Meet our Friends
Julee Wilson graduated from Westtown School in 2000. After receiving her B. A. in Leadership Studies at the University of Richmond, Julee moved to New York City where she started working on a career in publishing. Her first job took place at Real Simple magazine where she stayed for six and a half years. She then left Real Simple as the Staff Fashion Editor in order to become The Huffington Post’s BlackVoices Style and Beauty editor. Over her career, Julee has also written for Conde Nast Traveler, Vibe, and Parenting, in addition to serving on the advisory board for Harlem’s Fashion Row. She is now the Senior Fashion Editor at The Huffington Post, covering stories, reporting on news, and interviewing anyone relating to the subject. “I’m a storyteller,” Julee put simply. It’s not only about getting the story across, but also sharing with others and creating pieces that the audience will enjoy.
That being said, it comes as no surprise that Julee loved her Westtown English classes. She enjoyed being a wordsmith and figuring out how to use words to make her point. “Westtown made me a critical thinker,” she explained. “I feel as though I can approach any subject--whether it be fashion or politics--form an argument, and write about it.” Among Julee’s most influential teachers were Andy Crichton, an English teacher, and Ale Navarro-Benbow, the Girls’ Second Dorm Parent as well as Julee’s track coach in jumping and sprinting. Julee came out of high school feeling well prepared for college, it’s coursework, and meeting new people. “I learned how to interact with people socially in a way that was more mature than my incoming classmates,” she explained. “Westtown was amazing. It made me more worldly and the people I met made me a better person.”
Aside from its “exceptional education,” Julee is grateful to Westtown for encouraging her to follow her passions. The path to becoming a fashion editor is quite obscure and thus, daunting to pursue. “But Westtown gave me the confidence to follow my dreams and make them a reality,” Julee stated. “And I have to say that the lifelong relationships I built at the school are a big part of that confidence.” Julee considers a lot of her support to have originated from Westtown and believes that she wouldn’t be where she is today without her Westtown family. “The people are what make the school special,” Julee said. “One of the reasons I love Westtown so much is for the simple and beautiful fact that we are a family. I have said it before and I will say it again...no matter what class you graduated in, how often we see one another, or even speak to each other--we are all brothers and sisters.” Read more!
Class of 2015
Although young, this recent alumnus hasn’t let his age stop him from becoming an entrepreneur. Sebastian is the founder of HopeFit, an athletic clothing company that donates a percentage of its profits to sustainable, social impact organizations.
The signature HopeFit logo, a less-than sign, is meant to remind people that their money is going to a good cause. “When you wear HopeFit gear,” he says, “you are standing for those who have less than you.” Although the only available merchandise at this time is a t-shirt (which sold out within two days of the company’s launch), Sebastian plans to expand product selection as the enterprise grows.
HopeFit’s current beneficiary is Heritage Academy, Westtown’s sister school in Breman Essiam, Ghana. Proceeds support scholarships to Heritage Academy so that children may receive a tuition-free education.
The inspiration for HopeFit came from a math course Sebastain took his junior year with Teacher Kwesi Koomson, the founder of Heritage Academy. The concept of HopeFit was born as part of an assignment to plan a mock business. “I was interested in social-impact businesses because they allow for both entrepreneurship and social good,” said Sebastian. “Kwesi’s course and guidance are what initially got me interested in actually pursuing philanthropic business...HopeFit is my small contribution to helping children get an education.”
HopeFit launched this summer and Sebastian is focused on building his business and recruiting models and photographers to expand the HopeFit Instagram page, currently the company’s main marketing tool. “I’ve had to teach myself so much to get HopeFit off the ground,” he explained, “from building a website to taking photos to managing sales and orders, to working with printers. I’ve been given a ton of support and so many of my friends have jumped in to help and get involved.”
Sebastian came to Westtown in the 6th grade. His years at Westtown have taught him how to see other people’s point of view. “This simple yet powerful lesson will help me develop relationships as I move on to college, build my business, and make my way in the world.”
