Schools mourn loss of popular educator

Pam Mankel on bus
The Maricopa Unified School District lost one of its most beloved educators recently when PE teacher and Special Olympics coach Pam Mankel passed away due to complications from COVID-19. [Cindy Searles photo]

The Maricopa Unified School District is mourning the loss of one of its most popular educators, Adaptive Physical Education Teacher Pam Mankel, who passed away October 15 at age 51 from complications from COVID-19.

Mankel taught adaptive PE for 15 years in schools across the district prior to this year, when she shifted to teaching traditional PE classes. In addition to her MUSD duties, Mankel also coached and ran the city’s Special Olympics teams for many years, growing them into a thriving program tremendous participation.

City Council Member Amber Liermann, who also is a counselor at Maricopa High School, shared her memories of working with Mankel, who is survived by her husband of two years Dave, and three daughters.

“I knew Pam for 15 years as we worked in the same department at MUSD,” Liermann said. “The three things I remember about Pam are her love for her daughters and husband; her dedication and passion as a Special Olympics coach and teacher; and her smile. She smiled on good days and bad days. Her smile communicated strength, hope and a love for what she did despite the circumstances of that day.”

According to those who knew her well, Mankel was not interested in doing the minimum amount of anything.

Cindy Searles, a fellow educator and Special Olympics coach, said Mankel was the driving force behind the growth of Special Olympics in Maricopa.

She started the city’s special Olympics team around 15 years ago and took it from maybe 10 kids to more than 40 throughout the (MUSD) district,” Searles said. “She was very passionate about whatever she did. She was one of my best friends and I can tell you this, there would not be a Special Olympics team here without her. She started all this when she was a single mom raising three daughters, and she never missed a beat. She was always smiling, pushing the kids to do best they could, and never letting them say they can’t do it. She believed in them, that they could do whatever they wanted to do. I cannot stress enough how she poured her whole heart into this.”

Mankel did all this despite the fact that her three daughters did not participate in Special Olympics; she did it simply for the love of her students and the cause. That commitment – and the loyalty and love it inspired – were evidenced by one of her student-athletes, Ronnie “Noah” Yubeta, a sophomore at MHS.

“She was one of first people to show me around the elementary school when I got there,” Yubeta said. “She was very nice to all the kids. She was always gentle. It was kind of a weird thing, honestly, but when she got mad you got this feeling of guilt because you didn’t want to let her down. Me and my friends would joke about her being my second mom. Honestly, she was just a good person. Everyone loved her. She was everyone’s mom in a way, because of the way she cared for everyone. She made a dent in everyone’s heart – it was something you can’t forget.”

Mankel retired from special Olympics in 2019, needing a bit of a break after 15 years. She was newly married and wanted to spend more time with her husband. She left a lasting mark on those who knew her.

“Pam truly made a difference,” Liermann said. “There are students who had Pam as a teacher throughout elementary, middle and high school because Pam taught all three levels traveling to different campuses in the district. She built trusting relationships with students, families and staff. She was beloved and will be missed.”

Noah Yubeta’s mother, Maria, summed up the feelings of those came to know Mankel.

“I honestly feel like she was one of the kindest most dedicated educators I’ve ever met,” she said. “She made Ronnie feel like he was just like any other kid, and the confidence she gave him was unlike anything I’d ever seen before. She made every child she touched feel indestructible.”

Because of her long illness and hospitalization, a GoFundMe account has been set up to help defray Mankel’s extensive medical and funeral costs. To contribute, please visit: