Editor’s note: This week, Idaho newspapers are telling the stories of people working behind the scenes to make a difference in Idaho health care, nonprofits, government and economic development. Today: Amanda Nickels Byrd, Idaho Falls English teacher, addiction counselor, book club founder and third world volunteer.
Amanda Byrd wore black the day Kurt Vonnegut died in 2007. A University of Oregon student that year, she also stayed home from school.
Books were central to Byrd’s life then, and have been since, along with a motivation for altruism.
Byrd teaches English to Eagle Rock Middle School eighth-graders, everything from comma usage to adjective recognition.
In leisure she reads F. Scott Fitzgerald and Kate Chopin.
A book club she started has led to long-standing friendships in Idaho Falls. The club’s annual book sale, meanwhile, pays for humanitarian trips Byrd takes during school vacations and time away from her second job counseling people with substance abuse problems.
Far from being overwhelmed by her community involvement, domestic and abroad, Byrd only wishes for more hours in the day.
“If I could have a 36-hour day or not sleep, I would love that,” she said. “I think there’s so much selfishness in this world; I really just want to help as many people as I can.”
Sometimes we get so wrapped up in our own little worlds; Mandie is one of those people who inspires you to see beyond yours.
Pilar Saslow, one of the first members of Amanda Byrd’s book club
Byrd’s students read quietly at their desks a few weeks ago. A pile of Edgar Allan Poe paperbacks sat in a corner.
Byrd moved from student to student, checking progress on their self-chosen reading books.
Student choices varied. One kid had a Tom Clancy novel; another was reading “The Vampire Diaries.”
Byrd knelt by a student.
“If you want to continue to grow, you’ll need to read harder books,” she said. “I’ll bring you something next month.”
The class reviewed a worksheet later in the period. Byrd stood by the overhead projector at the front of the room and read comma-heavy sentences from “Alice in Wonderland” and “Fahrenheit 451.”
This is Byrd’s third year at Eagle Rock. She spent four years prior at Hillcrest High School.
Byrd has two boys, ages 5 and 9. The older boy will attend Eagle Rock in three years, and she wanted to teach in the same district.
She also enjoys instructing middle-schoolers.
“The middle-school kids are still kind of adorable and moldable,” Byrd said. “I love being a teacher because I’m at the forefront of a lot of kids who need help, love and support.”
She’s teaching Shakespeare this year. Through their reading assignments Byrd’s students will also learn about the Vietnam War — an effort to diversify their knowledge.
“I grew up in Wyoming, where I was isolated, naive and immature,” Byrd said. “I would have appreciated someone opening up my world a little bit about what’s really going on out there.”
A SECOND JOB
At Hillcrest, Byrd had a different set of challenges. Students talked to her about their drinking problems, or their parents’ methamphetamine use. She didn’t know how to respond.
Inspired by a friend who pursued a degree while teaching at Hillcrest, Byrd earned a master’s in drug and alcohol counseling online. She sees clients after school.
“We all have our own addictions, whether it’s coffee, drugs, alcohol or shopping. I’m so fascinated with how the brain works, how we have these addictions and overcome them,” Byrd said. “I look forward to both jobs. I can’t sit still very well. I have to do a million things at once, so I don’t think teaching alone really filled my cup.”
Eagle Rock counselor Addie Priest, one of Byrd’s close friends, has seen her relentless nature firsthand.
“I think it all comes down to passion. Her passion is helping people. As an educator you help and shape people’s lives; as a counselor you do the same thing,” Priest said. “She takes more time to give back than anyone I’ve ever met. She motivates me to be a better person.”
MAKING A DIFFERENCE IN THE WORLD
Byrd travels often.
As a teenager she visited El Salvador, where her sister lived, to volunteer at orphanages.
Her first visit, at age 16, followed a large earthquake and mudslides. Byrd and her sister spent a week delivering water to people.
“I arrived in in the airport and my sister threw my bags in the car and said, ‘We’re going to go help people,’ and I was like, ‘I just traveled for 10 hours; I want to see my sister and go to the beach,’ ” Byrd said. “Thinking of the big picture, giving one person a glass of water won’t save their life. But maybe it helped them that day. That inspired me to do more projects later on.”
