Platte County students use big stage to surprise beloved custodian

Kelli Buckler ended up falling for an old and occasionally hard to believe trick.

Despite her work schedule and conflicting changes to a doctor’s appointment, she found herself on stage in front of more than 1,000 people last week. The plan wasn’t complex and definitely wasn’t creative: just use Kelli Buckler’s trusting heart to give her an emotional surprise.

There were tears, but Kelli Buckler did her best to hide what the moment meant.

For those who went to Platte County High School between 1991 and now, you probably already know Kelli Buckler. If you didn’t, just know that Kelli Buckler is the kindest, sweetest custodian that any district could ever hope to employ.

ROSS MARTIN/Citizen photo Platte County custodian Kelli Buckler, left, goes to hug senior Rylie Collins after being presented with a custom Pirates football jersey during the opening ceremony Thursday, March 10 for the Missouri Association of Student Councils annual convention held last week at Platte County High School.

ROSS MARTIN/Citizen photo
Platte County custodian Kelli Buckler, left, goes to hug senior Rylie Collins after being presented with a custom Pirates football jersey during the opening ceremony Thursday, March 10 for the Missouri Association of Student Councils annual convention held last week at Platte County High School.

Kelli Buckler makes a difference in the lives of students, but she doesn’t often receive recognition. Most don’t have a chance to share exactly what her kind smile, energetic hugs and receptive ear can offer to everyone — from the class valedictorian to a lonely sophomore in need of a pick-me-up on a bad day.

Part of hosting the Missouri Association of Student Councils state convention meant a chance to hear some keynote speakers with a positive message.

Brent Camalich conveyed the message of Dude. be nice to the more than 1,000 students and advisors in attendance at a welcome ceremony held last Thursday. The CEO of an innovative company that offers apparel with a goal of melding fashion and lifestyle, allowing the brand to help people make a positive impact on the world.

Part of that involves a flash mob of sorts, a chance to honor every-day heroes in unexpected ways.

Camalich offered Platte County students a chance to pick a deserving person to receive this adulation. Overwhelmingly, the students picked Kelli Buckler, who came in to work that night ostensibly to help deal with the influx of students for this once-a-year convention.

The only real question to answer: how to pull Kelli Buckler up on stage.

I almost can’t believe she fell for the old “puke on the stage that needs cleaned up trick” but she wandered through a eerily quiet darkened gym full of mostly strangers and up on stage with Camalich. With just a hint of a signal, the students went nuts and gave Buckler a huge ovation.

As members of Platte County’s student council explained why she was up on stage, Kelli Buckler choked back a few tears and did her best to remain unassuming.

Well, I can tell you that she deserved every second of the attention she didn’t want. Plus the customized No. 15 Pirates football jersey with “KELLI” written across the back. And the signed photo of the students who conspired to put her in the spotlight. And the gift card intended to allow her some quality time with her “other family.”

ROSS MARTIN/Citizen photo Platte County custodian Kelli Buckler, left, receives loud cheers from the assembled crowd during the opening ceremony Thursday, March 10 for the Missouri Association of Student Councils annual convention held last week at Platte County High School. Brent Camalich (right), CEO of Dude. be nice apparel, helped organize special recognition for Buckler, who students chose to honor for her kind spirit and friendly attitude. Buckler has worked at the school for 25 years.

ROSS MARTIN/Citizen photo
Platte County custodian Kelli Buckler, left, receives loud cheers from the assembled crowd during the opening ceremony Thursday, March 10 for the Missouri Association of Student Councils annual convention held last week at Platte County High School. Brent Camalich (right), CEO of Dude. be nice apparel, helped organize special recognition for Buckler, who students chose to honor for her kind spirit and friendly attitude. Buckler has worked at the school for 25 years.

“Kelli gives the best hugs,” Platte County junior Marissa Iden said through her own tears while recounting how Kelli Buckler took the time one day to get to know her and remembered all of the details of their encounter days later. “She’s more than a janitor. She’s family.”

After passing out hugs, Kelli Buckler skirted herself off stage and disappeared back into the halls of the school to regroup.

“That was awful,” she said, wiping away tears while also laughing. “The jersey would have been enough, Puck,” she added to Platte County student council advisor and longtime teacher Gena Puckett.

But Kelli Buckler doesn’t realize that still wasn’t enough.

The line about her being family? Couldn’t be more true. I’ll share my experience to help clarify the situation.

I came back to Platte City for the familiarity, but much has changed in this once small town that’s not so small anymore. The high school is bigger, having enveloped my former middle school and set to occupy Paxton School after this year. Teachers have moved rooms or retired or gone on to other jobs.

I still hold strong to what’s familiar where I can with teachers and coaches while I work to make myself a part of this community again.

Kelli Buckler was still at the school, and although I saw her a few times early on, I hesitated to say much. I was just some kid who graduated 15 years ago that didn’t lead much of a special existence at Platte County.

Recently, Kelli Buckler came up to me, wrapped an arm around my shoulder and glowingly told a current administrator, “He’s one of my kids.” And that’s the truth. She’s had a lot of kids over time at Platte County as she closes in on her 25th year with the district, and I’d venture to bet she remembers most of them.

Family is important to Kelli Buckler — both during school and away from school.

I’m just really glad the current group of kids did us all a favor and tried to show Kelli Buckler how much her family cares about her, too. She makes a big difference, and it goes well beyond any request to clean up a little vomit — real or invented.

Ross Martin is publisher of The Citizen. He may be reached via email at editor@plattecountycitizen.com. Follow him on Twitter: @Citizen_Ross.