DALTON -- If Sister Linda Wilk hears a calling, she will answer.
"I knew early on I wanted to enter the convent, since about age 12," Wilk said.
The Adams native went to the former Notre Dame school in North Adams. At age 17, she joined the congregation of the Sisters of St. Joseph. She went on to earn a bachelor's degree at the College of Our Lady of the Elms in Chicopee, and then a master's degree in education at the former Westfield State College.
"I came right from grad school here, and here I am," said Wilk, who has been a teacher at what is now known as St. Agnes Academy in Dalton for 42 years. For the past several years, she's been teaching in the fifth grade.
This school year, however, will be her last.
If you ask her if she's retiring, however, she'll just smile. Though she said she is of retirement age, Wilk says her time of service is far from over. In fact, she told St. Agnes Academy Headmaster Jim Stankiewicz that her decision to leave came with another call from God -- to travel to the town of Yako, in Burkina Faso, Africa, where she will serve as a volunteer for Sheltering Wings. The charitable organization operates an orphanage and school, and also advocates for children and families.
Wilk will leave the United States in September. In the meantime, she will work to garner support and donations for her two-year mission.
"We'll miss her. She really embodies the spirit of Catholic education and follows God's call wherever that leads her," Stankiewicz said. "At the same time, I'm pretty excited. Her work has been a great example for our students."
He said the school will soon be posting the fifth-grade position and hopes to have someone to fill the vacancy by mid-May.
During her tenure, Wilk said she's seen many changes in education, largely due to changes and developments in technology. What hasn't changed is the role of teaching children about goodwill and humanity.
"When I started teaching fifth grade, we talked about Jesus serving others and using Jesus as a model for service," she said. "So our children used to plan their own service projects, which would range from helping to rake the lawn of an elderly neighbor to raising money for a cause."
Around 2004, Wilk learned about the Samaritan's Purse project, "Operation Christmas Child," through which school children gather goods and toys to fill shoeboxes, which are then sent to other children in countries with fewer resources and extras. That year, the entire fifth-grade class worked on organizing shoeboxes -- a total of 176.
In 2005, Dr. Douglas Karrel of Adams invited Wilk to join him and a small group of people to travel to Burkina Faso and help distribute boxes in person. That year, the boxes weren't distributed because the local government wanted to put a tariff on them. Instead, Wilk and the others visited area schools and orphanages, including Sheltering Wings.
"I can still remember the moment I went there, something in my heart stirred and I knew I would never be the same again," said Wilk.
Since then, Wilk and her students at St. Agnes have expanded and strengthened the ties with Sheltering Wings and Operation Christmas Child not only among the school but among the parish community. This past Christmas, St. Agnes sent 345 boxes of goods to children. The school children also sold woven goods, like pouches and placemats, made by women in Burkina Faso, with profits being returned to the women and their business.
The school's newly revived Student Council has also taken on the role of creating a "Giving Tree" program, through which people can pledge to fulfill a need on a wish tag, whether it be donating $2 toward malaria vaccinations or $500 to support a medical clinic. The program recently wrapped up its main drive, garnering $6,610, with checks still coming in.
"The whole school loves Sheltering Wings," said Connor Matthews, a St. Agnes eighth-grader and the Student Council president. He said students look forward to keeping in touch with the orphanage and Sister Linda Wilk while she's away.
"[Sister Linda has] always been a very humble woman who's always helped others. She's been so much to the school and we'll miss not having her around," he said. "Though Sister Linda will not be here, her lessons and impressions will live on."
To reach Jenn Smith:
or (413) 496-6239.
On Twitter: @JennSmith_Ink
On the Web ...
To learn more about Sheltering Wings, visit http://bit.ly/13jcQxQ. To read a blog about St. Agnes' contributions to the project, visit: http://bit.ly/WJSicI.