Community Connect: Vol. 5 Issue 2

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PURPLE UP FOR MILITARY KIDS AED Fundraiser Saves Student’s Life + Student Voice: Why I Chose IB + Full Calendar of Events for the Spring + Luke Elementary School becomes the first school in Arizona to earn Purple Star Candidate School Designation Vol. 5 Issue 2



Calendar of Events for the Local Community

Spotlight: Full Circle School Safety Officer

Student Voice: Why I Chose IB

Cover Story: Reaching for the Purple Stars

Teacher Tips: Playing It Safe With Online Safety

Spotlight: Imperfect Photography


Feature Story: Follow Your Heart 4 6 8 10




Feature Story: Packages

From Home

Parent Perspective: A Grandmother’s Love

Community Capture Artwork

15802 N Parkview Place Surprise, AZ 85374

Editorial Staff

Renee Ryon

Ryan McGinley

Carly McVay

Sarah Catalano

Contributing Writers

Cooper Long

Kathryn Berger

Melody Pahel

Contributing Artists and Photographers

Kyra Park

Donovan Johnson

Neva Dengler

Packages from Home


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Story Ideas?

The Community Connect is always looking for story ideas and contributing content. If you know of an idea or person that should be featured, please feel free to reach out to us at

About Us

The Community Connect Magazine is a publication aimed at telling the stories of students, staff, and community members who make extraordinary contributions to our community. The magazine has one of the largest circulations in the Northwest Valley. The mission is to provide a publication for the community, about the community, through the support of community business advertisements.


On the Calendar: Spring Concerts

CONNECT communi community MAGAZIN E
2024 • Vol. 5 Issue 2
Students from Luke Elementary School pose with purple balloons in celebration of being the first Purple Star Candidate School in Arizona.
+ +


Footloose the Musical

Willow Canyon brings this exciting movie musical to the stage with its celebration of the exhilaration of youth, the wisdom of listening, and the power of forgiveness.

APR 3-6 @ 7:00 p.m.

Tickets available at

Dysart High School Presents: The Big Bad Musical

This show is a hilarious comedy about fairy-tale characters suing the Big Bad Wolf for all of her misdeeds!

APR 11-12 @ 7:00 p.m.


Little Women: The Musical

Valley Vista High School brings this classic comingof-age novel to the stage through an uplifting folk inspired score.

March 28-30

Tickets: vvhslittlewomen

Sunday in the Park

Come enjoy this fun family event with live music from Velvet Road and delicious food. Event admission is free; food and drink are available for purchase. Also support local vendors by shopping at the outdoor market!

APR 7 @ 3:00 p.m.

Mark Coronado Park


West Valley Symphony Presents: All Gershwin - By George!

The great American spirit lives on in the youthful presence of George Gershwin who was instrumental in establishing jazz as a musical medium that deserved to be heard in the concert hall. His major works are presented here and will always be fresh, original and memorable.

Events Notice:

All calendar events are subject to date, time, and location changes and/or cancellation. Please check with the hosting venue and/or organization for the most up-to-date information on the event.

APR 7 3:00 p.m.

The Vista Center for the Arts


Teacher Appreciation Day

Schools across the state will be celebrating the incredible work of teachers on May 7 for all they do for our children. Everyone is encouraged to help recognize these dedicated professionals by writing letters of support, volunteering in a classroom, helping to refill supplies, or a variety of other tokens of appreciation. Take the time on this day to say “Thank You” to the exceptional teachers you know and reflect on all that they have done for the community and youth.

MAY 7 All Day

State Wide

Maker Fun at the Library

Ages 5 to 9 can learn science with hands on activities and projects. Tickets aren’t required for the event.

MAY 8 @ 3:30 p.m.

Asante Library

High School Graduations

The Dysart Unified School District will host high school graduation ceremonies for the 2024 senior class on Wednesday, May 15. The four graduation ceremonies will take place at the State Farm Stadium located at 1 Cardinals Drive in Glendale, Arizona.

Spring Dance Concerts

Dysart High, Shadow Ridge, Valley Vista, and Willow Canyon

High School Dance programs will be showcasing their talents with a variety of dance performances. Full event schedule including dates and times can be viewed at


Summer Break Camps

Located at two convenient locations in Surprise, Dysart offers Summer Camp for children ages 5-12. Camp activities include off site field trips, STEM, robotics, gaming, arts, and more. Open 6:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m., breakfast and afternoon snacks are provided. Open to all children in the community.

MAY 29 - JULY 16

FREE FAMILY COMMUNITY CONNECT MAGAZINE 5 FREE FAMILY 10:00 a.m. - Dysart High School 12:30 p.m. - Valley Vista High School
FAMILY FAMILY TICKETED 3:00 p.m. - Willow Canyon High School 5:30 p.m. - Shadow Ridge High School FREE FAMILY


Surprise Police Officer Glenn Allen joined the force back in 2022. It was a homecoming for him, as he grew up in Surprise as a child. He still remembers a time when Arizona State Route 303 didn’t exist and the majority of the area was farm fields. Allen attended West Point Elementary School for most of his early education, before his family moved to Peoria for his high school years. Never in his wildest dreams did he think that he would be back in Surprise all these years later as a police officer though.

“It wasn’t in the realm of what I thought I wanted to do, but I am very happy that I did do it,” he shared. “I remember growing up in Surprise and having very positive interactions with the police, when they would come to the schools along with the firefighters.”

Office Allen’s journey to the police force was an unusual one. After high school Allen spent two years at Glendale Community College playing football, before traveling to a small school in Kansas to play for his last years of eligibility. When that experience was over, Allen decided to return to his hometown of Surprise. He started out working odd jobs while trying to find a path that was right for him. He worked at a car dealership, did construction, landscaping, among others. During that time he thought he might be interested in becoming a firefighter, so he went back to school to obtain his Emergency Medical Technician (EMT) degree.

During that time he also started coaching football at Verrado High School with a friend of his, who just happened to be a police officer in the City of Surprise.

“I started picking his brain asking him what it was like

and if he liked it,” Allen recalls. “He told me I should just apply, and so that’s what I did.”

He was attracted to the idea of giving back to his community, as well as the benefits and growth available in the department.

“In the City of Surprise, police officers do get a lot of support from our community,” he said. “It’s a great feeling knowing that the community does have our backs here.”

Allen bought a house in Surprise with his wife, and they now have a new baby girl. As a new father supporting his family, he regularly picks up School Safety Officer (SSO) assignments through the police force. The School Safety Officer (SSO) program began in November 2023 where Dysart schools that do not have a dedicated SRO have the opportunity to have an SSO on site during school hours. Currently, Dysart Schools has 13 School Resource Officers (SROs) across the district in partnership with local law enforcement agencies, and through the support of a School Safety Grant with the State of Arizona.

SSOs are different from SROs in that they are offduty law enforcement officers that are not dedicated to

(Top) Officer Glenn Allen points out himself in a West Point Elementary School 3rd grade yearbook. (Above) A young Glenn Allen is seen next to his teacher, Jeana Caywood.

a specific site, while SROs are assigned a site and are on-duty for their positions. School Safety Officers are visible at pick-up, release, lunches, recess, and anywhere where support may be needed. These officers are in close communication with school administration and full-time SRO’s if additional needs arise. Both are Arizona POST Certified Officers with specialized skills and resources to support a safe and secure environment for students and staff. Funding for SSOs was provided through a grant from the Arizona Department of Education.

