The nominees for the 2023-24 LifeChanger of the Year Award were recently announced by host organization National Life Group.

LifeChanger of the Year is a program that highlights the impact that educators of kindergarten through grade 12 have on their students and communities, National Life Group stated. Each year, members of the public can nominate educators with winners receiving awards that range between $3,000 to $10,000. In total, 17 awards will be given this year, the organization said. All funds awarded will be divided evenly between the educator and their district.

For the 2023-24 LifeChanger of the Year Award, eight teachers were nominated across Ludlow, Palmer, East Longmeadow, Belchertown and Springfield.

Ludlow High School Athletic Director and basketball coach Tim Brillo was “surprised” and “honored” to learn he had been anonymously nominated by a colleague. As an educator for 30 years, he told Reminder Publishing that his core values when teaching are respect and commitment, emphasizing how if he respects the students, then they will respect him.

Growing up, Brillo had been an active athlete himself and chose to become a coach to remain in athletics. In teaching, he highlighted the importance of working as a team to “give us your most … everything you have” and stated that “every day is a teaching moment.”

He described his “most proud” moment as seeing past athletes return to help coach younger students and observing how the past athletes “carry those values” that they were taught by him and the other Ludlow athletic staff.

Likewise, nominee Joshua Dusza, mathematics department head and teacher for Pathfinder Regional Vocational Technical School in Palmer, was inspired to become a teacher from his desire “to help other people learn to enjoy learning.” He explained how lessons from his own teachers “stuck with [him]” and helped developed his inquiry-based approach to teaching.

For the past 13 years, Dusza has taught students that “it’s okay to not know an answer,” first at Northeast Metropolitan Regional Vocational High School for six years, then at Pathfinder for the last seven years. During this time, he’s worked as department head for four years and currently teaches grades 9, 10 and 12.

Dusza emphasized how he works with his students to embrace mistakes as learning moments and encourages them to share their knowledge in order to better engage in the classroom. He highlighted the department’s slogan of “meet students where they are and take them higher” as one of his values while teaching. In 2022, Dusza was awarded the Pioneer Valley Excellence in Teaching Award from the Harold Grinspoon Foundation.

Belchertown guidance counselor Jennifer Parker of Jabish Brook Middle School also won the 2022 Pioneer Valley Excellence in Teaching Award before her 2023-24 LifeChanger nomination. Additionally, she was nominated for the Massachusetts Counselor of the Year in 2021, a year after she joined Belchertown Public Schools from her previous work at an outpatient mental health facility, she said.

Parker decided to work in a school system after working with teen patients at her facility and she “realized [she] could be more impactful if [she] worked in a school setting.” Since then, she has “never looked back.” While it was “special to be noticed” through the LifeChanger nomination, Parker stated that she works as counselor to support students, not to be highlighted.

As a guidance counselor, her role is to “support the whole child,” Parker explained, emphasizing that she addresses multiple areas in a student’s life including classroom issues, social concerns, multicultural education and the importance of language awareness. For students, her room could provide a safe space to study, take a breath or work through concerns, she said.

Parker told Reminder Publishing that her proudest moment has been her involvement in Jabish Brook’s Saturday Detention School, which she has run since it began “last spring.” In this program, Parker works with students to develop empathy, self-reflect and “be the very best version of themselves.” The program serves as an alternative to suspension and began after increased issues of identity bullying at the school, she said. Parker is also a part of an advisory program at Jabish Brook, where she helps students confront real world issues. The advisory program allows students to discuss these issues with each other as well as with “trusted adults,” she explained.

Grade 7 English teacher Marissa Ramos of Forest Park Middle School in Springfield seeks to teach her students to be independent and “find their why” for learning. While attending Springfield College, Ramos became “passionate” about supporting the Springfield community.

Ramos was nominated for the LifeChanger of the Year Award by an anonymous community member, National Life Group said.

In her nine years as an educator, Ramos has encouraged students to get excited to learn and be respective in the classroom. She decided to become a teacher after her high school English teacher “showed [her] the power of being a strong reader and a strong writer.” In 2023, she was nominated for the Massachusetts Teacher of the Year, Ramos said.

In addition to teaching, Ramos coaches girls soccer, volleyball and basketball. She also co-founded and works as a coordinator for the C3 Forest Park Basketball League. This is a program that encourages positive relationships between Springfield students and law enforcement through basketball. All coaches on the team are part of the C3 Police Force or work at the District Attorney’s Office, Ramos said.

When Springfield High School of Science and Technology Director of Bands Gary Bernice learned about his nomination, he quickly directed the praise toward his students and told Reminder Publishing that the nomination was a way to “shine their light.”

Bernice was inspired to become an educator after noticing a gap in students’ access to music education. Soon after he became director, the SciTech bands grew from 20 members to more than 500, he said, emphasizing how the growth was a cascading effect of students supporting each other. He explained that he had learned to value family, community and cultural relevance while teaching by listening to his students.

In his 18 years teaching, Bernice has received multiple awards including the Pioneer Valley Distinguished Teaching Award in 2008, the William Pynchon Award in 2015 and the BusinessWest Award for Civic Leadership in Western Massachusetts in 2019, according to SciTech.

In addition to his role as director, Bernice co-founded the Mentoring Through Music Program, which encourages students to learn by teaching other students. Likewise, he also helped create the IGNITE Mentoring Program after the coronavirus pandemic. This is a volunteer program which enables graduated students to mentor current students.

Other nominees of the LifeChanger of the Year Award include reading teacher Kristin Preye of Thomas M. Balliet Elementary School in Springfield, according to National Life Group. Science teacher Amieland Singh of Birchland Park Middle School in East Longmeadow was also nominated. Singh previously received the Excellence in Teaching Award in 2022. Similarly, math teacher Sally Kim of Kiley Middle School in Springfield was nominated for LifeChanger of the Year Award after recently being nominated for 2023 Massachusetts Teacher of the Year, National Life Group reported.

For more information about the LifeChanger of the Year Award or the 2023-24 nominees, visit lifechangeroftheyear.com.

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