Westchase Cheers Check Presentation

As our second annual Cheers to PUBLic Service program comes to a close, we would like to take a moment to thank all 375 teachers that were nominated for these awards.  Your stories are touching, encouraging, and honest representations of the heart and soul it takes to be a teacher.  We are truly blessed to have so many legendary educators in our Hillsborough and Pasco County Schools – Thank you for all that you do for our youth, and the community!

Although incredibly difficult, alongside our Pillar Partners we have selected twenty stand-out teachers that will receive $1000 each as winners of our second annual Cheers to PUBlic Service awards.  Our winning teachers received a check for $1,000 PLUS tickets to an upcoming Bucs game from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, matching grants from the Junior League of Tampa and a Weekend Excursion in a brand new Ford Mustang from Ford of Port Richey!

Please read on to learn a little more about our 2019 Westchase winners:
JENNIFER BRUNO – PIZZO ELEMENTARY

As a former social worker, Jennifer Bruno always had a passion for those that needed a little ‘extra’.  Extra time, extra attention, extra support, extra love…all key in both social work and Exceptional Student Education (ESE).

After realizing her desire to work solely in education, Ms. Bruno enrolled in an Alternative Certification Program and has been teaching 3rd grade ESE students at Pizzo Elementary School for the last four years.  When asked what she loved most about teaching, as it specifically related to her minimally or non-verbal ESE students, she immediately responded with, “seeing the moment their whole world changes.”  She went on to explain that these moments are instances where a non-verbal student learns to communicate with their teachers and peers, gradually opening doors to more opportunities and higher self esteem.

Truly deserving of the $1,000 Cheers to PUBlic Service award, Jennifer and her family plan to head to their favorite spot on Lido Key to let the kiddos enjoy the beach and hopefully also reward one incredible teacher with some sun-soaked downtime.

Thank you, Ms. Bruno, for realizing your calling and helping these children ‘change their world’!

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NATALIA GRIES – CLAYWELL ELEMENTARY

Much like Jennifer Bruno, Natalia Gries also realized her calling after first working as a social worker.  Although Natalia loved helping kids and families in her former role, she felt she could make a more substantial impact by going into teaching, so left social work and pursued her Alternative Certification Degree.  Since then, she has been teaching very Exceptional Students at Claywell Elementary School for the last 14 years, and has loved every moment.

In fact, it was at Claywell that Ms. Gries met two lifelong loves – her husband, and a very special student named Evan.  Evan’s mother nominated Natalia for this award, and spoke to the many ways Evan’s extraordinary teacher goes above and beyond to give her son the ‘extra’ that has helped him blossom into the outgoing, confident kid we met at the awards ceremony.  When Evan started with Ms. Gries four years ago, he was completely non-verbal and could only communicate using gestures.  Now, Evan can communicate his wants and needs in a variety of ways, and has improved dramatically since that first year at Claywell.  “Just because he can’t speak, doesn’t mean he doesn’t have something to say,” Natalia tells us, as she notes that her favorite part of her job is having the opportunity to reflect on the incredible progress each student makes during the four years they are in her care.  She is infinitely aware of the significant impact learned skills like communication (which so many of us take for granted) can have on an individual’s future, and she is tirelessly working to give her students the best and brightest future possible.

With five young kids and the summer off, Natalia plans to use the $1,000 Cheers to PUBlic Service award to fund fun family activities.  Natalia also won a weekend excursion in a brand new Ford Mustang convertible thanks to our friends and Pillar Partners at Ford of Port Richey, so although her hubby has to teach summer school, she has planned a weekend getaway for just the two of them in their sweet new ride.

Congratulations, Natalia!  Thank you for giving Evan and the rest of your students a voice and the opportunity to truly shine.  Wishing you a fun-filled, top-down summer break!

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CHRISTOPHER WHITE – CITRUS PARK ELEMENTARY SCHOOL

Mr. White fell in love with teaching (and the teacher with whom he initially volunteered) over 17 years ago.  Realizing his passion, and having fallen out of love with his TV/Communications career, he went back to school for his Alternative Certification Degree and Masters in Special Education, and formally joined the all-star team at Citrus Park Elementary School.  Mr. White married Ms. Mary shortly after volunteering as the ‘Reading Dad’ for her Pre-K class, and now they work across the hall from each other, complementing each other’s teaching styles and working in tandem to give their students the ‘best chance possible’.