When it comes to faculty, Kwesi was not only a mentor for Sebastian in the development of HopeFit, but also his teacher and coach. Sebastian appreciates and admires Kwesi’s work ethic and how this busy faculty member made time to support Sebastian on top of running Heritage Academy, coaching soccer, and teaching several math classes. Although Kwesi and his wife Melissa, who runs the Schoerke Foundation that supports Heritage, have just returned to Ghana, Sebastian will continue to work with Kwesi on this venture.
Teacher Kevin Eppler had a positive impact on Sebastian, too, speaking confidently and passionately about social justice and education in his Liberation Theology course. Additionally, the renowned Teacher Jay Farrow is one of the most humble people Sebastian knows. While serving as Sebastian’s academic advisor, Jay was easily a trustworthy confidant. “When I came to Jay for advice,” Sebastian says, “I knew I was hearing from the best. I am lucky to call him a friend.”
Sebastian will greatly miss Westtown as he moves on to the next phase of his life, especially the school’s spirit and the kindness of his peers. “Westtown is one of those places where you can just walk down the hall and be greeted by smiling faces,” and it’s this kind of love and support that Sebastian knows will serve him well. “I am lucky to have developed so many strong relationships with countless students and faculty members. I plan to stay in touch with as many as I can one way or another!”
Class of 1971
As Judy Asselin describes it, “Westtown is in my blood!” She and her parents are alumni (she’s actually a 4th generation alumnae), and she has been involved at Westtown for the better part of 35 years as a parent, Middle and Upper School English teacher, theater teacher, and trustee.
You can say that sustainability is in her blood, too, as she has been Westtown’s Sustainability Coordinator for the past seven years and has practiced what she preaches her entire adult life. Her lifelong passion for environmental protection, awareness and education began as a Westtown student, where she was inspired by her biology teacher, Jan Long, who taught her that “we are connected to and dependent upon one another and to natural systems in a complex and beautiful way.”
Judy now inspires her own students and all of us in this community, by teaching and living her passion. “I have attempted to expand the School’s historic, mission-driven commitment to sustainability education – the basic precept that as we meet our own needs today, we must simultaneously ensure that resources and healthy ecological and social systems are intact for future generations. I am thrilled to be able to help Westtown forge new pathways that contribute to a robust future.” Her knowledge, guidance, and indefatigable enthusiasm have helped Westtown make remarkable strides and to become a leader in sustainable practices.
Under her leadership, Westtown
- cut electricity use by 18% since 2007
- diverts 55% of campus waste by recycling or composting, up from 20% only 4 years ago
- purchases 100% wind power, and thus has cut total carbon emissions from heating and electricity by 65% since 2007
- sources 20% of dining hall food locally, a fourfold increase in 4 years,
- was named a Green Ribbon School by the U.S. Department of Education, and a Green Power Partner by the EPA in 2013
- Built the LEED Gold-certified Science Center
- Sustainability principles and concepts are taught in all three divisions, across disciplines
“I hope to inspire our students to lead the transition to a more just, peaceful, and sustainable world,” she says. “This is a high calling that is completely in keeping with our Quaker changemaker roots, and demands each of us to be as informed and engaged as we can be.” It is a high calling indeed, one that is answered by a changemaker.
Middle School Teacher
To observe Jon Kimmel with students is not unlike watching him create a piece in the woodshop. He is gentle yet straightforward, committed to technique yet innovative, and a patient guide whose wry sense of humor brings levity to challenges.
A graduate of Swarthmore College with a Masters in Secondary Education from the University of Pennsylvania, Kimmel was hired in 1990 as a one-year replacement for a Middle School teacher on sabbatical. Over the course of the year, Westtown discovered it had something special on its hands and Kimmel knew that he had found a professional and spiritual home. That one year turned into 26. And counting. He came for the job but stayed for Westtown students - unlike any he had taught in the past - and for the colleagues he encountered. Westtown’s dedication to its mission and the freedom and expectation to manifest it in the classroom sealed the deal. “We had a clear sense of our identity and that helped us work together to achieve the goals of our mission. That was (and is) very important to me.”
