Finding her niche as a student at Genesee Community College is just what the doctor ordered for Debbie Coon, a 46-year-old Middleport (Niagara County) resident who has always put others first.
"My doctor told me I needed to do something for myself; something that I wasn't doing for anyone else," said Coon, who along with her daughter, Sheena, 21, recently was inducted into the Alpha Iota Upsilon chapter of Phi Theta Kappa - a National Honor Society for two-year colleges based in Jackson, Miss.
The Coons were part of a class of 30 students who joined PTK last month. To be eligible for induction, students must have at least a 3.6 grade point average and have 12 hours of Genesee Community College credit hours under their belt.
Debbie began her new life as a college student last year by taking a black-and-white photography course (with Sheena and another friend). "We had so much fun â€¦ we just had a ball. So I signed up for another one," she said.
Eventually, Debbie reached full-time status and currently is seeking an associate's degree in fine arts. By the way, her GPA is 4.0.
"(College) is good for her," said Sheena, a business administration major who entered Genesee at the same time as her mother and has a 3.66 GPA. "It keeps her busy and is helping her reach her goals."
Debbie and Sheena took two Western Art History courses at the Orleans Campus Center taught by Joyce Chizick, adjunct instructor at Genesee. Chizick was impressed by both students' enthusiasm and was especially impressed by Debbie's desire to learn.
"She's enjoys what she's learning â€¦ and she's very willing to work and help other students," Chizick said. "It's fun to have a student who really likes learning."
Chizick said both mother and daughter - who engaged in "mini-competitions to see who could get the best grades on tests" -- were instrumental is starting the Western Art History Club at Genesee.
"I even nominated Debbie for the "Student of the Semester" award. She's a very diligent worker," Chizick added.
Debbie Coon's story is one of faith, perseverance and commitment to her family.
A graduate of Lockport High School, she has worked outside of the home for most of her adult life while "home schooling" her two daughters, Sheena and Bethany, 19, who also is attending Genesee Community College.
In recent months, she turned over her business of 14 years -- Debbie's Rainbow Cleaning Service - to her daughters for health reasons. Debbie has undergone numerous surgeries for various ailments, including heart problems, and is facing two more surgeries to repair hernias.
"God just made me different," she said. "He wants to see how many times I can give him glory."
Her husband, Duane, a disabled veteran with severe diabetes, shares that faith and positive outlook. He supports his wife's dream of marketing her paintings and drawings while helping her take care of (and home-school) their 9-year-old great-nephew Joshua.
"I tell all my family, reach for the stars and you won't end up with a handful of dirt," Duane said.
Known as "Momma Coon" by a large group of students she has become friends with at Genesee, Debbie has remained true to her nature by continually reaching out to others. She was a 4-H leader for years - Sheena was the Orleans County Fair Queen in 2003 and Bethany currently holds that title - and she continues her involvement in Bible quiz competition and Sunday School at their church, Harvest Christian Fellowship in Albion.
Both of her daughters are active in 4-H and in the Intervarsity Club at Genesee. Sheena and Debbie continue to take college courses together and help each other out with family matters because "we're the only two drivers," Sheena said.
Sheena said she hopes to use her degree at Genesee to help her start her own dog grooming business. Currently she owns a Pomeranian and is co-owner of a collie.
They both hope to get more involved in Phi Theta Kappa, which lists about 180 members, according to Marirose Ethington, PTK adviser.
"There's a lot of activities to get involved with," Ethington said. "We've had fundraisers for UNICEF and a Katrina Fest brought in about $600 which was sent to the national office to help students (in the New Orleans area). Plus they had a bake sale that raised $400 for Red Cross and collected money from nursing students to buy supplies that were sent to hurricane victims."
Sheena said that her membership in Phi Theta Kappa "represents how hard I've worked to get good grades."
For her mother, it goes a bit deeper.
"Being recognized as a PTK member shows your standards of living," she said. "And if an old lady who has had so many surgeries and so many brain cells die can do it, anyone can do it."
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Editor's Note: A photograph of Debbie and Sheena Coons is available at http://marketing.genesee.edu/images/CoonFamily.jpg
Photo caption-- ACADEMIC BOND: Debbie Coon, left, and her daughter, Sheena, were inducted into the Phi Theta Kappa Honor Society at Genesee Community College last month. Both have excelled in their full-time studies at Genesee and are involved in numerous extracurricular activities.