Officers can sign up for the SSO assignments, and are randomly placed by the police department at various schools in the city. As luck would have it, Officer Allen was placed at West Point Elementary School, the very school he grew up attending as a young boy.

“The one time I got selected for West Point, I showed up and thought, this is crazy,” he remembers. “It’s changed but it hasn’t changed. It brings back so many memories.”

Allen recalls the lunch room, band, physical education, early morning line ups, and one of his fondest memories, field day. “I remember it all like it was yesterday,” he said with a smile.

Of course, while there his first time, the school had to pull out some old yearbooks and see if they could find Officer Allen. They found multiple photos of Allen, including his 3rd grade yearbook and class photo. “I

remember Mrs. Caywood, I remember the classroom I was in,” he recalls.

The school ended up posting a photo of Officer Allen with that 3rd grade class photo on social media, and wouldn’t you know it Mrs. Caywood saw it.

“I remember him,” she exclaimed. “I remember him as being a really good role model, a well-behaved young man, and a hard worker. I was tickled to see that. As a teacher, that’s the reason you do it. It’s to make an impact in kids’ lives, and to make a difference and to be a positive role model. It does feel good to look back and see that one of them turned out to be a police officer.”

Officer Allen has been assigned to West Point four or five times now. He rotates with a variety of schools, but appreciates his time at West Point just a little more. He can be found playing basketball at recess, walking the halls to provide a safe presence, and building relationships with the students.

“It’s surreal looking at the young kids, knowing that it was once me walking through those hallways, and knowing what they are going through,” he said. “It’s full circle. Having that interaction and getting to know these kids when they’re young hopefully paints a good picture for them that we can be a role model for them or somebody that they can look up to and ultimately depend on.”

The Maricopa County Community College District is committed to continue to promote a learning and work environment that is non-discriminatory. This commitment is demonstrated through the value of inclusion, the implementation of policies and regulations that serve to prohibit discrimination, and by practicing non-discriminatory actions in both our employment and academic activities. This means that Maricopa will not discriminate, nor tolerate discrimination, against any applicant, employee, or student in any of its policies, procedures, or practices. Discover an amazing, rewarding, and affordable experience at Glendale Community College. You can explore Unlimited Possibilities with hundreds of course offerings taught by world-class faculty.


When I was starting high school, I had no idea what I wanted to get out of my short high school experience, much less what I wanted for my future after high school. I felt lost in a sea of new people, expectations, and pressure to know what I wanted to do next. That changed, however, when I learned about the International Baccalaureate (IB) Program at Willow Canyon High School. Now, as I’m starting my senior year of high school, I am able to say that I have made the most of my experience these past three years and feel much more confident and prepared to enter college.

I initially joined the IB Program looking to challenge myself with a more rigorous curriculum, but what I have found is a supportive community of hard-working students and dedicated educators. The IB program is definitely challenging, but each cohort of IB students not only at Willow Canyon, but all across the world are able to support and motivate each other through the academic challenges of the IB program. Some students have even

been known to throw IB exam parties at the end of the year to celebrate the end of a long year of effort and commitment.

The IB Diploma consists of passing exams in six different subjects, as well as writing various essays and completing a service project. The program is mainly focused on taking a holistic approach to education, connecting each subject through the Theory of Knowledge, which explores the nature of knowledge and encourages critical thinking among students and educators. The IB Diploma is internationally recognized and accepted by universities, with some schools even providing college credit depending on the students’ scores on exams. Just last year almost 200,000 students tested to receive their IB Diploma, and in 2024 I will be one of those hopeful students who may receive the IB Diploma.

A problem that many students face in high school is not feeling adequately recognized for their academic achievements. Through the IB Diploma, I always feel

8 APRIL 2024

recognized and awarded for my achievements in the academic realm. One example of this is an award voted on by teachers that is given each month based on a trait from the IB Learner Profile. The IB Learner Profile is a list of traits that describe the qualities that IB is looking to instill in the students in their program. These traits are principled, open-minded, inquirer, balanced, caring, thinker, communicator, risk-taker, knowledgeable, and reflective. The award is given to the student from each grade who best fits the trait of the month. This is just one example as to how I feel acknowledged in the IB Program.

For me, the most important aspect of the IB Program is its implications for my future. Being in the IB Program has allowed me to create good habits as a student that I will undoubtedly carry with me throughout college and beyond. The IB

- Cooper Long
Being in the IB Program has allowed me to create good habits as a student that I will undoubtedly carry with me throughout college and beyond. “ “

Diploma can also open up opportunities as a student, through giving you an edge in the application process for college and for scholarships. Because of the IB Program, I feel comfortable going forward in my educational journey, as I have already experienced the challenge that college will put forward.

Because of the IB Program, I have transformed from a scared and hesitant student into a confident, decisive, and bold learner. I have very little doubt that I and my fellow IB students will be successful going forward after high school because of what we have learned in the IB Program.

If you are reading this and you or your student is considering being a part of the IB Program, then I would urge you to give the program a chance, and experience the incredible community that I have been a part of as an IB student.



In August 2023, the Stapleton family packed up all their belongings, and moved their family of five from Virginia to Arizona. This would be the fourth permanent change of station, or PCS the family would have to endure. Mother ShaDarren Stapleton works in the supply department serving in the United State Air Force, something she has done for the past 18 years. As an Airman she knows that PCS is a part of military life. Each year more than 400,000 service members make a permanent change

of station, which are orders to move to another base for generally two to four years. But the toll it can take on a family, especially children, can be tough.

“I think this is probably the most challenging PCS,” said father Abram Stapleton, Sr., who is a former service member as well. “The other ones, the kids were pretty young, they had friends, but they were at a young age. Our oldest son Abram Jr. had made friends and connections, so this was harder on him.”

10 APRIL 2024
Dysart District Leadership, community leaders, and Luke Air Force Base personnel cut the ribbon on Luke Elementary School becoming the first Purple Star Candidate School in Arizona.

“It’s kind of tough, because you make friends somewhere, and then you move, so they’re like past memories, so now you have to make friends somewhere else,” said Abram Jr., an 8th grader. “It can be difficult trying to fit in.”

Abram Jr. and his two younger sisters Addison and Aubrey have lived in Georgia, Virginia, and Washington, D.C. before moving to Arizona. They’ve attended their fair share of schools over the years. When arriving in Arizona, they were enrolled in Luke Elementary School. What they found when arriving, though, is something a little different. They were assigned student ambassadors upon arrival as part of the Student-to-Student Ambassador Program. Student ambassadors greet students in transition, give them tours of the school, provide information on activities, eat lunch with these new students, and even share information on the local community. Every kid wants to know where the best pizza place is in town, and student ambassadors have the answer.

“I remember it was the last block of the day when my student Ambassador, David, introduced himself to me,” Abram Jr. recalled. “We started playing tic-tac-toe and got in trouble,” he said with a laugh. That was my first memory with him. We both live on base so we would walk home together and talk with each other. That just made us real close. No school I ever went to had this program. You can express your feelings on how deployments are, how moving is, and you get to experience it with other kids who have been through these types of things. This program is really special and good.”