For many years, Kimmel taught Latin American History along with algebra and filmmaking. While he still teaches filmmaking and algebra, he gave up history to make room in his schedule to teach woodshop. He was Clerk of the Middle School Faculty for six years and has served as 7th and 8th grade dean, a canoe trip leader, play director, set designer, and Tech Fellow. He is currently the Service Project Coordinator, a student advisor, and has been the Middle School Math Department Head for 24 years. Kimmel’s affinity for math is evident, but ever a man of balance, he also relishes opportunities for creativity. He finds them in both his filmmaking and woodshop classes, where problem-solving takes an artful turn. “I love the creative work that I get to do with kids - making films and the physical objects and special projects in the woodshop.”
It’s a special brand of teacher who can relate to Middle School students who are in that sometimes awkward, always heady transitional time between childhood and adolescence. Yet Kimmel is inspired by their frenetic energy and enjoys the specific challenges of this age group. “Sometimes I miss the big-idea thinking of older students, but middle school students bring so much energy and curiosity,” he says. “It’s a little like riding a wild beast, but once you learn how to hang on, the ride is exciting and incredibly rewarding!”
For Kimmel’s students, that joy is obvious and they describe him as someone who brings humor to the classroom. They also express that he is passionate and encouraging. “Teacher Jon is incredibly supportive but also encourages you to figure out problems on your own,” says Emma Stavis ’20. “This helps you to grow in ways that you might not have otherwise. He has been an example of the kind of person I want to become.” Hannah Weaver ’16, who was once Kimmel’s advisee and also went on the Ghana Senior Project with him this past March, sums it up like this: “In the classroom, Teacher Jon is lively and passionate about whatever subject he's teaching. He is a man of many talents and he uses his classes to convey his love of the subjects. Also, he is a person you refer to as ‘Teacher’ when you are his student, but once you graduate from his classes you begin to think of him as ‘friend.’”
Kimmel’s colleagues count him an inspirational mentor. “Jon is a creative thinker and collaborator,” observes fellow 8th grade teacher Megan Rose. “He is my go-to faculty member when I need advice and a sounding board. He is a Renaissance man and encourages this in others.” Colleague Erin Salvucci says, “He has created a classroom atmosphere that makes students comfortable with stepping up to high-level academic challenges. As a colleague, he is a patient and supportive mentor.”
Kimmel cites his relationships with peers as an important factor in his professional satisfaction. “The collegiality of it all, the sense of being in it together with colleagues has been so important. I think the kids see how much we enjoy what we’re doing and that helps them.” Equally rewarding is the opportunity to educate in a manner he believes the world needs. “We have a mission and a shared purpose...I feel like we have a higher calling. Having that gives us a way of considering whether what we are doing is the right thing, and gives us a way of interacting with our students that keeps them focused on what we have agreed as a school is most important. I’m happy when I get to be part of something in which people get to think about their place in the world,” he says. “It’s no accident that I am teaching at a Quaker school!” And it’s no accident that Westtown counts him as one of its best.
Assistant Dean of Students, Chair, Religion Department
For Kevin Eppler, helping students realize their power to impact change in the world is just part of his every day life. As Assistant Dean of Students, Upper School Religion teacher, Religion Department Chair, and girls’ varsity soccer coach, Kevin interacts with students in a variety of ways, but it’s his work with students in his religion courses that fuels his mission to help students become “informed citizens,” as he puts it.
In courses such as World Religions, Religion and Social Change, Business and Society, and Liberation Theology, Eppler aims to bring about students’ awareness of the world, and to understand that they are capable agents of change themselves. His courses focus on, in different ways, the religious, economic, social, and political dynamics of justice and injustice, of equality and inequality. It’s paramount, he believes, for students to identify and develop their own core values and to live in accord with them.
This means grappling with big ideas and big issues. “I ask my students to examine real issues of race, class, faith, privilege, etc., and lean into the discomfort of these issues and their implications. They ask critical questions of themselves and each other, and of the world.”
The exploration of these issues isn’t limited to Room 10 in Main Hall. It takes place in local temples, houses of worship, and businesses. It takes place in Nepal, in India and in Israel/Palestine on Senior Projects trips. Eppler believes that providing students with these real experiences is critical to their becoming those informed citizens, and he leads these trips with the challenge for students to look both inward and outward.
