ASHLAND – The second year of the Hometown Heroes program created by the transition and independent living class at Ashland-Greenwood High School was very different from its inaugural year. Like so many events this spring, the COVID-19 pandemic caused this celebration had to be done in a different way, but the students and teachers who worked on the program still felt like it needed to be done, pandemic or not.

“There are so many inspiring individuals living or working in our communities of Ashland, Greenwood and Memphis, and we couldn’t let their work go unnoticed,” said resource teacher Stacy Johnson.

Johnson started the program last year as a way to recognize everyday heroes in the communities that make up the Ashland-Greenwood school district.

She learned of the program while teaching in a previous school, and adapted the idea there before bringing it to Ashland-Greenwood. Last year it was called Small Town Heroes, but Johnson said so many people called it Hometown Heroes that the new name stuck.

Last year, the award winners were invited to an assembly at the school, but were not told they were going to win an award. This year, Johnson got the pleasure of surprising each winner herself, which she said was an honor.

“The impact you have when you decide to nominate someone is real, and we were lucky enough to see firsthand the emotion that comes with realizing someone took the time to write and send a nomination,” she said.

Johnson closed the program this year and last by asking everyone to be a hero in their own way, by putting other first, performing a small act of kindness, being a role model or just smiling.

“In simple terms, just be a hero,” she said.

The following people were nominated for recognition by the 2020 Hometown Heroes program.

Several businesses were nominated for their work helping provide meals during the COVID-19 pandemic, including Brian Whitehead, owner of BW’s Pub and Grill.

The person who nominated Whitehead said: “They stepped up to keep this town fed and went above and beyond to help the kids get meals too that were in need. I don’t know how many employees are involved but they have worked long hours to get this done. Breadeaux Pizza, Don’s Bar in Memphis, and Round the Bend Steakhouse also need to be recognized for their work. 

Trisha Rogers was nominated for being an inspiration to many in the community.

“Trisha Rogers is a small town hero because she has fought back from a heart attack and a liver transplant. It was a very difficult road, but she has remained positive and is constantly sharing how others can be an organ donor, donate blood, and all around help others. She is a positive role model to others who have experienced a transplant or any difficulty in their lives, and to everyone that knows her. She is a true warrior!” said the person who nominated Rogers.

Shannon Luetkenhaus was nominated for saving someone’s life. She was nominated by a fellow employee of Ashland-Greenwood Public Schools, where Luetkenhaus is a paraeducator.

Luetkenhaus was filling in as a school bus driver on the Greenwood route last January when she noticed a student choking. She attempted to get the attention of another adult on the bus, but that adult was sitting farther back and was not able to understand was Luetkenhaus needed.

Luetkenhaus pulled the bus over and performed the Heimlich Maneuver on the child. After the child expelled the piece of food that she was choking on, she was overjoyed and thankful for Luetkenhaus’ quick thinking.

“The best thing about it all is that Shannon would never want any special recognition or thanks, she just did this out of the goodness of her heart. If she wouldn’t have acted so quickly, things could have turned very serious and the child could have even stopped breathing. Shannon Luetkenhaus should definitely, without hesitation, be awarded the Hometown Hero award for her quick action on the bus to help a student who was choking,” the nomination letter read.

Bill and Bette McCoy received the Hometown Hero award for their work at the Kid’s Cupboard food pantry that they helped organize along with volunteers from several local churches. The program initially started as a summer program and then expanded to weekly.

“Bette and Bill continue to keep the project organized, countless trips to purchase food, load and unload amongst many miscellaneous other duties. They are definitely deserving of this award,” the nominator wrote.

Bev Hohensee, a member of the Ashland-Greenwood Middle School/High School staff was also nominated. The person who nominated noted all of the good things she does for people in the community and school.

“She listens to their problems and their joys and all the girls she coaches and truly cares about them,” the nomination read.

  A local pastor, James Bergsten, was nominated by his son, for his work at Riverview Community Church. Bergsten was instrumental in building a playground next to the church that is used frequently by children in the neighborhood and the community. Every Wednesday he teaches the bible to fourth to 12th grade students.

“Not only is my dad a great dad he has been a father figure to many kids of all ages. He is a great husband and a wonderful pastor. That is why I think James Bergsten is our hometown hero,” the nomination letter read.

  Mike Simpson is proof that every little thing we do can have a significant impact on the lives of others, no matter the age. His nomination came in the form of an email after her was a hero to a young girl. 

Simpson witnessed Alex Haschke drop a package of cupcakes she had brought to school to celebrate her birthday with her classmates. Simpson made a quick trip to a store in Gretna to replace the damaged treats. When Alex’s father thanked him for the deed, he simply said, “If you would have seen her face when they fell, you would have done it too!” 

To thank Simpson, Shane Haschke nominated him for the award as a form of recognition for his kind deed.

  “It’s not about big heroic deeds, it’s about something small, but yet so big for a 10-year-old and her mom and I,” he said.

Ashland Public Works Director Shane Larsen and his crew were instrumental in helping with the 2019 floods in Ashland. The nominee was grateful for the work they did getting the ball fields back in order for the spring baseball and softball seasons.

  “Never has the city staff looked so good than when the flood of 2019 hit the ball fields. I and many people thought ball games would not be played down in a flooded facility for many months. However, Shane and company worked diligently to have fields ready in under a month,” the letter read.