Student-to-Student Ambassadors are provided training, support, and guidance from Luke Elementary School staff as they learn how to welcome and support students who come to the school. And it’s not just military kids, all kids receive an ambassador when they walk through the doors the first time.

“I wanted to try something new, and our Principal Mrs. Sehr offered this position to me,” said Ember


Jackson, who is a 6th grade student ambassador at Luke Elementary. “So I thought it would be a good opportunity for me. So I joined, I went to all the training sessions, I went to all the meetings that we had, and I started to realize that this is a big deal and it is going to change a lot of kids’ lives. I learned how to respond to certain kids, because not everyone has the same reaction when they come to a new school. Some are shy, some are excited, and there are certain ways to deal with each kid.”

“We really work on student ambassador leadership skills and what it means to be a leader not only amongst their peers but be a role model for all students at Luke,” said Kara Sehr, Principal.

Not only do student ambassadors take the lead on assisting students in transition, but also volunteer opportunities, helping to organize Veterans Day assemblies, student of the month recognitions, deployment luncheons, and much more.

“It’s building the idea of one team, one mission, not only among our staff but among our students and among our community,” said Sehr.

Luke Elementary School is situated just outside of Luke Air Force Base walls, and about 2530 percent of their students are military-connected. The Studentto-Student Ambassador program is just one of many programs that the school offers to help support those military kids.

designation, because there aren’t any Purple Star Schools in the state of Arizona. They didn’t even know it existed.

When Melissa Rueschhoff, wife of Brig. Gen. Jason Rueschhoff, commander of the 56th Fighter Wing found this out, she made it her mission to bring Purple Star Schools to Arizona.

“My husband and I were at a conference back in May, and we heard that there were only a few states that did not have Purple Star School designations,” she said. “And we were kind of surprised to find out that Arizona was one of those states. So when we came back from that conference in Washington, D.C., we asked ourselves what we could do about this. How can we get this concept right here in Arizona, and then right here in the West Valley, and then right here at Luke Elementary School.”

The sacrifices we ask our families to make are way greater than the ones I’ve had to make, and those in uniform have had to make.
- Brig. Gen. Jason Rueschhoff
“ “

A Purple Star School Candidate designation indicates that a school is committed to supporting the unique needs for militaryconnected children by providing staff and programs to support students during their school transitions or deployment. Criteria to meet this designation include:

• Designated staff point of contact for military students and families

• A student transition program

• Dedicated web page with resources for military families

“When I took over as principal of Luke Elementary School, that was one of our goals, to have more base representation to be able to support our students in transition, because it happens so frequently,” said Principal Sehr.

Luke Elementary also has a designated staff member who is a point of contact for military students and families and a dedicated web page with resources for military families. Even with all of these resources, what they didn’t realize though, is that they were only one element short of the requirements to become what is called a Purple Star Candidate School. Luke Elementary didn’t realize they were so close to the

• Professional development for staff (70%) that helps familiarize and equip them to support the needs of military students Luke Elementary took on the challenge of completing that last criteria of professional development for staff, and in an October 6, 2023 ceremony, Luke Elementary School was formally recognized as the first Purple Star Candidate School in Arizona.

Brig. Gen. Jason Rueschhoff articulated the importance of the program at the ceremony.

“I’ve been in the military, if you count my time at school, for almost 30 years,” he said. “Thirty years ago I signed a dotted line. I said I would give my life for my country if that’s required. Military members understand that. We all signed up and said that we will sacrifice for our country. We’ll sacrifice for you, we’ll sacrifice

12 APRIL 2024

for our friends, our family, for people we don’t even know. But we do that not for thanks. We do that because that is our calling. But what I realized is, I got married later, and I have two kids. And I realized that the sacrifices we ask our families to make are way greater than the ones I’ve had to make, and those in uniform have had to make. They didn’t sign up for that. My wife didn’t sign the line, my kids didn’t either.”

“The story that I heard at that conference, the one that really spoke to me, was about a little girl, and she had just moved with her military family, and it was her sixth or seventh move, and she didn’t have anybody on the first day to each lunch with, because she didn’t know anybody,” said Melissa Rueschhoff. “And so that little girl took her lunch and she went to eat in the bathroom. And that story spoke to me because that exact same thing happened with our daughter, when she moved for the 7th time here to Arizona. Now she has amazing friends, but it would have been so nice on that first day to have somebody to meet up with her and say, let me show you where the lunch room is. Let’s eat lunch together. Let me

show you where your locker is or maybe your first class.”

While the Rueschhoffs have direct experience understanding the toll a permanent change of station can have on a child, so does Principal Sehr. Her husband, a physical education teacher at Kingswood Elementary School, was also a member of the Air Force Reserve. He deployed to Kuwait when their children were just one and three years old, providing first hand experience for Mrs. Sehr.

“That transition is really hard,” she said. “You are going from having a family unit to being by yourself. Your spouse is overseas. Your kids’ routines are off. As a wife, and I was a working mother during that time, I know for my own kids it was really beneficial to have the people in my life understand that my life just completely turned upside down, but my kids need consistency and support.”

Having staff that understand the process, signs to look out for, and how to support students has been vital in making sure everyone is taken care of at Luke Elementary School. Sehr said parents have been amazing at letting them know they have a deployment coming up, so they

The Stapleton family poses for a picture at Luke Elementary School. ShaDarren Stapleton, far right, is stationed at Luke Air Force Base after recently PCS’ing from Virginia with her husband and three children.

can work with the school liaison, staff can be notified, and everyone can be aware that a child’s life is about to change drastically, and they can be there to support them.

“I like the process here, “said ShaDarren Stapleton. “It’s other kids who are going through the same things. Their parents may be deployed. Some of them may not have seen their parents in seven or eight months. So they understand. And the teachers understand too. They know certain things to be on the lookout for. That’s very appreciated when I know adults are paying attention to the signs and can reach out and ask questions.”

Indeed, many of the Student-toStudent Ambassadors are military kids. Ember’s mom serves in the Air Force as well. While Ember has been lucky and her mom has been stationed at Luke Air Force Base her entire time, she still gets the struggles kids go through.

“Since my mom works on weapons, it’s a little more stressful for her,” said Ember. “It’s worrying knowing what she is doing. If we are ever under attack, she is the one that supplies the weapons for the jets. It’s important to know that she definitely has a very big role in what she does. It makes me feel really proud for her, and proud for being her daughter.”

That mentality is also evident in Abram Jr, who also knows that while permanent changes of station aren’t fun for him, it’s supporting something that is bigger than him and his family. Military kids didn’t sign up for this, but in talking with some, they get it.

“It makes me want to set a bar for where I want to be,” he said. “My parents already set that bar and did what they wanted to do serving our country. So now I have to set a bar for myself so I can make them proud, because they already made me proud.”


Abram Stapleton Jr., a new student at Luke Elementary School, plays a game with Student Ambassador Ember Jackson in the Deployment Room. Student Ambassadors help to make new student transitions smoother for kids.

A map allowing students to place a pin where their family member is serving is seen in the school’s Deployment Room. The room aims to help students cope with the struggles of a deployment and the separation from a loved one.

Brig. Gen. Jason Rueschhoff shakes hands with Kara Sehr, principal at Luke Elementary School after the Purple Star Candidate Ceremony in October.


