SBOE salutes 2020 Heroes for Children award recipients

2020 Heroes for Children

 (Top row, left to right): Dist. 1 Ofelia Murillo; Dist. 2 Isabel Ortiz; Dist. 3 Karla Vallejan;
                                     Dist. 4 Irma Cuatianquiz; Dist. 5 Michael Burke
(Mid. row, left to right): Dist. 6 Robert Westheimer; Dist. 7 James "Jim" Martin;
                                     Dist. 8 Charles Anderson; Dist. 9 Jessica Rich; Dist. 10 Chad Richter
(Bot. row, left to right):  Dist. 11 Van Houser; Dist. 12 Kelley Thomas; Dist. 13 Marti Mueller;
                                     Dist. 14 Suzanne Danhof; Dist. 15 Christine Foreman

Fifteen school volunteers who collectively have devoted 190 years of service to the Texas public schools, were recognized as 2020 Heroes for Children through a reading of a resolution in their honor during the official meeting of the State Board of Education (SBOE) on September 11, 2020.

The volunteers provided a wide range of services, including building playground equipment, providing weekend meals and Wi-Fi access during the COVID-19 pandemic, creating visual arts program that showcased students’ talents, and leading successful bond campaigns.

Each volunteer received a plaque recognizing their service, a copy of a board resolution honoring their service, a congratulatory letter from Sen. Ted Cruz, and a certificate of recognition from the governor.

Each hero’s name will be engraved on a perpetual plaque that is permanently displayed at the Texas Education Agency.

With this year’s award recipients, the SBOE has now recognized 480 Texans since its inception in 1994.

“I am so inspired by the stories of the 15 Heroes for Children.  We have realized this year, more than ever, how important our schools are to the local communities.  These Heroes for Children, and all those like them, are what helps our local schools change the lives of our children.  We are so thankful for these volunteers.” Said SBOE Chair Dr. Keven Ellis.   

Below is a brief description of the volunteer work performed by each recipient.

Ofelia Murillo (Socorro Independent School District – SBOE District 1)
Ofelia Murillo does everything from the heart. A 2020 District Elementary Volunteer of the Year who clocked in more than 7000 hours for the past 7 years mostly at Hueco Elementary in Socorro Independent School District. Her leadership skills are frequently called on as she heads her team of volunteers at various tasks from decorating for district events, overseeing Honor Roll assemblies and Attendance recognitions, to celebrating teacher’s birthdays, and so much more. Her creative talent is displayed during the district’s Annual Halloween, Christmas Superintendent’s Open House, including set-up for the district’s annual Fall Health Fair. Her dedication for selfless volunteering is evident when her own peers nominated her for the district’s Volunteer of the Year award.

Isabel Ortiz (La Joya Independent School District – SBOE District 2)
Isabel Ortiz has been a volunteer at Juan De Dios Middle School in La Joya Independent School District for the past 10 years. She is the top volunteer every month of the academic year. Her service to her school ranges from assisting parents during annual registrations to leading various decoration needs. She is a member of the Site-Based Decision Making, District School Health Advisory, and Parent Advisory committees. Ortiz is a parent ambassador who is recognized by the La Joya ISD School Board in 2019 and 2020 for her hard work and service to the students.

Karla Vallejan (La Joya Independent School District – SBOE District 3)
Karla Vallejan has been a volunteer at La Joya Independent School District for the past 13 years where she serves in different advisory committees, including as president of the School Health Advisory Council. Her service to Juarez-Lincoln High School is extra ordinary. Beside being part of the Language Proficiency Assessment Committee, she also serves as the Parent Advisory Council president and a member of the Superintendent’s Round Table. Vallejan’s commitment to service extends beyond her district. She volunteers at Buckner’s Hope Center where she provides sewing, agriculture, and Neighbors in Action classes to members of her community. Through this program, they are able to donate shoes and backpacks full of school supplies for low-income families. Vallejan is also a member of the Creando Sonrisas (Creating Smiles) whose mission is to bring hope, love, and joy to the elderly and cancer warriors in the community.

Irma Cuatianquiz (Galena Park Independent School District – SBOE District 4)
Irma Cuatianquiz is a model immigrant who came to this country to improve not only her life, but that of her children. And she did not let her lack of fluency in English serve as a stumbling block. From that initial day in 2004 when she attended a training session for volunteers, she became a staple member of the North Shore Elementary where she was awarded a Lifetime Honorary Membership of their PTA. Her children have long moved to high school but she still makes her presence known at North Shore Elementary on a daily basis by mentoring students, walking kids to their classrooms, reading to them, and chaperoning when no other parent was present for a class trip. She helps with food drive with the Brighter Bites Nutrition Program, assists the school nurse by chaperoning for the SEE-to-Succeed vision and dental programs. She represents other parents as a member of the Parent Advisory Committee at the district level.

