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Madison County students honor local heroes at Super Citizen Celebration

HARVEST — More than 800 second and third graders from Madison County elementary schools came together in the Sparkman High School gymnasium once again to celebrate their graduation from the Super Citizen program Dec. 14.

Back in August, they convened in the same spot for a “high energy” kickoff of the 10-week program to learn what it takes to become a “Super Citizen.” Students were bused in from Harvest, Endeavor, Monrovia and Madison Cross Roads elementary schools for the event, which served as the grand finale of the Liberty Learning Foundation’s program in which they learned crucial lessons in civics, character, financial literacy, career development and American history to become Super Citizens themselves.

That same energy permeated the Sparkman High gym for a second time as the students invited local heroes who they deemed Super Citizens to join them for some special recognition.

“Not only have you guys learned to take pride in yourselves, but you guys have learned to take pride in your communities,” Liberty Learning Foundation’s Ashley Woodson told the students. “… The Liberty Learning Foundation believes that when you honor a hero, you become a hero, so not only are you guys becoming super citizens today, but you guys are also becoming heroes, and I think that is pretty cool.”

Second-grade students, whose program honored “Helping Hands Heroes,” were first up in recognizing the contributions of the heroes they chose. Many of these heroes walk the same halls as the students who sung their praises.

The first hero honored, nominated by Jordan and Nyah, was Harvest Elementary Principal Chris Gunnels. Jordan thanked his heroes for the time and effort they put into making each school year great. Nyah remembered a time Gunnels showed her care and encouragement. “You have so many duties and responsibilities,” she added. “You do them all so well with grace and expertise. Mr. Gunnels, you’re so cool. We’re glad you’re in charge of our school.”

Another second-grade girl from Harvest Elementary chose to honor the school’s counselor, Becky Wilkenson.

“I am here today to introduce a wonderful woman whose teaching abilities are one of a kind,” the student said. “This great citizen is very loving, respectful and productive, but one thing I love most about her is her honesty.”

Madison Cross Roads students Brett and Drake recognized their bus driver, Nikki Bruder, who allows them “to do some really neat things on our bus ride to and from school,” such as having a “book buddies” system and encouraging students to write kind, uplifting notes to people in their school.

Endeavor second-grader Layne honored his school’s principal, Karen Mardis. “She was chosen as one of our Helping Hands Heroes because she leads our school,” he said. “She helps to keep our teachers and students safe. She also encourages us to do our best and to learn all we can. Thank you, Mrs. Mardis, for being our hero.”

Zoie and Tanner, also students at Endeavor, chose to honor Tanner’s mom, Lynne. Lynne serves as a CNP manager in their school.

“We chose Ms. Lynne because she makes the best food, and she gets up super early every day to make our breakfast and lunch,” Zoie said. “Ms. Lynne helps us to grow strong so we can learn at school.”

For Monrovia second-graders Olivia and Katelyn, their P.E. teacher’s role in helping them stay healthy and active led them to choose her as their Helping Hands Hero.

“Mrs. [Stacy] Balentine is my hero because she helps us stay healthy and in shape,” one student said. “She’s very creative with games and P.E. She is very sweet and kind. She is a very good gym teacher. I also love how she handles 80-something kids or even more than that. I love that she lets us run every day to stay in shape.”

The Helping Hands Heroes each received a special Liberty Pin they can wear to remind them of the positive impact they have had on students in their community.

The third-graders honored two “Torch Team Heroes” at the event. These heroes received special Statue of Liberty replicas. “Inside each of these Statue of Liberty replicas is a heart made up of the very material that the Statue of Liberty was made with in Paris, France,” Woodson said.

Bella and Vincent, third graders at Endeavor, chose to honor a hero who works to help others in the community: Firefighter EMT Justin Novak of Monrovia Fire/Rescue.

“He is our hero because he risks his life to save others,” Bella said. “If there is an emergency, he leaves his family to be able to go help others. Thank you for your service to our community.”

Monrovia third-grader Sarah presented a Statue of Liberty replica to her grandmother, Joanne Thomas.

“My grandma is my hero because she is responsible, honest, she is persevered and loving,” Sarah said. “She is responsible because she organizes my closet. She keeps up with everyone’s things. I love her. She is honest because she never lies and she always tells the truth. She never gives up. One time, my brother kept waking up. She had to calm him down. She kept doing it. She didn’t give up. She is loving because she cares about everybody. My grandma couldn’t be better. She is the best grandma ever. She also teases me.”

After the students honored their heroes, Woodson recognized teachers for their own heroic actions.

“These are the heroes you guys are surrounded by every single day, and on behalf of the Liberty Learning Foundation, we want to thank them for implementing the Super Citizens programs in their already busy schedules,” she said.

Back in their classrooms, each student would also receive their own award: a laminated certificate of achievement.

Earlier in the event, Woodson also thanked Rex Vaughn, Sparkman Principal Chris Shaw and the Madison County Community Alliance for their help and participation.

Before the festivities came to a close, students took a pledge to be Helping Hands and Super Citizens in their communities. To cap it all off, student volunteers led everyone in singing the song they learned at the kickoff: “You in the U.S.A.”

“I think it’s a great graduation,” said one second-grade teacher at Monrovia Elementary. “This is kind of like the final touches on the liberty legacy.”

The heroes honored that day also expressed their joy in being part of the special event and seeing how much the students have grown in their commitment to become Super Citizens themselves. Novak said it was “humbling to be honored” by such young students.

“I really appreciate that they thought of the fire department as one of their heroes,” he added. “Hopefully this inspires them to be real leaders in their community. I think that’s the overall purpose of this program, but hopefully that leaves an impression on them—that they can see some shining examples not only from fire service, but especially the teachers and the other organizations that were represented.”

According to their website, the Liberty Learning Foundation is a Huntsville-based nonprofit which seeks to facilitate civics and character programs in schools and organize immersive events that “empower schools, parents, local leaders and businesses to take ownership in the future of community and country.”

For more on the Liberty Learning Foundation and its mission, visit libertylearning.org.

Click here to see more photos from the Madison County event.

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