During her time at Hillcrest, Byrd routinely took groups of seniors to Ecuador to teach English to orphans.
On Christmas Day, she drove with Priest to Rosarito, Mexico, where the pair are building houses and volunteering at orphanages.
Part of the motivation, Priest said, is to show Eagle Rock students how they can make a difference in the world.
“To encourage them and show them that you can go on these trips to see different cultures and help people,” she said. “Mandie wants to be an inspiration for them to do that as well.”
A BOOK CLUB BRANCHES OUT
The Mexico trip is being funded, in part, by a used book sale held in early December by Byrd’s book club.
She started the book club in 2009. After moving with her husband to Idaho Falls, where he found a teaching job, Byrd became lonely and depressed. It was something she struggled with throughout her life.
On a whim, Byrd posted a Craigslist ad for a book club barbecue at her house.
“Which made my husband insane. He said, ‘You actually invited people to our house?’ And I said, ‘Sure, why not?’ ” Byrd said.
About 15 women showed up. Most were East Idaho transplants who loved books and lacked friends.
“These amazing women showed up at my house and have kind of stayed with me the last eight years,” Byrd said. “It saved my life.”
The club’s members — past and present — number about 100.
The book club contains a wide cross section of East Idaho women who read everything from classics to historical fiction.
Members are young and old, single and married. One woman is from Germany, others are from Texas and South Carolina. Some are religious, some are atheist.
Pilar Saslow, born in Peru, moved to Idaho from the East Coast. She attended the original barbecue.
“I thought Mandie was a very sweet person,” Saslow said. “A little naive maybe; I would never have opened my house to people for a book club.”
Various side groups have grown out of the book club since it began, including a scrapbooking club, card-making club, trivia group and game night group.
The value of the original club, and its offshoots, is in their diversity, Saslow said.
“When you have a group of women with different perspectives and experiences, you can teach each other without trying; you can enrich lives with different backgrounds,” she said. “Some women get together to sew, others to cook. And Mandie was the vessel for that.”
Unsung Idahoans who change their communities
Idaho newspapers are telling the stories of people working behind the scenes to make a difference in Idaho health care, nonprofits, government and economic development.
Teacher volunteered as surrogate mother of twins
Amanda Byrd’s desire to help extended to her role as a surrogate.
After several years of consideration, the Idaho Falls woman contacted a Boston agency, Circle Surrogacy, in 2012.
She completed a substantial pile of medical and legal paperwork, then got the go-ahead to choose a family in need of a surrogate.
Byrd settled on an Icelandic couple who struggled with infertility for more than a decade.
“We were about to admit to ourselves that it would be impossible for us to have children. The surrogacy process gradually turned pessimism into hope. Being matched with Mandie turned out to be the best thing that could have happened to us,” the couple, who requested anonymity, said in an email.
Like Byrd and her husband, they were educators.
The couple also sold their cars and moved into a one-bedroom apartment to afford the procedure, which typically ranges in price from $100,000 to $150,000 according to Circle’s website.
“I wanted to give this gift to them,” Byrd said. She underwent in vitro fertilization, and became pregnant with twins.
“It worked. They were huge, about 8 pounds each, because they’re Icelandic — they’re Vikings!” Byrd said. “It was an amazing experience.”
The twins’ parents visited Idaho Falls for Byrd’s 20-week ultrasound and when the twins were born. They stayed with Byrd’s family for several days, and the Byrds visited several national parks with them.
“We became close friends, and this time is so precious in our memories,” the couple said. “Mandie changed our life fundamentally and we think about her every day.”
The couple refer to Byrd as their life mother. Unlike many surrogates, Byrd wasn’t paid for her involvement, she said.
Byrd made a scrapbook for the children, a compilation of her childhood experiences, and Skypes with the family regularly. She hopes to visit Iceland when the twins turn 5.
“We are very proud of telling our twins about her, and we want them to get to know her in person. We have kept in touch and hope to meet them again in the next years, because in our mind, Mandie is a part of our family,” the couple said.