Michael Burke (San Antonio – SBOE District 5)
Michael Burke co-founded the San Antonio Regional PK-12 Education Forum to inform citizens and inspire bold and informed actions among business, civic, philanthropic, and education leaders. The vision and goal are to address shortfalls and major challenges, support outstanding educators, build new schools, and ensure that all students have an opportunity for a successful life and career. In 2017, Burke was honored to be recognized as the first annual Education Champion of the Greater San Antonio region. He serves on the board of various education-focused organizations. He was integral in bringing several high-performing schools to the San Antonio region and helped launch Early Matters San Antonio, an advocacy group for early childhood education. Each year with the help of his wife, he writes 100 personalized letters of appreciation as just one way to develop personal connections with public school teachers and staff. Burke believes that sending gratitude and appreciation letters is as important as his financial contributions.

Robert Westheimer (Spring Branch Independent School District – SBOE District 6)
Robert Westheimer used his vast experience in the business field and his strong faith in God to establish a non-profit organization called Newspring. An economic development effort with a faith-based impetus that was aimed at lifting the boats of many families who seemed caught in low economic current. Westheimer was intent in lowering the high turnover rate of Spring Branch schools. By working closely with the district, a visual arts program was established where the students’ amazing artistic talents were celebrated and reinforced through career mentoring by professional artists, including painters, sculptors, graphic artists, photographers, architects, and muralists. Beginning in 2008, Westheimer’s Newspring has conducted art auctions representing the students’ artwork with 100 percent of the proceeds going back to the students. The sales have generated $160,000 in income and most of all encouragement for the students to stay in school. Art classes were provided after-school and during summer free of charge to keep students out of the streets. What started as one studio has now grown to seven other locations serving more students in the community. Annually, Newspring awards $5000 college scholarships to four deserving students. Summer internships are also offered providing real-world work experience and much-needed income to students of the Spring Branch community.

James “Jim” Martin (Brazosport Independent School District – SBOE District 7)
James “Jim” Martin elevated volunteerism to its highest level having been involved with the Brazosport Independent School District since 1984. He created the Junior Achievement Our Community program for 2nd grade students, and established Interact Clubs at both Brazoswood and Brazosport High schools. He was the finance committee chair for 6 years, and a member of the Citizens Bond Oversight committee whose goal is to create trust and transparency by ensuring integrity of the bond spending. He is the founder and president of ALL-N-4BISD, a political action group that was instrumental in the success of the 2014 and 2019 bond campaigns totalling $442 million dollars aimed at building new elementary and high schools and various district facilities that includes new CTE and IT buildings, among others. As Brazosport Education Foundation president, Martin’s tireless efforts included co-chairing their biggest fundraising event called, “Throwback Prom” that raised $441,656 over the course of four years. His leadership and hard work in fundraising efforts has led to the Foundation accruing a one-million dollar endowment fund that will benefit current and future Brazosport students and staff.

Charles Anderson (Clear Creek Independent School District – SBOE District 8)
Rev. Charles Anderson saw no conflict between church and State, and showed through his arduous efforts to improve community living where faith and civic action can coincide quite well. Four years ago, he witnessed the abject poverty that was impacting the students of Clear Creek Independent School District and the community of Clear Lake and acted as the Good Samaritan that he is. His vision was to build bridges of literacy, health, mentoring and friendship with the children of Clear Lake City Elementary and that vision became a reality through the church’s Clear Lake Buddies initiative. His “Hope Rises” campaign which is a weekly contribution from members of Rev. Anderson’s Clear Lake United Methodist Church began with the simple provision of Thanksgiving meals and then expanded to ready meals for families in need. His members stood watch along the path to school every day, before and after school to make sure the students were safe from the presence of gang activities. Reading and math tutoring were provided, including library, cafeteria, and parking lot duties. Rev. Anderson’s Christmas Mission Offering that raised $60,000 dollars provided new shoes, jeans, and gifts for 346 students identified as needing assistance. During the COVID-19 shutdown, Rev. Anderson opened his church to provide space and Wi-Fi access to families lacking internet at home.

Jessica Rich (Pleasant Grove Independent School District – SBOE District 9)
Jessica Rich has served Pleasant Grove Independent School District for over 13 years helping in or outright spearheading such events as the Book Fair, holiday events, Meet the Teacher, and Grandparents’ Day Breakfast fests, among others. Rich is a Pleasant Grove Elementary School coordinator where she leads Teacher Appreciation celebrations, as well as coordinating weekly teacher treats and small gifts throughout the year in gratitude for their hard work. When her elementary received an expensive bid for a painting job, she showed up leading a team of volunteers to paint the kindergarten hallway themselves. She adopts each year’s school theme by dawning the entrance and hallways with her creative talents, including decorating a float for the Homecoming Parade festivities. Rich’s involvement with various organizations, the PG Connection (PTA), and the Pleasant Grove Education Foundation provides an inspiration of her heartfelt calling to make every child special.

