RACINE — Since her Lou Gehrig’s disease diagnosis in 2015, former teacher Leslie Sobota, 71, has done a lot of things.
She’s been skydiving, shot a gun, went on an Italian gondola ride, visited Michelangeo’s David statue in Florence and the Colosseum in Rome and has plans to go zip-lining this spring.
But one item is still missing from her bucket list — a reunion with her former fifth-grade students.
Her previous students, now adults, are willing to oblige. The students of St. Joseph’s School’s fifth-grade classes of 1985 to 1999 will host an open house reunion honoring Sobota and the impact she’s had on them.
The open house reunion will be from 2 to 6 p.m. Saturday, March 18, in St. Joseph’s School cafeteria, 1525 Erie St. There will be refreshments provided, but attendees are asked to bring a small dish to pass.
Sobota began manifesting physical symptoms — Lou Gehrig’s disease, also called amyotrophic lateral sclerosis or ALS, attacks motor neurons, cells that control the muscles — during the winter of 2014, and she’s been dealing with the illness ever since.
“It takes a while to get diagnosed,” said Drew Sobota, 72, Leslie’s husband of nearly 50 years. This might explain why Leslie wasn’t diagnosed until mid-2015.
Leslie’s speech is affected and she cannot walk without assistance. “She’s been homebound pretty much, except for going out to events and doctor’s appointments,” Drew said.
That wasn’t always the case, as a student in Sobota’s 1995-96 fifth-grade class, Donielle Witynski, remembers. She remembers Sobota as energetic and spunky.
“What I liked most about her was that she was like me, kind of weird and eccentric, and she made class fun,” said Witynski, 32. “She still has so much to do, but her body is shutting down faster than she can do it.”
Witynski was one of Sobota’s students who struggled to fit in.
“I was loud, free-spirited and had a ton of energy which, when combined, made me the weird kid in class, being asked to sit in the hall for talking too much," she said. “Then, I met Mrs. Sobota.
“This woman had the patience of a saint. She supported me when I was picked on. She made me feel OK with my weird self. Her love and support continued through the rest of my time at St. Joe’s, into my mid-20s.”
One of the most memorable things both Witynski and Leslie Sobota look back on were the overnight trips at SC Johnson’s Armstrong Park, 3901 Highway 31, Caledonia. Leslie planned the outings for her students, having them earn their way through the completion of academic and physical accomplishments, including learning all 50 states.
“I made them label them on the map,” Sobota said.
When the Sobotas leave the house, they are reminded of the mark Leslie’s teaching left on former students. “We always run into people and former students,” Drew said. “She was invariably well thought of as a teacher.”
For more information about the reunion, a Facebook event page has been set up. It can be found by searching for “St. Joe’s 5th Grade Student Reunion for Mrs. Sobota.”