Westtown was a natural fit for Eppler, who was drawn to Westtown by “the vision and depth of the course offerings particularly of the religion department, as well as the sophistication of the student body, and the friendliness and openness of the community.” The most important factors in his decision to work at Westtown, though, were the “school’s values and mission statement.” Now in his 14th year, he is the embodiment of them.
Teachers are changemakers, too.
Primary Circle Teacher
The sunlight-dappled room hums with activity. A little girl helps a classmate unzip his jacket and hangs it in his cubby for him. Two little boys sit together on oversized chairs sounding out words in a book. Their teacher stops to listen in and gently corrects their pronunciation.
Across the room, a group of children assembles a musical marble run and giggle at their marble’s successful trip on their contraption. Their teacher laughs with them and praises them for working together so well. She moves to the SmartBoard and displays a series of sentences. The children gather in a circle. “Who can find a capital T?” she chirps, smiling eyes wide. Little hands jut into the air.
Bubbly. Energetic. Caring. Patient. These are words we might all use to describe most teachers of very young children. It’s perhaps rarer to assign them terms like master teacher, innovator, and mission champion. Yet these all describe Nicole Vonnahme, Lead Teacher of the Lower School’s Primary Circle program.
Underlying Vonnahme’s effortlessly chipper demeanor is a commitment to and passion for early childhood education. After studying at the University of New Hampshire, where she was a Family Studies major, she focused on the education of nursery school and kindergarten children and became trained in Reggio Emilia, an educational philosophy that focuses on discovery and exploration in a supportive, nurturing environment.
When she saw that Westtown was hiring, Vonnahme jumped at the chance to apply because of “the pull of working at a Quaker school on such a beautiful campus” and the family feel. She was eager to teach at Westtown because “I had never taught at a school that truly teaches the whole child. Here we create a learning environment that feels welcoming, safe, and is essentially an extension of home. Designing a curriculum around Quaker values and this beautiful land is the fun part.”
Creating “an extension of home” in the classroom is important to Vonnahme, and it belies a greater purpose: to provide a safe and comfortable foundation for learning and teaching. Step inside her classroom and the comfort of home and family feeling is readily apparent. It is a warm, cozy space in which the children interact with easy confidence.
Vonnahme is thrilled with the Primary Circle program, which combines the pre-Kindergarten and Kindergarten children. Now in its fourth year, Primary Circle has quickly become a signature program in Westtown’s Lower School.
“Teaching kids for two years gives us deeper insights into individual students,” Vonnahme says. “We’re able to observe and more acutely differentiate and address learning styles and development. We’re able to have closer relationships with our students.”
In Primary Circle, older students exhibit confidence, independence, and joy; even at this young age they relish being leaders of and collaborators with younger students. The opportunities for leadership help them develop greater sensitivity to the needs of others.
The benefits for younger students are evident. They observe more sophisticated patterns of behavior sooner. They hear more advanced language and have exposure to more highly-developed problem-solving behavior. They are exposed to learning material that is ahead of grade level.
Primary Circle has a two-year curriculum cycle so that children who start in Pre-K learn new material in the second year. Students are grouped by age for academic portions of the day. Kindergarteners are introduced to higher-level concepts in math and reading than their younger classmates, and Vonnahme and her assistant teachers provide lessons that are developmentally appropriate for both age groups.
Lower School Principal Kristin Trueblood credits the success of Primary Circle to Vonnahme and her team. “The self-reliance students gain comes from the seamless structure and support of our teachers who understand developmental milestones. It’s the mastery of our teachers that makes it happen so well,” says Trueblood. “Nicole is a remarkable teacher. She makes it look easy because she is flexible with young children while holding high expectations for behavior and learning.”
After 10 years at Westtown, Vonnahme remains energized by Westtown’s mission. “Everything we practice at Westtown starts here: solving conflict through eye-to-eye resolutions, becoming young stewards of our campus and community, action-based education – all of it. It’s so exciting to be a part of it.”