As parents, we teach our children many skills such as how to tie their shoes, ride a bike, and carefully cross a street as they walk to school or visit a friend in the neighborhood. Although these skills are automatic to us as adults, children need to learn and practice them step by step to be successful. Just as children need our support with these and many other skills as they progress throughout their childhood, they also require guidance in an area that many of us did not experience to the same level as this generation - the use of online resources and devices.

Digital citizenship is a term used to refer to an individual being a responsible, respectful, and safe “citizen” when they are using online resources on an electronic device such as a phone, tablet, laptop, or gaming system. As children navigate life face to face with other people, they learn to read and react appropriately to social cues in various situations, treat others kindly, and be cautious when interacting with people. Sometimes this is not as easy when done through a screen. Teaching children specific steps to follow to prevent online issues is as essential as learning to safely cross a busy street.

Being safe online is very similar in some ways as being safe in face to face situations. The advice of “don’t talk to strangers”, “trust your gut”, and “if you can’t say something nice, then don’t say anything at all” also hold true for interactions online. Going on websites that are appropriate for their age level, alerting parents about anything that pops up that is inappropriate or any online interactions that make them feel scared or uncomfortable, keeping information private such as their full name, birthdate,

address, school, phone number, passwords, and photos by not sharing them online are all important steps in being a safe and responsible digital citizen.

We also need to teach children that not everything they see online is true and not everyone online is who they appear to be. People who do not have good intentions online often implement phishing techniques. Phishing refers to trying to lure people into giving access to their private information online through emails that look credible, from a trusted source such as a large retail company, bank, or person, but are actually fake. The email might include the company logo, contact information, and other content related to that company to make it look official. Sometimes these types of emails will be filtered to spam folders, but there are still many that unfortunately land in the email inbox. Some of the wording that might be included in the email might include something like “Your account has been compromised and will be deactivated. Please click on this link and enter your password to check on your account status.” The email might be more upbeat and state that the recipient has won a gift card which can be claimed by clicking on a link. Children concerned about their account or excited to win a prize might innocently click on the links. Those links may actually lead to a fake website which gives the sender access to the user’s password or other private information.

So how do we teach our children to be internet smart and avoid being lured by phishing emails? Here are some tips to follow:

• Scammers will often make the sender’s name look like a name or title that the company would actually use. If you are not sure if an email sender


is legitimate, hover over the sender’s email address at the “from” section in the email message. If the email address looks like a mixture of letters and numbers and is very different from the company’s name, or if the address is similar to the company but is misspelled, and includes random spaces or hyphens, it was most likely created that way to trick you into thinking it was from the actual company.

• Look closely at the email message. Are there spelling and grammar errors? Most big companies have editors that check over their emails to avoid any mistakes in their message. If you notice several errors or if the wording doesn’t sound grammatically correct, chances are the email is fake.

• Instead of clicking on links or attachments in emails that appear suspicious and potentially revealing your password and other private information to scammers, type the official website address of the company in the address bar at the top of the screen to go directly to the company’s website. Once on the company’s website, you can check your account status safely. You might

want to update your password while you are reviewing your account.

• Do not respond to the phishing emails! Mark them as Spam or delete them after showing them to a parent.

• Change your password often! Do not use the same password for every online account. Make sure your password does not include words that are easy for others to guess like your name, birthday, school, or city that you live in.

As we guide our children through their school years, we need to check in with them often about their use of online resources and continue to provide guidance to make sure they are being responsible, respectful, and safe while using digital resources and devices.

Just as we remind our children to safely cross the street while being aware of distractions to avoid potential accidents, we want to make sure they are safe while navigating the internet. Having strong digital citizenship skills will lead children on a safe and responsible path to enjoy the many positive benefits of using online resources throughout their lives.

Kathy Berger, the iExplore teacher at Riverview School, works with a student on proper digital citizenship during a class. Berger helps students learn about a variety of online best practices to ensure the students learn proper online safety and security,

In October of 2023, Donovan Johnson stepped up on stage to present at the Arizona Interscholastic Press Association (AIPA) High School Journalism Convention. As a senior at Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication, this was his first major presentation in front of a large group of people. To make it all the more unique, he was presenting to high school students across the state, including those from his alma mater, Shadow Ridge High School.

“It was a super full circle moment,” he said. “I have never sat up in front of people and talked about photography before.”

Donovan was once in those seats just five years before, young and eager for knowledge. He made it his mission to identify with them, and ensure his presentation didn’t feel like a lecture, but more of a conversation with the students.

The title of his presentation was “Imperfect Photography,” a message he preaches based on his own experiences and against those who push perfectionism in the art form.

“My message to them was just to take a camera and start shooting photos and don’t overthink it,” he said. “What I did was walk around downtown Phoenix and just take pictures of things that I thought looked aesthetically pleasing.”

and Technical Education course, Journalism 1-2. “That is when I started to realize I like to write in that way,” he said.

After sophomore year, he was going to explore some other opportunities around the school, but his teacher, Casey Hinde, shared that he had some natural talent and abilities in the field, and asked him to join yearbook class his junior year. Donovan decided to give it a shot, acting as a sports writer, designing sports spreads, and a variety of other design tasks with the yearbook.

His message to them was to not fall into the trap because perfectionism at the end of the day doesn’t push any boundaries. It doesn’t advance the art form. “Don’t be scared to make mistakes,” he urged. “This is the only way to learn.”

Donovan started his own journey in high school his sophomore year at Shadow Ridge. He took the Career

“I started to really like it,” he remembers. “I started to like layout and design, interviewing people, and taking photos. I particularly liked taking photos, that was my favorite part of it.”

He had no formal training in photography before high school, but Donovan’s mom used to be a part time photographer. She was always the person with the camera in her hand when he was a child.

“There are videos of me when I was younger infatuated with the camera,” he remembers. “My mom would be holding the camera and I would be grabbing the lens.”

He began to blossom so much during his junior year of high school that Mrs. Hinde asked him at the end of the school year if he would like to be the editor his senior year.

“That was the first time that I really had trust instilled in me with such a big project,” he said. “I took it with open arms.”

Senior year Donovan took the project very seriously and personally, trying hard to make it his own.

“My main thing was the design of the yearbook,” he said. “I wanted it to look aesthetically pleasing, and I wanted the photos to be really good.”

18 APRIL 2024
Portrait of Donovan Johnson

The finishing touches are normally put on the yearbook in March. Donovan remembers that last week well in the Spring of 2020. It was the month the world changed.

“My last memory of high school was being there until 5:00 p.m. and finishing the yearbook, and then going into Spring Break and never coming back.”

Despite the abbreviated high school experience because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Donovan gained skills and an increasing passion for graphic design, writing, and most importantly photography.

It was time for college, and yet again his teacher Mrs. Hinde, guided him in that as well. She went to the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication herself, and encouraged Donovan to explore that pathway too.

“She said there was a really good school in your backyard for what you want to do in life,” he said. “That made a lot of sense to me not only from a financial standpoint but from an opportunistic standpoint. It’s the best decision I made because of the number of opportunities and people I have met.”

Donovan spent the early years of his college journey soaking up as much information as he could in a variety of different classes associated with journalism and

communications. He relished the hands-on aspect of the Walter Cronkite school, including multimedia journalism classes and photojournalism.

“The classes are very hands-on and project focused,” he said. “There is no better way to learn. I am a very handson learner. I have to press the buttons.”

