Editor’s note: Our series, Working Our Way Back to You, profiles Ohio Valley natives who have left town but returned to the community that created them. In today’s story, writer Jessica Broverman introduces us to Jennifer Mathieu.

Coming home can fill a void you didn’t know was there. It can be the solace we seek when everything feels good, but not whole. When Jennifer Mathieu left the Friendly City to pursue her college goals well over a decade ago, it wasn’t with the thought of, “I am getting out of here.”

It was with the thought of, “I am exploring something new, and wherever I end up, I will make it my own.”

After many years of being away from home, Mathieu has made her way back to Wheeling and is now a guidance counselor at her alma mater, Wheeling Park High School.

Almost 15 years after graduating as a Park Patriot, she is back there for children who are literally and figuratively in the same place as she once was. She is helping them to decide what college to attend, along with addressing their much larger stresses of being a young adult.

Mathieu has worked her whole life to be right here, right now.

She will tell you she has lived in several places that remind her of the Friendly City, but none that could replace her hometown.

CREATING A BRIGHT FUTURE

Mathieu’s photo is displayed on the wall of the guidance office entryway of her alma mater.

Mathieu is a born-and-raised Wheeling local who attributes much of her success to the Wheeling community for uplifting and encouraging her to be the best version of herself.

After graduating from WPHS, she went on to attend West Virginia University and received her undergraduate degree in English and communication studies and a master’s degree in counseling.

“I loved WVU and the experience I had there,” said Mathieu. “It was great to be close to home, but also able to establish my own life.”

Following her graduation from the master’s degree program, Mathieu was at a crossroads in terms of her career path. She knew she wanted to use her degree in the counseling field, but where?

“I considered sticking around Morgantown and working for WVU. However, I really wanted to use my degree in school counseling and make an impact in that way,” said Mathieu. “At the time, there weren’t any opportunities in this or the Morgantown area.”

In the midst of making this life-altering decision, Mathieu attended a career fair where she met two representatives from Culpeper, Virginia.

“The way they described Culpeper reminded me a lot of Wheeling. When they offered me my first job as a middle school counselor, I felt it was the right fit,” said Mathieu.

Though she says she was nervous and saddened to leave her home, she was also excited and ready to begin a new adventure elsewhere.

HOPING FOR A CHANGE

One of the large draws of Virginia for Mathieu was the fact that it is very much like Wheeling. It has the small-town feel, with big-city opportunities.

“I loved living in Virginia. … The views are beautiful. I also loved it there because it truly did remind me of home,” said Mathieu. “Culpeper County has a very similar population as Wheeling does. … I still felt a sense of being at home.”

Jennifer, left, with part of her counseling team at Eastern View High School, Kristin Frith and Michael Baird. Right, Jennifer at the graduation of Genavieve Simpson, a student she worked with since the girl was a seventh-grader.

As the years passed in Culpeper, Mathieu developed strong friendships, created a secure professional reputation and established a beautiful life for herself. She had reached her dream of working as a middle school and high school counselor, so when she began to feel lethargic in her new home away from home, Mathieu decided to consider moving back to Wheeling.

“I stayed in Virginia for seven years,” said Mathieu. “I have always thought that one day I would gravitate back to this area because all of my family is still here. However, it never felt like the right time. I always felt like it was for my family and not necessarily for me.”

As Mathieu pushed aside the thought of moving home, one night she couldn’t help but feel stagnant about staying in Virginia and was hoping for a change. The next day, change presented itself as a text message from her mother, and it put everything in perspective for Mathieu.

“My mom texted me that a colleague had let her know there was a counseling position open at Wheeling Park. To me, this was the opportunity I felt like I was waiting for,” said Mathieu. “I love working in a high school, I love making a difference with my students. I was so excited to be able to do that in my hometown and with members of the community that raised me.”

Not only is Mathieu a representative of WPHS, but she is also a WPHS alumna. Coming home can often be great and even better when you get to work at your alma mater.

Mathieu was not only working her way back to us, but was going to be working alongside us and helping the children of this community.

It’s hard to say what beats coming home to a place where you feel safe and loved, especially when it is done in the best way possible: on your own terms. Mathieu has been back home for almost a year.

HOME ON THE HILLTOP

She has elevated her career with her new work family on the snowy hill of Wheeling Park High School, she can now spend more time with family, and she is a homeowner for the first time in her life, truly cementing her roots into West Virginia soil.

Coming back to her stomping grounds, Mathieu believes that this was the right move and that Wheeling is even better now than when she left it years ago.

“Wheeling has such a wonderful sense of community. I love Centre Market and all the events that are hosted there,” said Mathieu.

“I love the proximity to Pittsburgh. I love the traditions like the fireworks at Heritage Port and the Christmas parade. Also, I feel like it is a very comparable housing market. In Virginia, I was not able to afford to own a home on my single salary. However, here I am now, a proud homeowner!”

Left, Jennifer’s brand-new house she bought for herself and her dog, Atilla. Jennifer, center, with her dad and mom — Mike and Lori Mathieu — and sister and brother-in-law — Abby and Mike Swalga — at a Pittsburgh Pirates baseball game.

Mathieu believes that those who have left Wheeling and are wary about returning don’t have a real idea of just how far the city has come.

“(Wheeling) has grown and progressed in many ways, but still has that nostalgic feeling that (we) grew up with,” said Mathieu. “Everyone at Wheeling Park has been so excited that I am here.”

Each day Mathieu walks into Wheeling Park High School, saying hello to fellow colleagues and cracking jokes with students. It’s very clear that she has found solace and happiness here.

Guidance counselors at Wheeling Park High School are John Helms, Jennifer Kucera-Short, Jennifer Mathieu and Eric Francis.

She has created an atmosphere for students to feel safe and to be heard, and it provides her life with true meaning.

That, along with being back where she began her journey, Mathieu knows that she was meant to return to the Ohio Valley.

“I have felt so welcomed since coming back home to Wheeling,” said Mathieu. “There is nothing like coming home.”

And that’s how Jennifer worked her way back to you.

• With a background in journalism and being a true Wheeling native, Jessica Broverman was destined to work with Weelunk. She holds a degree in journalism with a minor in criminal justice and works with Williams Lea Tag as a legal proofreader. When she isn’t typing away for Weelunk or WLT, she is enjoying a coffee at one of her many favorite spots in Wheeling, spending time with friends, or having fun with her husband Zachary and their two cats, Proctor and Max.

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