The Sandy Springs Education Force recognized its volunteers, donors, sponsors and the students they serve at its 2023 Appreciation Breakfast held at Riverwood International Charter School on May 10.

Fulton Superintendent of Schools Mike Looney said the quality of a school can be measured by the engagement of its community.

“And the fact that you’re here this morning, the fact that you give your time your talents and your resources that make a difference in the lives of the students is truly a blessing for school officials,” he said.

Riverwood graduation coach Mary Schmidt brought several of her students to discuss their program experiences.

“One of the most memorable ones was the SkillsUSA field trip where we got to get a hands-on experience with a lot of colleges and a lot of different technical jobs,” Alicia Quintanar Arriaga said.

Sandy Springs Charter Middle School teacher Michael Brooks described the Gentlemen Elite program he created with SSEF support to help give the students a place to thrive and learn skills outside of the classroom that can help them navigate through difficult times. His students said it taught them to be humble and kind, and they gained confidence through the lessons they learned.

SSEF Program Director Beppie Lever described Kennesaw State University student Kayla Langford as “the perfect example of a student who was inspired by us and gave us such an inspiration.”

Langford is a volunteer tutor and a virtual tutor through SSEF. She created the Women in Tech program at North Springs High School.

“I was once a student at all the schools I volunteer at and I’m able to see myself in each student I speak to,” Langford said.

SSEF presented its Sustaining Scholar Award to Mercedes-Benz USA for its sponsorship and participation in the nonprofit’s STEAM Showcase and other activities, SSEF Executive Director Irene Schweiger said. Its employees provided 500 backpacks filled with school supplies for students at Riverwood and North Springs high schools, and Ridgeview and Sandy Springs middle schools.

The Carolyn Axt Volunteer of the Year Award was presented to Jennifer Lott, who chaired the STEAM Showcase and has been the North Springs PTO president and the school’s theater booster president.

Lott said she became a full-time volunteer for students in Sandy Springs schools when she left her career in the touring Broadway industry. She followed her kids through Spalding Drive Elementary, Sandy Springs Middle and now North Springs High School.

“When people ask me why I volunteer so much my answer is always the same. If you want something done, you have to be willing to do the work yourself. SSEF makes it easy to get that done,” she said.

Stacy Ellis, a teacher at Isom Springs Elementary School, was awarded the School Program Champion of the Year award for her work with programs including the Trigger Change Program. Schweiger said that the program was started during the pandemic because tutoring elementary school children virtually was something that could be done.

Ellis was instrumental in making the program work because not only did she identify the students who needed help, but also she identified what each student needed, Schweiger said. She coordinates the Reading Buddies and the Summer Reading programs also.

“We connected brilliant and dedicated high school students to eager elementary students through virtual tutoring and mentoring support,” Ellis said.

SSEF Board Chair Judy Roseman received the Dr. Ava Wilensky Board Member of the Year Award. A former Language Arts teacher at North Springs High, her work on the board has included starting the summer reading program, Schweiger said.

Roseman told the students that their stories “are the fuel that motivates us.” She said it was an honor to be recognized, but it’s a privilege to engage in activities that touched their futures.

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Bob Pepalis

Bob Pepalis covers Sandy Springs for Rough Draft Atlanta and Reporter Newspapers.