Donovan’s resume at ASU is vast and expansive. He’s worked with the Popular Music School to provide video, photo and graphic content. He’s the creative director for The Chic Magazine with ASU Fashion, and provided photography for the State Press, Blaze Radio and the Cronkite School. He’s embraced the visual communication skills learned at Shadow Ridge and ASU to the fullest, but maybe the most important resume bullet is one that came about in passing and almost didn’t happen.

One of the courses he took was called Sustainable Documentary. That’s where he met Janna Goebel, who was actually the Assistant Professor of Sustainability Education, but was taking the class as a student. They became friends, and in passing, she told Donovan about a trip to the Amazon Rainforest that the School of Sustainability takes every year.

“She told me about it at the beginning of the semester,

An image from Donovan Johnson’s trip to the Amazon shows a local man climbing branches in the rainforest.

and I didn’t really think anything of it, I brushed it off actually,” he said.

At the end of the semester after finishing a project, Donovan wanted to find something that was out of his comfort zone. “It was just like a sudden spark for me,” he said. He wanted a creative challenge, and remembered what Janna had said. He called her up and found out registration was closed. He was just a few weeks late. But through some persistence, passion, and a little help from Janna, he was able to get registered to travel with the school. All the other students going on the trip were Sustainability majors, but Donovan wanted to go for a different reason. He wanted to use his skills as a photojournalist to document the trip.

In May 2023 he traveled to the Amazon Rainforest, a once in a lifetime opportunity he describes as difficult to put into words. “I will say it was the greatest experience of my life,” he exclaimed. “I was at a place beforehand where I was sort of lost as an artist. Going to this place and being open with no expectations was a very vulnerable experience for myself as a photographer but also as a human. It taught me about a completely different way of life.”

The biggest thing he learned on the trip had nothing to do with journalism. “We as humans aren’t really separate from the world we live in,” Donovan said. “We are one in and the same with everything around us. And so that was a huge shift in mindset for me. As a photographer, as much as you are a documentor, you are also an observer. It taught me to be a better observer. Because you are the

one stopping time, you need to appreciate each and every moment, because they are very fleeting.”

After that once-in-a-lifetime experience for Donovan, he decided to take some of the work he produced during the trip and exhibit those photos. He wanted to share his experiences with others in the best way he knew how, through his photographs. He set up an exhibition at the Greater Good Phoenix, with the proceeds going back to the Amazon Rainforest. He donated the money to a nonprofit called Iyarina. Iyarina is a center for learning and research in the Ecuadorian Amazon dedicated to integrating indigenous knowledge and the academic arts and sciences. In addition to educating on native languages, culture, and ancestral knowledge, the nonprofit collaborates in funding research to build sustainable communities.

He’s raised more than $3,000 for Iyarina already. He shared part of his story in the Amazon with the high school students at the AIPA conference as an example of what he’s learned as an artist and a person. He’s forged his own path, and always took steps to better himself and force himself outside his comfort zone.

“My one piece of advice would be, don’t subscribe to what somebody thinks you can do, versus knowing what you can do. Whatever industry you want to go in, don’t let the box of that industry limit you. You have complete control.”

You can see more of Donovan Johnson’s work on his website at

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One of Donovan Johnson’s images from his trip to the Amazon that was auctioned off to benefit a non-profit organization in Ecuador.

In the Fall of 2022, Neva Dengler hit a birthday milestone. It was one of those birthdays where you start to contemplate life a bit, and begin to approach things in a new way. She bought a new car and looked for ways to embrace life to the fullest, seeking out new experiences she might have otherwise disregarded. During that time, she kept seeing posts come up on her social media feed from the Sonoran Heights Middle School PTA. They were desperately seeking members. Neva has two children at Sonoran Heights, a 6th grade daughter named Kaylen and an 8th grade son, Travis. She was like many parents, and hadn’t really been actively involved in the school in the past. She rarely attended events on campus.

“I thought to myself, you know what, ok, I’m going to do it and join the PTA,” she exclaimed. “You know, why not and I can check that off my bucket list.”

What Neva didn’t realize at the time, was this small decision would end up changing her and her family’s lives dramatically. It started with one of the very first meetings she attended after joining the PTA, which was a November meeting with the principal and school nurse discussing an event at the school hosted by the Anthony Bates Foundation. Sonoran Heights Health Services Assistant, Kelly Davidson, had been working for years to try and get an AED, or automated external defibrillator, for the campus. An AED is used to help those experiencing sudden cardiac arrest. It’s a sophisticated, yet easy to use medical device that can analyze the heart’s rhythm and, if necessary, deliver an electrical shock, or defibrillation, to help the heart re-establish an effective rhythm.

“It was something that was near and dear to my heart,” said Davidson. “It is not something that I ever want to face on this campus without one, or be put in that position, so it was definitely very rewarding to help in the accomplishment of us getting one.”

The devices cost thousands of dollars and were not required or common back when the school was built. So Davidson had reached out to the Anthony Bates Foundation, a non-profit organization in Phoenix, who coordinates large screenings for the community in an effort to raise money for AEDs.

For those unfamiliar, Anthony Bates was 20 years old when he died from undiagnosed Hypertrophic Cardiomyopathy, or HCM. Anthony was an only child of Sharon Bates. He was an honor student, an Eagle Scout, and a Division I college football player at Kansas State University

“When he went to Kansas State as a football player, he was there a year and a half, and one day he called me on a Friday because he was concerned about making the team, because he wasn’t running as fast as he should be. I called the coach, the coach was going to look in on him on Monday. Monday came, and that is when he died.”

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Neva Dengler poses with her son Travis next to an AED, or automated external defibrillator, at Sonoran Heights Middle School.

“Anthony didn’t have an opportunity to get a screening,” she continued. “He went all the way up to Division I football and nobody ever checked his heart. He had very limited symptoms.”

After Anthony’s death, Sharon made it her mission to begin promoting heart health and education. She held golf tournaments, solicited donations from various organizations, and found other creative ways to raise funds. By 2002, her efforts had succeeded so much that she needed to launch a foundation in her son’s name. Hence, the birth of the Anthony Bates Foundation and the cardiac screening programs nationwide.

The Anthony Bates Foundation now partners with schools and holds events offering discounted screenings to raise funds for the purchase of an AED for the school. Neva became integrally involved in the February 2023 event at Sonoran Heights Middle School, helping to coordinate and promote with the PTA, which was also Heart Awareness Month.

When the time came for the event, Neva’s husband, who ironically works in the cardiology field specializing in Information Technology and robotics within hospital operating rooms, encouraged her and the kids to go get screened. He was out of town on work and couldn’t attend himself. On February 25, 2023, Neva, Kaylen and Travis went to the Anthony Bates Foundation screening together at Sonoran Heights. When they entered, they were separating males and females, so Neva and her daughter went to one side and Travis went to the other. After the two girls were screened, Neva and Kaylen sat in the waiting room for Travis to finish. But Travis didn’t come back in, instead Sharon Bates did. She asked to see the parents of Travis Dengler.

an echocardiogram, or echo, which is a scan used to look at the heart and nearby blood vessels.

Sharon remembers that day well. “Travis was at the echo station and the echo tech, Carol, called me over, and we looked at him together, and we definitely saw issues.”

