Heather Yesko used to get in trouble for working on art projects during class in grade school, and she’s since made a career out of her creative side.
“My talent came from God,” she said. “I give it back.”
Yesko is in her 26th year of teaching; most of those years have been spent leading art classes at Grove City Middle School, where the students look forward to working with their favorite teacher.
“She makes everyone feel good about their art,” said eighth-grader Nicole Hughes, 13.
Classmate Olivia Persic, 14, added that students can ask Yesko lots of questions, and she’s very helpful.
She doesn’t give them more than they can handle, and tailors their assignments based on their artistic abilities, several students said on a recent Monday afternoon.
It was the last day of the grading period, and some students were putting the final touches on their projects – collages, book art and clay sculptures – while seeking Yesko’s advice.
Yesko paused to ask anyone if they wanted cupcakes decorated by a class that morning like Jackson Pollock paintings – splatters of colored icing crisscrossing the baked treats.
“I never knew art could taste so good,” said Jace Gorrell, 12, who’s in sixth grade.
Classmate Alexis Richards, 11, said that Yesko loves to share.
Yesko later said she feels blessed to be able to share her talents and ideas with others, and she loves working with middle school students.
“They believe in possibilities,” she said.
Yesko, who lives in Evans City with her husband of nearly 38 years, Dennis, has a bachelor of art education from Edinboro University, and a master’s degree in guidance from Westminster College.
She always knew she’d end up having some kind of career in the art field, and considers herself a portrait artist.
She counts her father Robert Hutton as one of her biggest inspirations.
He encouraged her to never stop learning, and he was a good listener and wise man.
Hutton worked as a chemist and for R.D. Werner, and the family lived in Jamestown; that included Yesko’s mother Naoma and two siblings.
Yesko and her husband now live closer to their daughter Amber and two grandsons.
They also have a son, Jason, who passed away in 2011 at the age of 27. He had multiple sclerosis, and Yesko has been honoring him through a charity she created in his memory called Random Acts of Kindness.
She has raised almost $9,000 through fundraisers like candy bar sales, and some proceeds from a children’s book series she’s illustrating will go to RAK. Her art students have helped her raise money, and Yesko uses it to buy things like gas gift cards for community members who need to travel for medical treatment.
“She’s such a nice lady,” said Jacob Stucchio, 12.
The sixth-grader and some of his classmates praised Yesko for what she does inside and outside of the classroom.
She also has an art club, and hosts a breakfast club once a week, and everyone in the building is welcome, Jacob said.
Yesko said she’s not one to seek recognition for her actions, but those who know and love her have been happy to discuss the impacts she has made on their lives.
Several more students talked about how she’s encouraged them to work hard on their projects, and they’ve learned to appreciate art outside of school.
Charlotte McIlwain of Leesburg touched on a special series of projects that Yesko does for local families – painting portraits of community members who are ill or recently passed; the subjects of the paintings always have a connection to Grove City schools.
McIlwain’s son Jason McIlwain passed away in 2016 at the age of 39 after a 14-year battle with Ewing’s sarcoma, a rare form of cancer. McIlwain has known Yesko for a long time, but wasn’t familiar with Yesko’s charity or portrait work.
Her son received some gas cards from RAK, which were a big help for doctor appointments in Pittsburgh. And Yesko painted a portrait of Jason McIlwain and his two sons, who were students of Yesko’s – Josiah is 14 and Jeremiah is 12.
“She’s been an absolute angel,” McIlwain said.
Yesko is a talented person with a good heart, and the portrait was a wonderful surprise. Jason McIlwain was able to enjoy it before he passed, and it made him very happy.
It now hangs in McIlwain’s living room, and Yesko recently had extra copies made for the family.
Yesko said that she hopes those portraits help families heal; she started doing them when her son was a young boy, though she has lost count over the years.
”There are certain teachers that you always remember. Heather is going to be one of those teachers,” McIlwain said.
Yesko said she enjoys every aspect of life, and teaches others to “be kinder than what is expected.” Her classroom is full of art supplies, a few of her paintings, inspirational phrases, decorated chairs, and letters and mementos from former students.
She looks forward to coming to work every day, and said that the students and staff are amazing. Middle-schoolers are hilarious and witty, and love to try new things.
She also helps monitor the cafeteria and feels good knowing that she’s making a difference.
”I hope they realize that they are truly loved in this building,” Yesko said of her students.
She expects to retire in a few years and might set up a studio in her basement to give art lessons.
She enjoys spending time with her family and listening to Christian music, and said that God is a big part of her life.
”I have fun every single day. What’s not to love? I enjoy every moment of it,” she said.