cashiers daughter to graduate college. Mrs. Van Dresser’s request of the family was to pay it forward and help some you know. She continually repeated generosity throughout her 94 years. She enjoyed traveling, and once was sitting on a bench outside a castle in Germany when a young man sat next to her and said “YOU are Mrs. Van Dresser”, and went on to share how much she impacted him when he was in her 7th grade English class. This was not the only time she ran into former students in her travels abroad.
As a Guidance Counselor, she would often say that she wished she could do more for her students. For her, it wasn’t just about helping students get into the right school or securing scholarships, she wanted to be a safe haven and help with food insecurity or other personal need, boost their confidence and be a listening ear.
However, you knew if you crossed the line – she was never a pushover. Making funds available to Guidance Counselors to help students that may or not have to do with scholarships, will expand the counselor’s ability to make a difference in student’s lives, as she did.
That is why her six daughters decided to make a fund for Guidance Counselors at the CFNRV. The New River Valley is where Mrs. Van Dresser taught and served for many years of her life, and they wanted to reinvest in Blacksburg and the New River Valley. Their goal in starting this fund is to help all children receive opportunities to help themselves.
They specifically feel that Guidance Counselors play an important role in positively affecting the lives of children and young adults without bias and that this fund will honor their Mother’s legacy. All six daughters worked collaboratively with Chief Executive Officer, Jessica Wirgau to develop a fund that captures the wishes of all six daughters. This is the first fund of its kind at the CFNRV.