Sharon explained to Neva that they were going to put a rush on Travis’ results and send them to Phoenix Children’s Hospital for further consultation. The event is a screening, and any abnormalities need to be reviewed by a cardiologist. Neva waited on pins and needles for two long, stressful days for the results to come in, fearful of what they may say.

“My husband is out of town, I’m pacing trying to keep it together,” she remembers. “I need to keep it together as a parent, as a mom. I can do this.”

Sonoran Heights Health Services Assistant, Kelly Davidson, was in communication with Neva, and helped work with Sharon Bates to get the results as fast as they could. Kelly and Neva’s daughters are friends in school. “As a parent, I felt very much for her as a mom,” Kelly said. Finally, the results came in.

“I remember getting the results, and it was a bright orange piece of paper with a big exclamation mark in a triangle that says, ‘Urgent, take action immediately,’ Neva recalled tearfully.

Neva was told to immediately find a pediatric cardiologist who would do a full examination of Travis. The doctor confirmed what Phoenix Children’s Hospital saw, and what Sharon and her echo tech encountered that screening day.

“Right there I just…didn’t know what to do,” Neva said while choking up.

The screening consists of a two-page questionnaire, blood pressure check, an EKG or electrocardiogram, and

Travis was diagnosed with an ASD, or atrial septal defect, which is a birth defect of the heart in which there is a hole in the wall (septum) that divides the upper chambers of the heart. An atrial septal defect is one type of congenital heart defect. He also had an issue with his mitral valve, which would play a key factor in their

Travis poses for a picture after completing some pre operation blood work before his surgery in San Diego.

recommended course of action.

“All kids have holes in their hearts when they are in their mommy’s bellies,” explained Sharon Bates. “And then when they are born they are supposed to close. Twentyfive percent of the people in this country have open holes in their heart. And that’s why we have such a high stroke issue.”

The pediatric cardiologist explained to Neva and her husband that they couldn’t fix the hole in the heart the way they normally would, which is with a transcatheter. Because of Travis’ issues with his mitral valve, they would have to do open heart surgery. “So our hearts pretty much sank,” Neva said.

While there wasn’t an immediate rush on the surgery since he was born with this condition and had lived with it for the past 13 years, it was something the doctors recommended getting taken care of sooner rather than later. Travis was an active 13-year-old who played baseball, rode dirt bikes, and loved to go boating. Those types of activities have the potential to trigger something more serious, so Neva didn’t want to wait. “The emotional toll that it takes on you as a parent is so hard that it just needs to happen,” she said.

What made things worse and prompted the family to schedule the surgery quickly was Travis’ knowledge and awareness of just what was going on. He was present when the pediatric cardiologist gave the diagnosis. And less than two months before the screening, Travis sat with his family and witnessed with the world as Buffalo Bills defender Damar Hamlin collapsed on the field playing professional football. Travis was keenly aware of what had just happened to a worldclass athlete, who had to be administered an AED multiple times to keep him alive. Just how would that affect him going forward knowing that something tragic like that might happen to him?

- Neva Dengler

The Dengler family did their research, and ultimately decided to schedule the open heart surgery with a surgeon in San Diego, where they had family who could help support them. It was scheduled for September 13, 2023.

The month before was a rough one for the family. Not only was the impending surgery approaching quickly, but Travis’ dog Daisy passed away unexpectedly from a defect she was born with. Daisy was a German Shorthair Pointer who was only two years old. As if that wasn’t enough, Neva found out she needed sinus surgery that month. “I was going to postpone it for after Travis’ surgery,” she recalled. “But then as a parent I thought to myself, you know what I am going to do this so my kid knows it’s ok to get surgery and to trust the doctors. They’re going to take care of you.”

The emotional toll that it takes on you as a parent is so hard that it just needs to happen. “ “

“The world saw in January of last year how important an AED was,” Kelly Davidson said. “As much as that was an awful situation to play out in the public like that, sometimes something catastrophic like that can be eye opening to really understand.”

With Neva’s surgery successful and the long month of August behind them, the Dengler family traveled to San Diego on Sunday, September 9th in preparation for the Wednesday surgery. Before leaving, staff, and students at Sonoran Heights made cards and posters for Travis, even designating his surgery day to wear red in support of Travis.

In San Diego the family stayed in the Ronald McDonald

Travis Dengler poses with his dog, Daisy, who passed away a month before Travis’ open heart surgery.

house on the hospital campus, which provided them some support and relief. The first couple days were full of tests, blood work, vital checks, and preparations. On the day of surgery, the family was up and ready to go at 5:30 a.m. Neva remembers that hard morning as Travis’ fears became real and he didn’t want to go. After some conversations and tears, they were able to get Travis to the hospital.

Before the procedure the surgeon explained to Neva and her husband that they should hear from him about 1:00 p.m. and then they would be able to see Travis about an hour after that. “It’s like the longest time ever,” Neva remembers. But when 1:00 p.m. came around, the worry started to settle in. There was no call, nothing from the surgeon. 1:30 p.m. came around and the family was watching the clock intensely, checking the digital screen in the waiting room. It still said Travis was in surgery.

“It’s 2:15 p.m., and now we’re really stressing out,” she says. “3:00 p.m. comes around, and he is still in the operating room, and the staff really can’t help other than to say he’s still in surgery.”

“One side of his heart was so enlarged because his body was working really, really hard,” Neva shared. “Right after surgery the surgeon said his heart had already gone back to normal size.”

Despite the surgery being over, the next four days were rough for the family. The doctors wanted Travis to get out of bed the next day, and were really pushing him to start the recovery process. He had to meet certain benchmarks before he could be released.

Finally, shortly after 3:00 p.m. they received a call, nearly two hours after the intended completion time, to say they were done. The doctors told them it was successful and they could see Travis in recovery.

“We get up to the room and we see him, and all these emotions just run out,” Neva remembers. “He looked swollen, he had tubes everywhere. Wires hooked up. We just lost it, tears like crazy.”

The process for the surgery requires the doctor to put Travis on bypass. After the surgery to fix the mitral valve and hole in the heart, they took Travis off bypass and tested his body. The surgeon wasn’t satisfied, and placed him back on bypass to perform some additional measures. He was then taken off bypass and tested again. That was the reason for the delay.

But Travis was sick, nauseous, and tired. He kept asking his Dad where the elevator was because he wanted to get out of there. Neva and her husband took shifts being in the hospital with him for those initial days as he worked to gain strength, keep food down, and recover as best he could. Once he was finally released from the hospital, they had to stay on campus for another week to monitor the heart and make sure everything was operating properly. It was a total of two long and exhausting weeks in San Diego for the Dengler family, before they set out for the long trip home to Surprise.

The recovery didn’t stop there though. After four months, he’s just now getting back to normal.

“It’s been a hard physical recovery, but also mental,” Neva said. “He was afraid to throw a ball or ride his bike.”

When Travis came home he had trouble sleeping and couldn’t lift anything heavier than a gallon of milk for two months. The school made accommodations for him when he came back after six weeks, helping out with a variety of things, including his backpack. But Travis wasn’t having any of that. He said he was going to do it, and he did.

He came to Nurse Kelly with some questions about his conditions, asking whether he would be able to do all the things he did beforehand.

“You’re probably going to be able to do them better,” Kelly exclaimed. “Because you didn’t realize that you weren’t doing them to the fullest before!”

