Ashley Gehrke offered a bit of an understatement when she addressed the packed gym at Rolling Hills Elementary on March 16.
"We were really sneaky," she admitted, referring to a covert operation pulled off by the students, the staff and a host of community members.
"Sneaky" doesn't fully cover the school's top-secret approach to celebrating one of its teachers for a very special ceremony. Coleen Thurber, an assets teacher at the school, had no idea the entire Rolling Hills community had gathered in the gym after classes on an otherwise typical Wednesday afternoon. What's more, Thurber didn't know that she'd won a prestigious award from a national education organization.
She discovered both facts when she ushered in to the space and the entire room erupted in applause. Thurber had won the LifeChanger of the Year Award from the National Life Group, and the entire Rolling Hills community was on hand to celebrate.
They had reason to be enthusiastic. The award recognizes teachers from across the country who make a significant difference in the lives of students by exemplifying excellence, positive influence and leadership.
According to her nomination form and to testimony from students, parents and peers alike, Thurber more than meets those requirements. Thurber teaches the school's Assets Program, a curriculum rooted in 40 Developmental Assets, or building blocks of healthy development. These assets are designed to help young children grow up to be healthy, caring and responsible.
Thurber has put her own unique spin on the program, even as she leads the school's Positive Behavior Support Program, helms meetings, organizes training sessions and offers individual students the one-on-one feedback they need to be successful.
"Mrs. Thurber is a positive influence throughout the school," the nomination form reads. "Mrs. Thurber is a LifeChanger. She impacts adults and students every day at Rolling Hills Elementary with her passion and love. She will leave behind a long legacy of teaching students how to live happy and healthier lives because they have known her."
That much was clear as Thurber made her way to the front of the Rolling Hills gym to accept the formal award and a bouquet of flowers from appreciative students. Thurber's recognition brought the entire crowd to its feet; the award of $1,500 for Thurber and an additional $1,500 for the school elicited a communal celebration.
"You're a leader," said Mallorie Manosh of the National Life Group corporate communications team. "You reflect National Life Group's mission."
Thurber, for her part, reacted with awed gratitude. She alternated between sobs and laughter; she scurried to offer students, colleagues and administrators hugs before addressing the crowd.
"Oh my gosh, this is the hugest honor ever," Thurber said. "I am the luckiest person in the world, because I get to have you all in my family. Thank you for helping me to be great."