Wiregrass Cheers Check Presentation
July 11, 2019 melissa

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 Wiregrass winners:

Inspired by his college English professor, Chris Hammond has taught Special Education for the past 7 years, and tells us that ‘every day is a treat’ because every day his students are learning something new and conquering fresh challenges.  Although his specialty allows him the opportunity to work with kids from all grade levels – Kindergarten through 5th grade – he admits that his favorite grade to teach is 5th because the children have reached their peak, and are preparing to embark on a new (exciting but scary) adventure in middle school.  He tells us that his students are especially impressionable at this age, and he recognizes the importance of maximizing this final opportunity to give these kids the tools and self-confidence necessary to succeed in their next chapter.

While Chris’ compassionate, nurturing nature certainly contributes to his success as a special education teacher, it is how he views his students’ challenges that makes each day ‘a treat’ not a struggle.  When Mr. Hammond looks at his students, he does not see DISABILITIES, he sees POSSIBILITIES, allowing every sign of growth to be a reason for celebration and a sign of success.

When asked what Mr. Hammond will do with the $1,000 Cheers to PUBlic Service award, his young daughter beamed and told us that they were putting it in a ‘Cruise Fund’ for their big family vacation to Mexico.

Congratulations, Chris!  Thank you for all that you do for these kids, and we wish you an amazing week of family and fiestas!


Having come from a family educators, and lucky enough to have amazing teachers throughout her own academic journey, Rebecca Russell gravitated towards a career in education and has flourished as a social studies teacher at PACE Center for Girls Pasco for the last 15 years.  Ms. Russell’s passion for her life’s work is second only to the love she has for the girls in her care, and there is no question that Rebecca would give her students anything and everything in her power to help them succeed, including in some cases clothes out of her own closet and supplies purchased with her own money.

When asked if she could recount one story from teaching that serves as a representation of why she loves her chosen career, she shared the story of a young lady that found her voice thanks to a lesson on the Feminist Movement of the 1970’s.  When this student first came to Ms. Russell, she struggled with academics and had difficulty staying focused, until classroom discussions regarding the Women’s Liberation Movement struck a chord with her, and she became engaged and fixated on the idea of female empowerment and the ability to shape your own destiny.  The term ‘stifled’ seemed to especially resonate with this student, and when the coursework shifted to economics, the concepts of empowerment and financial independence became this young lady’s motivation, and the catalyst for a bigger and brighter life.  Ms. Russell beamed as she shared that this student just graduated and is thriving – thanks to a teacher and movement that refused to give up.

An avid traveler, Rebecca tries to visit a new country each year, but had tragedy hit home when visiting Ecuador last November as a tornado ripped through her Spring Hill home causing thousands of dollars in damage.  Nearly a year later, she is still trying to fix what was ruined in that storm, and she gratefully tells us that this money should help complete most of those renovation projects.  With two rescue pups at home, she also hopes to have some of the $1,000 Cheers to PUBlic Service award money left over to donate to a local rescue.

Congratulations, Rebecca!  Thank you for your passion and relentless commitment to these girls who have so few in their corner.  You are truly a force for good, and we are grateful for all that you do.  Have a great summer!


From the time when she was just a kid playing house and pretending to be a school teacher, Annastasia Bhoolai knew a career in education was her calling, and after nearly a decade teaching 6th grade math, science, and social studies, Ms. Bhoolai is now achieving amazing things as Ben Hill Middle’s Media Specialist.

Passionate about reading, and willing to go the extra mile to get kids engaged and interested in literature, Annastasia has successfully increased student involvement year over year, and has made the Media Center the most popular classroom in the school!  When asked to share a story that shows why she loves her job, Ms. Bhoolai tells us about how she took her students to meet author Kiersten White, and how that encounter inspired her students to explore multiple books written not only by Ms. White, but also other authors with similar styles.  Relentless in her pursuit of igniting that love for reading, Ms. Bhoolai spends countless hours constructing props and activities that help bring the literature to life and invigorate her young readers.