The other work Larsen and his crew do throughout the year also caught the attention of the nominator.

“Easily he could sit behind his computer and delegate jobs to others, but when there is an important job to do you will find him working on that job himself. He has a passion for the City of Ashland and often times it is a thankless job. Rarely do you get thanked for waking up early to plow snow on streets or picking up trash in the parks, but Shane makes sure all of that gets done. I do know that it takes more than one person to make Ashland look as good as it does so I would like to thank his staff as well.! Thank you Shane and the City for making Ashland a great place to be!”

The Ashland-Greenwood Public Schools administrative team received a Hometown Heroes award for the work they did during the 2019-2020 school year. The “A Team” includes Superintendent Jason Libal, Curriculum Supervisor Jill Finkey, Director of Students Services Kristin Fangmeyer, Elementary Principal Teresa Bray and Secondary Principal Brad Jacobsen.

Under their leadership, our district has repeatedly been on the cutting edge of educational decisions. Whether it’s new legislation to implement, school policies to put in place, or just day to day routines, our A-Team does everything it can to respond with well thought out plans that support the best interest of our students and staff,” the nominator wrote.

The administration’s work during the COVID-19 pandemic was noted specifically.

“We do not even want to guess the amount of hours, meetings, documents created, and sleepless nights that these 5 Hometown Heroes had to endure,” the letter read.

Bray was also nominated individually for a Hometown Heroes award for her support of the teaching staff and elementary students.

“Over the years she has implemented many new programs for students and staff enriching education. Just to name a few – the addition of preschool, the walking program, elementary playground expansion, technology upgrades and curriculum changes. She has been present to help support the design of remodeling the buildings, additions and now finessing ways to house our over-growing student population. She is a true leader to her staff and our community,” the letter read.

Fangmeyer helped Johnson compiled the videos and photographs for the virtual Hometown Heroes celebration, so it was difficult to surprise her when it came time to give her an award. But she was nominated for her work bringing the Special Olympics and other unified games to the community and during the pandemic.

“It was a crazy amount of work but she made it all possible,” the letter read. 

Libal’s individual nomination was submitted to recognize the strength he exhibited during the pandemic.

“He has been working hard to make sure our school is doing the right things during this epidemic,” the letter said.

Before the pandemic closed the schools, Libal could be found in the hallway giving students fist bumps and high fives to spread positivity.

“He always puts the students first in every situation,” wrote the nominator, who happens to be his daughter.

“He works extremely hard and always stays positive through all of the hardest battles,” she continued.

The AGPS Food Service Team of Virginia Clark, Debbi Sillman, Michelle Stohlmann, Justine Yingling, Jenny Laughlin and Tammy Williams were nominated for their efforts to feed students during the pandemic.

“They have been making around 320 meal packages – five days worth of meals – for our students/community children. They have been committed to continue to provide nutritional meals, especially now, during this uncertain time,” the letter read.

The Food Service Team’s leader, Karee Nielsen, was nominated by her employees for the time and effort she puts into her job as the director, which includes running the kitchen, planning meals, ordering groceries and supplies, counting and documenting the inventory, keeping records and making sure the facilities pass inspections.

“On a regular basis, Karee runs our kitchen flawlessly. So many people think all we do is open things, and serve kids, the nomination letter read. “What they don’t see is that there is so much that goes into that process on a regular basis.”

Nielsen stayed strong when she was thrown a curve ball with the pandemic, changing everything in the kitchen.

“She had to do a bunch

more research on how to safely distribute the food, how to get the food, and then apply for special permits to actually do the program. This has been such a challenge for her, but she faced it like the true professional she is, and rallied the troops to make the distributions happen,” the nominator wrote. 

The entire kitchen received another nomination for providing lunch to hundreds of kids even with the school building closed.

They even drive to Greenwood, Memphis and Ashland’s East Side to reach as many kids as possible. These ladies are the heroes in my book,” the letter read.

Ashland-Greenwood Middle School teacher Renee Kucera, received four nominations.

“I voted for her, because when i first moved here she was always there for me and made the transitions easy. She is by far one of the nicest individuals i have ever met and is the perfect candidate for this award,” wrote Ty Carey.

“Mrs. Kucera has been my teacher for two years now and she has taught me so much. She was also so kind and a really great teacher. Not only was she a teacher but she went to most of the sporting events to support the young bluejays. She is an amazing woman and an essential part of this community,” said Alivia Pike.

Emma Williams wrote: “I nominate Mrs. Renee Kucera for hometown hero. Mrs. Kucera has worked at AGPS for many years putting nothing but hard work and effort into the well being and education of all Ashland-Greenwood students. She also is kind to everyone in the community and plays a huge role in Ashland’s goal to “Raise the Bar”. She listens when you need someone to talk to, she is there if you have any questions, and she is honest to you no matter what. She is an exceptional teacher, citizen, and all-around friend. She deserves this award more than anyone (in my opinion).”

  “Mrs. Kucera is such a huge inspiration to me as an eighth grader. She is such an awesome teacher and she does so much for each one of her students as well as the community as a whole. She is a hero because all she does is done in thought of her students and her community, and she is such an incredible role model to everyone who meets her. Even if she doesn’t get the hero award, she will always be a hero to me,” wrote Hannah Kasper.

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