When longtime kindergarten teacher Janine Hee’s two-year battle with colon cancer ended with her passing in December of 2020, fellow teachers and Pine Acres School administrators knew something had to be done to make sure she’d be remembered in the Deptford district.
Earlier this month – about 18 months after Hee’s passing – Pine Acres staff gathered near the front of the school for placement of a memorial bench to honor her. It was made possible through donations from teachers and staff members at the early-childhood school.
The idea for a memorial bench was conceptualized pretty quickly, according to Pine Acres teacher Nikki Voci and Principal Shelli Jones.
“Shelli and I discussed the idea of doing something to honor her pretty quickly after Janine’s passing, and it didn’t take much time at all to collect money from staff to make it possible,” Voci said. “What took long was just the production of the bench, which was somewhere around five months.”
Hee taught first grade at Oak Valley Elementary School before moving to Virginia. She came back to New Jersey and taught kindergarten at Pine Acres during the final 14 years of her life.
As one might expect, spending that many years in the classroom of one community can leave a lasting impact on a generation of young children. But according to Voci and Jones, Hee’s impact extended to fellow teachers and co-workers.
“She worked with so many years worth of families,” Jones said. “So many parents in the community had so many nice things to say shortly after she passed as people found out, so we felt it was important to do something that honored her memory. She brought a lot of spirit to everyone, even after she learned that she had cancer, she didn’t let it bring her down. She was very motivating.
“With this bench here to remind us of her,” Jones said. “If someone’s having a bad day, we hope they can take a seat there, take a look around, and realize it’s not that bad, and think about how she would’ve wanted you to keep fighting whatever it is you might be going through.”
For Voci, Hee was more than just a co-worker or friend; she was family. After meeting at just 3 years old, the two basically went through life together, even attending the same college together and teaching at the same school.
“We did everything together,” Voci said. “We went to college together, we had our children three days apart from one another, we taught at Oak Valley together and we taught at Pine Acres together. It was terrible watching her have to go through what she went through, but Janine has so much positivity throughout her life.
“When I look at that bench, it’s a reminder of all the good that she brought to everyone.”
Both Voci and Jones said the school has done fundraisers for colon cancer research since Hee’s diagnosis and death. They hope the school, and potentially the school district as a whole, will continue to do so moving forward in her honor.