“He may not be at the same physical activity level as

Travis Dengler gives the thumbs up for a picture at the Arizona Diamondbacks Game four weeks after open heart surgery.

some of the other male students right now, but he’ll get there,” Neva said. “Prior to surgery he would always be short-winded, and he couldn’t keep up. And now it all makes sense. When my husband and I look at his childhood, things kind of fall into place. But what was unfortunate, was that it was never diagnosed by any of his pediatricians. No one caught wind of this until he actually had an EKG and echo with the Anthony Bates Foundation.”

According to Sharon Bates, in countries like Japan and Italy children are screened multiple times in their youth for healthy hearts. They have to have a certifiably healthy heart to participate in sports. The Olympics and other professional sports also have requirements for health screenings. “We don’t know what we don’t know,” she proclaims. “Now that I know all that I know about the heart, why aren’t we doing this for our kids?”

Both Sharon and Kelly reiterated to Neva after all of this just how fortunate she was.

The Dengler family found out early, they had time to research, plan, educate themselves, and make difficult decisions.

“I’m glad that they found out at a time that it wasn’t a critical situation,” said Kelly. “As alarming and as shocking as that was, you found out at the most perfect time. He was healthy, it was just a screening event, not during an activity or during a baseball game.

“As scary as Travis’ story was for that family, he’s here,” Sharon said. “He’s healthy. He’s a part of that family. There’s no empty chair. That’s why I do what I do. I am so blessed to be able to work on my addiction of saving lives.”

Travis still sees his cardiologist on a regular basis, but he shouldn’t need any more surgeries. The family got hit hard, as Neva describes it, but they were able to come out stronger on the other side and are now able to share their experiences with others and hopefully make changes just like Sharon in support of heart health.

“I feel like she did a very good job being a strong mom, but also vulnerable at the same time,” Kelly said. “I feel like she was very good about allowing Travis to share his fears and supporting them.”

Many schools these days still aren’t equipped with AEDs. They weren’t required when built, and children aren’t the first age group people think of when talking about heart conditions. Communities are now just starting to see the impact and importance of them on a school campus. The Dysart Unified School District just this year went out of their way to purchase AED devices for all the campuses that don’t currently have one, understanding their overall importance as part of creating a safe


“They are so well designed today,” said Kelly Davidson. “They walk you through how to do it. The pictures are very simple. It’s easier to use an AED in my opinion as a healthcare provider, than it is to perform CPR.”

Neva echoes that sentiment, and couldn’t be happier about where her children go to school. But that’s not enough for her. She wants every parent to take a more active role in their child’s education and school community.

“Be involved in your kids’ school,” Neva urges others. “Get to know the teachers and staff. I feel comfortable that my kids go to Sonoran Heights Middle School. Nurse Kelly knows my kids history. They have an AED. My kids are in good hands here. There’s amazing people that work here. I feel like they’re almost my other family. If I hadn’t joined the PTA, I probably would have not attended the Anthony Bates Foundation screening and would have never known about Travis’ heart condition. Seeking out new experiences has truly saved the life of my son.”

The fourth week after surgery Neva and her husband took Travis, a huge baseball fan and player, to an Arizona Diamondbacks game. They had to call ahead and get special accommodations at the stadium, because they were not sure if he would get through crowds. Travis did get nauseous a bit, but he made it through it. The Diamondbacks lost by one to the Houston Astros that day, but that didn’t seem to bother Travis very much. It was a step in the right direction, back to normalcy, back to the things Travis loves and lives for.

“To know that Travis is healthy, he’s doing everything that he used to and more, it’s pretty much a miracle,” Neva exclaimed. “Hopefully going forward this whole story helps other kids and their families. It pretty much saved his life.”

Four months after surgery, Travis was able to start dirt bike riding again and work to build his strength back up.
Willow Canyon High School Key Club students hold boxes decorated for deployed US soldiers. From left to right: Kiley Robinkoff, Kaitlyn Shiffer, Alexander Nieto, Mariah Van, and Destiny Jones.

Students emptied heavy donation boxes filled with items donated by their fellow classmates, staff, and members from the local community. The teacher workroom had become packing central for the numerous canned food, candy, snacks, personal care items, and dog treats for the Packages for Home efforts of the students from the Willow Canyon High School Key Club in Surprise, Arizona. Stacks of USPS shipping boxes hand-adorned with drawings of United States flags, bright red poppies to represent peace and remembrance of our Armed Forces, and words of gratitude to encourage and support of Veterans were piled in the workroom.

The boxes will soon be filled with the donated items and letters of encouragement and shipped all over the world to deployed service members, Veterans in transition, and military K9’s and service animals to support Packages from Home initiatives headquartered in Glendale, Arizona.

Packages from Home was founded by Kathleen Lewis, whose son, Christian made the selfless decision to enlist in the United States Army infantry on September 12, 2001, a day after the deadly 9/11 attacks. Christian was deployed to Iraq in 2004 and his mother, Kathleen began sending care packages.

Kathleen was adamant, and some might say overzealous, as she sent box after box of snacks and items to her son during his deployment in Iraq. So much so that Christian asked that she send him less, as he was running out of room and his fellow service members were not receiving anything from their families back home. Kathleen took that as a call to action, and she rallied her friends and family to adopt Christian’s entire squad. Their garage became a storage facility to house, pack, and ship

items to Christian’s unit.

“My mom is a very passionate mother, she just wanted to send a little piece of home to my brother who was so worthy,” shared Jennifer Leavitt, Packages from Home CEO. “It was a scary time and there were a lot of other men and women who didn’t have the support like my brother did.”

What started as a humble effort by Kathleen Lewis has grown to 200,948 care packages sent overseas, totaling 463 tons with an impact to support more than one million active duty, local veterans, and K9’s.

“Every deployment is different, and our troops don’t always have access to comfortable facilities or the ability to buy items,” shared Hannah Beasley, Packages from Home Operations Manager.

The contents of the Packages from Home boxes are varied and could include non-perishable food items, toiletries like shampoo and conditioner, candy, books, or K9 items such as toys or treats. The familiar items and supplies are meant to be a comfort and reminder of that little piece of home.

“Being away from home is really tough and knowing that someone back home, even if it was a complete stranger, was thinking of you even in that moment that they packed that care package, it means a lot,” said Meghan Richards, Executive Director of Packages from Home.

The mission of Packages From Home serves Active Duty U.S. military members stationed or deployed overseas (to include military working dogs & military K9 teams) as well as homeless, transitioning, and at-risk veterans by providing them with requested food, hygiene, and entertainment items to boost morale and quality of life.

“We have 174,000 U.S. service members stationed in 176 countries worldwide. Most are young people away from their family members for the first time and need to know they are supported.” said Richards.

Many groups and organizations throughout the valley support the efforts and helped grow the initial goal and Willow Canyon High School Key Club is one of 350 school groups that have supported the initiative.

Willow Canyon High School Key Club students became involved in the Packages from Home program back in 2018 when club advisor, Kimberly Maust, who was brand new to the role leading the club, sought out and researched different causes the students could support.

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Mariah Van helps fill boxes of donated items for Packages From Home efforts.

“In talking with my students the first year, they really wanted to do something that would impact the community and many mentioned they want to support service men and women,” said Maust.

In those initial conversations during the Key Club meetings, more than half of the students had a family member or someone close to them who was in the service or a Veteran, and they wanted to thank them for their sacrifice and do something to encourage them.