Chad Richter (Thrall Independent School District - SBOE District 10)
Chad Richter served Thrall Independent School District for more than a decade and counting. He uses his paramedic background as an emergency response personnel in Thrall campuses and during athletic events. His volunteerism is visible in such activities as mentoring kids both at school and his local church, speaking at Career and Parent Involvement Days, assisting with track meets and field days, moving classroom furniture, helping clean up campuses after a storm damage, and building additional playground equipment for Thrall Elementary, among others. Richter’s passion to help his local schools include playing a major role training staff in Stop the Bleed campaign and offering his time to complete the Jacob Kits. He is an inspiration and a model volunteer to his children and his Thrall community.

Van Houser (Weatherford Independent School District - SBOE District 11)
Van Houser is the senior pastor at North Side Baptist Church and a passionate volunteer and advocate for Weatherford Independent School District by supporting teachers and providing students with the best education that positively impacts their lives. For 19 years, Houser served on the Weatherford Education Foundation Board becoming president for two terms when he led a new fundraising model for efforts to curtail expenditures. He has inspired programs managed and funded by his church members where they offered weekend meals serving anywhere up to 100 students each week at Seguin Elementary. This became a model for other churches joining their efforts to serve food to all elementary campuses. His church hosts a Back to School Fair where 500 backpacks full of school supplies are given including a haircut service for children, and other much-needed support. Beside hosting Teacher Appreciation breakfasts, each school year, they donate $100 gift cards to new teachers to equip their classrooms with school supplies. Houser was the recipient of the 2013 Weatherford ISD’s Partnership Award and the 2016 Outstanding Citizen of the Year award by the Weatherford Chamber of Commerce.

Kelley Thomas (Plano Independent School District - SBOE District 12)
Kelley Thomas began volunteering at her daughter’s elementary school shelving books and creating PTA publications. Over the course of 15 years, she became a PTA leader and on the board of the Council of PTAs for Plano Independent School District emerging as council president for two years. She saw the role of the PTA as a major advocacy group for students improving the educational outcomes and enabling students to reach their fullest potential. Thomas continues to mentor Plano ISD campuses by training their PTA so that they in turn, can support their students and staff. Through her leadership, membership for the entire district has grown to 23,000 parents and students. She has transformed Plano PTA with a focus on education, diversity and inclusion, advocacy, and support. Among her many accomplishments are programs for parent education provided for families with students supported by special education, gifted and talented, autism, and advanced academics. And expanded to anti-vaping education and social-emotional learning events for parents to learn and discuss the dangers of vaping.

Marti Mueller (Fort Worth Independent School District - SBOE District 13)
Marti Mueller is a dedicated mentor and volunteer for the Academy 4 Program at Fort Worth Independent School District for the past 8 years. She has mentored eight 4th graders teaching them the importance of being a leader even at such a young age. She works with the mentees to help them develop and use their foundational leadership skills using evidence-based curriculum. Her mentoring does not stop in the classroom, she follows up with a one-on-one communication with her mentee to build lasting relationships and instill a sense of belongingness and caring. Mueller also serves in the Leaders 5 follow-up program where she facilitates a classroom with 5th grade students while they mentor 1st graders. Her willingness to help with the leadership programs is displayed by her great care and patience to each one of those students. She is an encouragement to Academy 4 Program staff members, her fellow mentors, and students.

Suzanne Danhof (Denton Independent School District - SBOE District 14)
Suzanne Danhof began her volunteer role 5 years ago when asked to chair a Staff Appreciation committee, she hesitantly took the task, thus began her journey of volunteerism in Denton Independent School District. Her leadership skills are displayed in her passion for education. At the campus level, she organizes parent education events focused on internet and drug awareness and other related issues affecting the youth of Denton schools. At the district level, she organizes monthly meetings to educate campus PTA presidents. As the elected President of the Denton Council of PTAs, the boost in membership rose 111%. Danhof spent countless hours organizing campus fundraisers, such as Boosterthon and Apex. She advises campus PTAs with ways to provide checks-and-balances for the collection and expenditure of funds for transparency. Beside organizing staff appreciation events, she also makes sure her fellow volunteers are recognized and appreciated by organizing PTA President and Principals Luncheon, the district PTA Reflections Awards assembly, and the annual 5K of the Denton Community Council of PTAs.

Christine Foreman (Midland Independent School District - SBOE District 15)
Christine Foreman’s first involvement with school matters started with a tray of cookies for her daughter’s Valentine Party back in 2005. Since then, she has put her heart into advocating for public schools as the major pathway to bettering the lives of all students in Midland Independent School District. As PTA president this past year, she helped build a cohesive team of parents to scrape and paint walls, make homemade muffins to surprise teachers with, and coordinated volunteers for various events. Ms. Foreman is a founding member of the Midland Students First, a nonpartisan group of concerned citizens, teachers, and employers that believe Midland students deserve access to quality public schools. She helped create videos and presentations for the Midland ISD Values Program for employee training that aims to improve culture within the district. As the co-chair, Ms. Foreman gave over 1,000 hours for the special purpose committee, We Choose Our Future, to ensure that voters were informed with facts in the 2019 bond campaign for $569 million dollars. As exhaustive as the campaign was, Ms. Foreman gave it all with professionalism, positive attitude, and courteousness. She believes through this work the Midland community is better-equipped for a successful bond election in 2021.