'A beacon of light': Becky Kouba epitomized Miller Mentoring

Becky Kouba mentors a student

Becky Kouba, right, served as a mentor with Miller Mentoring since the program started in 2000. She is shown her with one of her students, Alicia, and WAPS Superintendent Dr. Annette K. Freiheit. Kouba passed away in December but leaves behind an indelible legacy with Miller Mentoring.

This was written by Miller Mentoring program director Drew Althoff as part of a series for the Winona Post. It was originally published in February. We are publishing it now in celebration of National Volunteer Month.

If you were to walk into our mentoring room on a Tuesday after school, you would have surely heard the most heartwarming laugh. The best part was, on a typical day, it would happen at least a dozen times in an hour-and-a-half mentoring session. Becky’s laugh lit up the room, the halls, the concourse, and even the parking lot if you were lucky enough to walk in with her. And it wasn’t just her laugh. Her presence made you feel welcome. Her heart was genuine. She cared deeply and that never waned. Becky Kouba was and always will epitomize Miller Mentoring.

In 2000 when the program launched, Becky was immediately there as a mentor. She supported and cared for the program from its inception all the way through a pandemic. Former program director Cindy Amberg has many fond memories from 19 years of working alongside her. She recalls Becky’s desire and commitment to give back to the community where she grew up: “Becky was not just a mentor. Becky went beyond that. She actively recruited mentors and was known to encourage her fellow colleagues at RTP to volunteer. She gave speeches at annual family dinner events honoring Miller Mentoring seniors. She always respected Ben Miller’s vision for the program and held it dear. And ultimately, the students Becky mentored were there because Becky was there. She was a beacon of light for everyone in the room. Anyone who knew Becky felt that at their core.”

Friend and colleague, Cindy Westby, saw what mentoring meant to Becky from the start: “I can honestly say without a doubt that Becky was an amazing mentor. I worked with Becky over the past 12 years and we spoke almost daily. I once asked Becky what it takes to be a good mentor. She flashed that famous Becky smile and said mentoring is and always will be a two-way street. Also, I could always tell when it was mentoring day because I would see a bag of treats on her desk for the students she mentored. Holidays and birthdays were no different. Then, with the pandemic, the program had to adapt and move forward with virtual meetings. Although it was not hands on, it gave them the opportunity to stay in touch and, for that, Becky was grateful.”

Becky’s impacts over her two decades of service run deep. She mentored five students in total with the first match beginning in 2001. While there were challenges along the way, she always maintained a positive outlook. Not every mentoring match will be successful. Yet Becky could easily make you believe otherwise. It showed in how she mentored and how she treated everyone around her. It was all about relationships and all about meeting young people where they needed to be met. And as the saying goes, when your passions meet a deep need in the world, you’ve found your true calling. Becky found her true calling early in life. 

The last time I connected with Becky was early this past December. I had just received the Winona Middle School newsletter in my email. The student she was mentoring was named the Student of the Month in November. I forwarded it to Becky right away. She was ecstatic. It was the same unwavering positive energy she always brought with her. After reaching out to congratulate her mentee immediately, a celebration ensued at the next mentoring session. I only wish we could have had that celebration together, in person, not through a virtual meeting. Yet I feel so blessed to have shared that final connection with her; an email that will never be deleted. Becky passed away tragically shortly after that. The sadness we all still endure due to losing her feels unbearable at times. But there will always be many smiles and much happiness her memory brings to all our hearts. She will forever be with us in all we do. She will forever be a part of Miller Mentoring.  

Becky’s time as a mentor was truly unique. Not every mentor is or has to be as dedicated as she was, but there’s always potential to be the caring adult a young person needs. And in the words of Becky Kouba, “It’ll help you appreciate the younger generation more.” There is so much to appreciate in so many ways. We as adults just have to take more time to listen.

Miller Mentoring logo

For more information on mentoring and the Miller Mentoring mission, contact Drew Althoff at 507-494-1447 or andrew.althoff@winona.k12.mn.us.