Key Club is a student-led organization that provides its members with opportunities to provide service, build character, and develop leadership. The Willow Canyon Key Club, which has more than 80 student members, is part of the Estrella Division, which aims to cooperate with administrators and teachers to provide high school students with invaluable experience in living and working together and to prepare them for useful citizenship. Members develop initiative and leadership skills by serving their schools and communities.

Each Key Club is sponsored by a Kiwanis group. Kiwanis is a global organization of volunteers dedicated to improving the world one child and one community at a time. The Sun City West Kiwanis group supports the Willow Canyon High School with mentorship and financial assistance for club competitions. Jerry Friedler, a member of the Kiwanis Club of Sun City West, volunteers his time

as the students’ advisor. Jerry is a frequent visitor at the Key Club meetings and provides meaningful and gentle guidance to the students.

“I’m there to help but they lead. They run their own clubs and efforts. They set the agenda and plan the service projects,” said Jerry. “I’m there to mentor and advise and want to help the kids and see them grow in their leadership and service.”

The Packages from Home initiative was chosen as one of the many service projects the Key Club participated in throughout the school year and has been a mainstay for the club since their initial involvement.

Kaitlyn Schiffer, a junior at Willow Canyon joined Key Club at the encouragement of her older sister. “I enjoy giving time to my community and putting forth those service hours.”

Kaitlyn, along with the other members of the Key Club began planning how they wanted to implement and promote the Packages from Home donation drive. The students hung up flyers that listed the requested items around campus and posted and reshared to their social media accounts to spread the word about their efforts. Boxes were placed in classrooms, the school front office, and the Dysart Schools district office. Key Club students shared information on the daily announcements, over the school intercom, and made commercials on the Dysart

Willow Canyon High School students pose after winning first place for their Signature Project in the Key Club International Competition competition hosted in Anaheim, California in July 2023. From left to right: Alexander Nieto, Madison Wood, Adam Klein (winner of Survivor), Mairin McCormack, and Matthew Guardion.

Student Broadcasting (DSB) Live school channel. Jerry Friedler from the Kiwanis club also shared flyers with the community.

“I like that as we are here at school we can help those that give time to our country and protect us and we can provide things for them,” said Kaitlyn.

Alexander Nieto is in his third year of Key Club and he joined at the encouragement of Mrs. Maust in order to grow in his leadership skills, communication skills, and to meet new students at Willow Canyon.

“I am happy to bring awareness to my fellow students sharing the positive impact it has on the veterans who receive items.”

The students came up with an incentive in order to encourage participation and the class with the most donated items would receive a donut party to celebrate their efforts.

strangers were exciting because you never knew what you were going to receive.

“There was an element of surprise to the unboxing of the care items,” said Clemens. “There was a mystery behind it. To come back from a long day or a mission, it was like Christmas Day. Everyone would gather around and trade the different items. There was a real camaraderie.”

Even with the incentive, the Key Club group still needed an additional tactic to encourage donations and wanted to demonstrate the direct impact their donation could make.

Steve Clemens is a Science teacher at Willow Canyon High School, and he shared a first-hand experience of what it was like to receive a package. Clemens served in the Army during Operation Iraqi Freedom in the early 2000’s.

“It means a lot to soldiers. I would get packages filled with random items, and it really brings spirits up. Back then, over there it was not easy to get items you wanted, this was pre-Amazon Prime so everything had to go through an APO,” said Clemens.

“I can speak to it personally and the impact it has on the soldiers, something as simple as a Snickers bar. Something that is a taste from home, when you are on a field mission you might not have access to groceries or depending on the situation you are in a time of war. It has a huge impact on morale.”

Clemens would get items sent from his family based on what he requested but the care packages sent from

The Key Club members shared Mr. Clemens testimonial about what it meant to receive a package and the impact and comfort he felt being remembered, recognized, and supported.

“When you hear from someone who’s received the package, you are reaching that emotional aspect and it has been more motivating for students,” said Kaitlyn.

The personal account from Clemens helped spread the words about the efforts and get that final push of donations from students.

The students thought they should submit their service project to the district and international Key Club competitions in 2023.

The Willow Canyon High School Key Club won first place in the Platinum Division for its Packages From Home contributions Signature Project at the Key Club International Convention in Anaheim, California. Additionally, the club earned the Distinguished Club Diamond award.

This accolade is given for Key Clubs that exhibit a dedication to their community and efforts year over year. Willow Canyon earned an honor for its extensive service hours, projects, and participation of the 89 Key Club members. “Our kids have worked so hard this past year,” stated Kimberly Maust. “Winning at the International level is such an amazing accomplishment.”

“They are really making sure that this important issue is not forgotten,” said Meghan Richards. “They are doing their civic duty to support military members. The students that are participating in these efforts are learning the value of service and support and how it is to have a strong military like we do.”

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Deployed service members pose with a care package shipment from Packages From Home

A Grandmother’s LOVE

People ask me why I volunteer at my granddaughter’s school. There are many reasons for this. The number one reason is that I like to be involved in my granddaughter’s life as much as possible, and I understand the importance of a good education.

Both my parents worked in the education system, my father as a music teacher and my mother as a school secretary. I saw how much volunteers helped, especially with my father’s band and their events.

I’ve been bringing my granddaughter to school almost every day since she was in preschool and lots of kids

know me as “Emma’s grandma.” However, this year I have been volunteering in Emma’s classroom. I love being able to work with her classmates on both reading and math. I hear myself often say, “I learned it this way when I was younger.” Sometimes it helps them to see a different way of doing things, and it sometimes makes it easier to understand, and sometimes I learn something new, too. The kids are so open to me working with them. A big perk is that I get my fill of hugs from the kids. They are thankful to have someone work one-on-one with them. Some of them even give me time reminders when I am sitting

34 APRIL 2024
Pahel, volunteer at Western Peaks Elementary School Melody Pahel poses with her granddaughter at Western Peaks Elementary School.

outside of the classroom. I often hear from one student, “Miss Melody, you have 3 minutes.” I really love getting to know each of the students too!

for them is a plus.

I’m no longer just Emma’s grandma to the kids, I’m now Miss Melody and I love it when I’m greeted that way in the halls when I’m just walking through doing PTSA business.

A big perk is that I get my fill of hugs from the kids. They are thankful to have someone work one-on-one with them. “ “
- Melody Pahel

Aside from volunteering in the classroom, I really started to get more involved this year when I became the treasurer of our school’s Parent Teacher Support Association (PTSA). The former board was leaving and without someone to step up and take over there might not be a PTSA at our school, so to me it was the right thing to do. My daughterin-law, Jessica, volunteered to be on the board also. We have been keeping busy working with the teachers and staff to make our school the best it can be. The teachers and staff are so appreciative of the time we spend making sure it is easier to do their jobs. I believe teaching is the most important job anyone can do. It’s not easy so anything I can do to make it easier

I think anyone who has the time would benefit from volunteering at the school, and the school gets the benefit of you helping them out. I was nervous at first, but now I really look forward to my Tuesdays and Thursdays with Emma’s class and working together with our PTSA to ensure the staff is appreciated for what they do!

The more that people volunteer, the more help the teachers get. It’s an easy way to let them know they are appreciated. You would be surprised at how many opportunities are available to volunteer – the first step is just raising your hand and saying yes!

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