When asked how she plans to spend the $1,000 Cheers to PUBlic Service award, Annastasia smiled and said that they were using it on a family vacation to Disney World.  In addition, Annastasia was also chosen as the recipient for a matching $1,000 grant from our friends and Pillar Partners with the Junior League of Tampa, that will help fund supplies and books for her school!  Congratulations, Ms. Bhoolai, and thank you for going the extra mile to introduce these young adults to the joy of getting lost in a good book.  Have a blast at Disney!



Laser-focused on making a positive contribution to the world, Eric Johnson is one of the elite educators tackling college-level coursework with high schoolers through AP and Dual Enrollment curriculums.  Whereas many of this year’s Cheers to PUBlic Service award recipients face the challenges associated with students dealing with disabilities, Mr. Johnson works with the exceptionally advanced students that will receive their Associate of Arts degree two weeks before walking across the stage for their High School graduation.  He affectionately calls them his ‘little academic freaks’ and takes great pride in the fact that his 14-year-old 9th graders are taking college courses and excelling.

When asked for one story from teaching that has had a significant impact on his career, he told us about a lesson plan that birthed out of the tragedy of hurricane Katrina.  Viewing this event as an opportunity to teach his students about human capital and the cost of natural disasters, Mr. Johnson used a live news feed as the background for his discussion.  When a young lady in his class started crying, Eric had assumed that the imagery in general was upsetting her, and told her she could go to the library.  After class, Eric asked the young lady what she found so upsetting, and learned that the live news feed was in fact of the retirement home where her Grandfather suffering from Alzheimer’s formally resided but had not yet been located in the wake of the storm.  Humbled by his unintentionally insensitive approach to the subject matter, this experience taught Eric to ‘interact with the students before interacting with the information’- taking the time to ask the students if they have any family or emotional connections to a particular event or subject before delving into the content.

A passionate educator and devoted historian, Mr. Johnson spends much of his ‘free time’ traveling to conferences and learning from fellow educators.  This summer, Eric will travel to Scotland for a symposium at The University of Edinburgh, reveling in time spent with fellow history buffs and exploring Scotland’s many beautiful castles.  We are happy to hear that Eric plans to spend his $1,000 Cheers to PUBlic Service award to offset travel expenses and fund exploration of Scotland’s rich countryside and vibrant culture.  Congratulations, Eric!  These exceptional students are so lucky to have such a committed and equally exceptional teacher during such a challenging time in their academic careers.  Enjoy your trip!


Inspired by her mother who teaches middle school, Ashley Wilks pursued her Masters Degree in education and has just completed her ninth year teaching deaf and hard of hearing students at Burnett Middle School.  Although Ashley has taught practically all grade levels, she has worked with middle school students for the last three years, and absolutely loves watching her scared 6th graders blossom into confident 9th graders and embark on their next chapter in high school.

When asked if she would share a story that represents why she has such a passion for teaching, Ashley recounted last year’s trip to the Math Bowl in Rochester, New York and how it not only proved invaluable in teaching her students about using learned skills in a public setting, but also inspired one student to pursue a degree in veterinary studies.  This student was non-signing with no intention of going to college when he embarked on the trip with his math team, but thanks to this eye-opening experience at the National Technical Institution for the Deaf in Rochester, he is now learning to sign so that he can attend college and pursue a career in creating prosthetics for animals.  These ‘aha’ moments – whether they are small accomplishments or life-changing breakthroughs – are what Ashley cherishes most about her chosen profession.  Seeing a student finally overcome a challenge or succeed where they previously struggled is what motivates her day-to-day, year after year.

When asked what she plans to do with the $1,000 Cheers to PUBlic Service award, Ashley tells us that the majority will be used to help offset the cost of her students’ math competitions, as well as their weekly independent cooking experiences, but she will use a bit to fund a mini-getaway to New Smyrna beach for some fun in the sun.  In addition to the Cheers to PUBlic service check, Ashley also won a weekend getaway in a brand new Ford Mustang convertible from our friends at Ford of Port Richey!  Congratulations, Ashley!  Thank you for all that you invest in these kids, and enjoy your top-down, sun & fun mini-break on the beach!

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!