FRISCO, Colo. — In a small desk in a small room inside Breckenridge Elementary, custodian Tyger Kulesza holds onto several folders containing letters from students.
"Dear Tyger, sorry for making that mess," one starts out, carefully written on white-lined paper and signed by the sender. It's not unlike the rest in the large stack: The children explain how they came to make whatever large mess they created, and they're sorry she had to clean it up.
Kulesza also has a green-covered book from students, given to her on her last birthday, titled, "A Book of Birthday Wishes for Tyger." The children drew presents for her — one gave her a jet pack; another, a hiking backpack; and yet another, a snowboard. While Kulesza was talking about the drawings on a recent morning, students peeked in and waved at her.
"The kids definitely bring it, they make the job," Kulesza said. If they weren't there, she added, "I'd just be cleaning up after adults."
Kulesza has been a custodian at Breckenridge Elementary for three years, a job she went for because "I thought that applying at the school would be a good way to give something back to the community, be a part of it."
Kids don't often know or even notice school custodians, but at Breck, Kulesza has positioned herself as another mentor for the kids, there with advice and encouragement when they need it.
Kulesza wakes up every morning at 4:30 and gets to the school by 5 to ensure everything's clean and safe inside and out for the students. Sometimes, she rides her beloved mountain bike around the school as students start to arrive in the morning. During the day, she fixes what needs fixing and keeps everything tidy.
"She always visits our class," fourth-grader Nazarie Poliuk said, who made sure earlier in the day to greet Kulesza on his way to class. Poliuk demonstrated the intricate handshake he and Kulesza made up before proudly mentioning that Kulesza has agreed to attend his upcoming dance recital.
"These kids know her and look up to her," said principal Jonathan Johnson. "The biggest piece of it is how she engages with the kids."
Besides those hellos in the hallways, high-fives are exchanged. If someone is upset or isn't on his or her best behavior at lunch, Kulesza will talk to them. One student likes to help her out sometimes, and together they made up the "skibroom," a broom with a scraper attached (they found out later it had already been invented). Twice a month, Kulesza holds a "lunch bunch" for well-behaved students, where the small group eats together, creates and throws paper airplanes, and Kulesza makes sure they're doing their homework. She talks to the kids about the sports they're playing and other extracurriculars — like Poliuk's upcoming dance recital — and even built her own solar oven in which to cook s'mores recently, alongside one of the fifth-grade classes.
"She is amazing with our kids," Johnson said. "She has as great an impact on our kids as a teacher does ... and sometimes more."
At the end of last school year, Kulesza collected old school supplies and shipped them to a small community in southern Mexico. The foreign students and teachers sent thank-you letters and pictures, now displayed in the hallway next to the gym. Kulesza did it to let the Breckenridge students know "that their world is much larger than Breck."
"This is our future right here," she said, pointing at the letters and pictures. "This is one of the things that will make a difference."
This school year, the kids will have a bigger part in the project.
"You've got to do positive things ... that's what I want to do for them," Kulesza said. "They watch us, as adults."
Kulesza moved here a few years ago after a car-tour of the United States convinced her Colorado was the most beautiful place she'd ever seen.
She's been to 49 of the 50 states (she hasn't yet made it to Maine) — and grew up all over the country.
"I never really stayed in one spot," Kulesza said.
Kulesza admits she's a big kid, which helps her relate to the real kids at school (they do, however, respect her as an adult, she said). In her off time, she likes to snowboard and mountain bike, and she's just getting into road biking.
"Just as much outdoor time I can get, I like to be out there," she said. "Put my feet on the rocks and roots. I've got to get out and touch it — that's what it's there for, right?"
As for any next moves, Kulesza seems happy where she is. Anywhere else and she'd miss the students, she said.
"I love these kids," she said. "They make it what it is."