When Forest Lake Area High School special education teacher Dawn Soltis died on July 20 after an unexpected medical issue at age 48, family, friends, fellow educators and students were left in shock.
Soltis was well known for her work with her therapy dog, Muppet, and her passion for helping special needs students.
“Dawn was always looking for ways to get more involved with things that were happening at the school,” Kim Vanneste, who co-taught with Soltis, said. “School was an important place for her, and everyone felt that. She cared for the students and the staff, and she passionately advocated for kids with autism and other special needs.”
Forest Lake High School English teacher Craig Zimanske, who worked with Soltis on the Ranger Ambassador program, had just stepped off a plane coming home from vacation when he received word of her passing.
“She always spoke her mind and she always had the best interest of the students in mind,” he said. “She was extremely giving of herself and of her time for students and everyone at the school.”
Zimanske said that Soltis’ passing is a huge loss for the school and many are wondering what the atmosphere at the high school will be like without her and Muppet to brighten things up the way only they could. He said Soltis and Muppet provided for a real mindset shift for students and staff as the calming, playful nature of the duo provided a way to reduce anxiety.
“We were working together with the Ranger Ambassadors to create a courtyard space outside of the cafeteria where students could enjoy the weather during their lunch hour,” he said. “Although the details have yet to be finalized, we are now discussing some sort of a way to honor her with that project.”
Soltis’ mother, Linda Causton, said she is overwhelmed by the outpouring of love and support from not only the school, but the entire Forest Lake community. She remembers her daughter as a beautiful soul.
“She was precocious and adorable and loving right from the start,” Causton said. “She had a charm that grabbed you and held you tightly.”
Causton also said that Soltis was one of the brightest people she has ever known.
“She was talking at nine months and was an avid reader at age 3,” Causton said. “She whizzed through both high school and college and she knew a lot about geography, so she tried to become a travel agent. When that didn’t work out, she went back to school to become a teacher and finished all the coursework in one year. We actually took a master’s course together and the way she just understood things just astounded me.”
One week before Soltis died, she enjoyed dinner with her mother and stepfather, and according to Causton, it was a very special evening.
“It was marvelous and magical,” she said. “Dawn was in a really good place and we laughed and we loved that night. God provided us a chance to say everything we needed to say.”
Causton, who has adopted Muppet, said she will miss the gifts that her daughter was able to share with the world. She has plans to help keep some of those gifts alive.
“We want to set up a foundation and we will donate the first $500 to it,” she said. “The foundation money will be used to help a Forest Lake teacher get a therapy dog and help with the training of the dog. I witnessed how much good Dawn and Muppet did for that school and I don’t want that to go away.”
Soltis is preceded in death by her father, David William; grandparents, John and Viola Soltis, Ralph and Margaret Palas; aunt, Sandra; and pet dog, Bamm. She is survived by her son, Gray David; mother, Linda (David) Causton; brother, John; pet dogs Buffy and Muppet; many aunts; other family members; and friends. A celebration of Soltis’s life will be held at 2 p.m. Aug. 5, with visitation from noon until the service at Roberts Family Life Celebration Home, 555 SW Centennial Dr. In lieu of flowers, memorials are preferred to Roberts Family Life Celebration Home to help defray costs.