A Dynamic Duo
In October 2022, I had the pleasure of meeting Katrina Brekke, ’11, and Moire (Dunn) Layden, ’17, ’19, when I was in Las Vegas for UND alumni events surrounding the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame game.
I was touched by their palpable energy, passion for their field, and obvious love for the children and teachers they served. It was a moment in time, when two UND alumni found themselves together, working at a school far from home. In their off time, they found themselves meeting for book club and socializing along with their husbands, both helicopter pilots.
Together, they made an immense impact.
Since our meeting, both have moved on. Moire has moved to New York City, where she works as the Community Wellness Program Manager for the YMCA of Greater New York. Katrina recently relocated to Bemidji, Minnesota.
“I can’t express how much I have missed working with Moire,” Katrina told me in an email. “We were aligned in our beliefs and were able to make a larger impact by working together to implement best practices. Our bond and the support we provided each other made the hard days bearable. We now have a life-long friendship that I will forever cherish.”
Their stories continue and they will undoubtedly continue to make an impact in their communities. This is a snapshot from their time together in Nevada.
Alumnae team up at a Las Vegas elementary school.
In meeting with Katrina Brekke and Moire Layden, it’s clear that the pair spends a lot of time together. “I couldn’t do this job,” begins Moire, “without her,” finishes Katrina.
At Whitney Elementary School in Las Vegas, Katrina is a school counselor and Moire works as a Safe Schools professional, a social worker by trade. It’s fall 2022, and they’re two of three mental and behavioral health professionals at Whitney. With 400 students, it’s one of the smallest schools in the Clark County School District – the fifth-largest district in the nation.
They joined the district in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. In Las Vegas, schools maintained distance learning longer than many areas of the nation, and children were not physically in school for the entire 2020-21 school year. When they returned in the fall of 2021, “We really saw some serious skills deficits,” Katrina said, “especially in our kindergarten class.”
After being away from a school setting for over a year, teachers and staff witnessed a lack of social-emotional skills (“How do I play and communicate with other peers my age?”), perseverance (delaying gratification), and foundational academic abilities (writing and fine motor skills). “We all need those to be successful,” Moire said. “So seeing that was really hard at the beginning of the year.”
At Whitney, where students were chalking up a 40% chronic absenteeism rate, teachers were finding themselves stretched to the brink. Not only were they implementing a full curriculum, but they also had to handle an inordinate amount of classroom management – modeling appropriate play, for example.
“We’re seeing the social-emotional health of our teachers really take a hit,” Katrina said. “Expectations are so high, and they are not being compensated.”
Seeing a need, they put their own spin on Coffee with the Counselors, a monthly meeting started during COVID to provide mental health support to staff and teachers. Katrina and Moire partnered with local businesses for food donations, led discussions on mental health topics, and kicked off their biggest hit: music trivia.
“I love supporting teachers as well, and being able to deliver some of that professional mental health development is wonderful,” Katrina said. “It was a small thing, but our aim was to allow staff time to connect, provide soul nourishing food and drinks, and show some appreciation to teachers understanding how much burden they carry.”
There at Whitney Elementary School was the dynamic duo from UND, holding up teachers, supporting their students, and advocating for families – together, 1,500 miles from their alma mater.