Mr. White proudly shares that alongside his wife, he uses educational elements as tools to teach their children how to go to school rather than vice versa.  He believes that when you open up to kids, and give them your all, it allows a bond to form that gives them the ability to socialize at their own speed while also learning basic skills through creative activities like wheelbarrow races and sensory projects.   This way, when they get to Kindergarten they have the foundation to absorb knowledge and master skills at the next level.

With 15 years of teaching under his belt, Mr. White still revels in the change one can make in a child’s life just by opening up and giving them the opportunity to learn.  A simple concept executed at the highest level by Mr. White and his muse, Ms. Mary.

When asked how he planned to spend the $1,000 Cheers to PUBlic Service Award, Mr. White whispered that he is purchasing a nice gift for his wife, and almost as an afterthought said, “and a beehive for myself…I already have chickens, so why not?”  Why not indeed, Mr White!  Thank you for embracing this second  career and making such a monumental difference in these kids’ lives one activity at a time.

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DEBBIE CLEVELAND – GAITHER HIGH SCHOOL

They say that positive energy is contagious, and when you meet Debbie Cleveland that sentiment certainly proves true.  Ms. Cleveland has taught music at various levels for 33 years, twenty-one of which have been grades 9th-12th at Gaither High School.  She shares that there is a certain ‘magic’ to high school because all of her students are ‘on the cusp of greatness’ and she has the privilege of bearing witness as they figure out who they are and where they want to go.

Inspired by no other than her own 8th grade music teacher, Ms. Cleveland has been blessed with a lifelong career doing what she loves most, and no doubt has inspired scores of her own students to pursue similar paths.  From Epcot to St. Patrick’s Cathedral (NYC), and countless once-in-a-lifetime opportunities in between, Mrs. Cleveland has not only taught her students a true love and appreciation for music, she has also helped them earn their rightful place on some of the grandest of stages – including, none other than Nashville’s world-renowned Grand Ole Opry House!

One of the students that helped contribute to Mrs. Cleveland’s nomination noted that the way she promotes positivity and inspires a lifelong love of music “makes this world a better place”.  Testaments like this fuel Ms. Cleveland’s passion for what she does.  She wants nothing more than to provide her students with a home – a better world – within her music department.  She is proud of the refuge her program has become – a place where these young adults can release and be themselves without judgment – protected from a world so quick to criticize.

When asked what she plans to do with her $1,000 Cheers to PUBlic Service award, Debbie shared that she will be traveling to England with a quartet of recent grads, and the money will help fund the sightseeing her and her husband have planned for the trip.  In addition to the $1,000 to spend on herself, our friends and Pillar Partners from the Junior League of Tampa also rewarded Debbie with a $1,000 matching grant for her school!

Congratulations, Debbie!  Thank you for sharing your positive energy and love for music with the students of Gaither High!  You are truly helping make this world a better place.  Cheers to a bloody brilliant trip across the pond!

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ANNA ROBERTSON – DAVIDSEN MIDDLE SCHOOL

Growing up, Ms. Robertson spent every summer volunteering in her sister-in-law’s special education Pre-K classroom, so it was no surprise when Anna followed the same path and pursued a teaching career of her own.  With 11 years experience teaching grades 3rd – 12th, she smiles when asked which grade is her favorite, and tells us there is something uniquely special about each one.  It’s easy to see why awkward adolescents, especially those with challenges that go beyond middle school crushes and lunchroom seating arrangements, flourish under Anna’s care.  Her eyes are kind, her personality is welcoming, and she has a sort of familiarity that the kids surely recognize and embrace.

When asked to recount one story from teaching that sticks out as a great representation of why she loves what she does, Ms. Robertson told us about a young girl that came into her class completely non-verbal and lacking any communication skills.  That first day, this student refused to come out from under the desk, shy and scared, but after three years under Ms. Robertson’s care (grades 2nd-4th) the two developed such an incredible bond, that not only was she able to come out of her shell, she learned to communicate and absorb new learnings that would eventually help pave the way to a bigger and brighter future.  Although this student is no longer in Anna’s class, she proudly shares that she is doing extremely well, and hopefully will have Ms. Robertson again for 6th grade at Davidsen next year.

Anna plans to spend the $1,000 Cheers to PUBlic Service award on a trip to Jamaica to visit her brother, where she will enjoy some well-deserved R&R before the new school year starts up.

Congratulations, Anna!  Thank you for being the angel these kids need and the friend they deserve.  Enjoy Jamaica!

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Congratulations, Winners!  You truly embody the I.R.I.S.H. that we feel define the best of the best, and we hope you spend this prize on whatever brings you joy!