Educators take center stage, as Arlington Heights honors unsung heroes

The Arlington Heights Hearts of Gold award ceremony returned Sunday after a two-year hiatus, and its goal remained the same: to shine a light on the unsung heroes in the village.

Descriptions of every day residents making a difference in their community resonated through the dining room at Rolling Green Country Club in Arlington Heights, inspiring the more than 200 people in attendance.

“In Arlington Heights, we are continually blessed with so many wonderful people who give their time and talents for the benefit of others,” Mayor Thomas Hayes said.

Members of the village's Special Events Commission organize the awards every year, after receiving nominations from residents. In all, the awards showcase volunteers, neighbors, senior citizens and students, as well as educators, business leaders and nonprofits.

Among the 11 winners was a direct example of paying it forward, when St. Viator High School senior Emma Ziebka was awarded the Young Champion Heart of Gold, shortly after her former junior high school teacher, Mike Bilski, won the Educator Heart of Gold award.

“He's such a kind teacher, who always put students first,” Ziebka said of Bilski, her language arts teacher at St. James School.

In reflecting on her many leadership roles at St. Viator, her church and in the community, Ziebka echoed her teacher's philosophy, saying: “It's just a joy to put other people first and see the joy in their faces.”

Many of those recognized this year were teachers, school staff members and one nurse, reflecting some of the real heroes of the pandemic.

Jeff Javurek was named the Mentor Heart of Gold for his 50 years in education, including 33 years as a math teacher and the last 17 years as a special education assistant, all at Thomas Middle School.

Special Events Commission member Kevin Seifert introduced the Heroic Heart of Gold Winner, Frank Rojas, or “Mr. Frank,” as students at Windsor Elementary School call him. As head facilities manager, they turn to him for a variety of needs, including keeping their classrooms safe and clean for in-person learning.

“He's the school's version of a Swiss Army knife,” Seifert said. “He does everything.”

Laura Monahan was named the Community Spirit Heart of Gold. As a Spanish teacher at Hersey High School for 20 years, she also serves as teaching facilitator for Northwest Suburban High School District 214, helping all students receive the best education possible.

As a nurse at Northwest Community Hospital, Jody Schaaf cares for infants in the neonatal intensive care unit. But she also thrives on fostering traditions and creating memories for children in her Greenbrier neighborhood. She was named the Best Neighbor Heart of Gold.

In true volunteer fashion, Betsy Kmiecik was not able to attend to accept her Volunteer Heart of Gold award. She was on a service trip in Guatemala with the Rotary Club of Arlington Heights.

Kmiecik has led the Arlington Heights Chamber of Commerce, the Arlington Heights Historical Society, the Arlington Heights Memorial Library Foundation, the Rotary Club and the Metropolis Performing Arts Centre.

Carol Gabrielsen won the Pam Stocking Heart of Gold Award for her leadership in fundraising for the Northwest Special Recreation Association, which serves children and adults with disabilities, while Gloria Amling won the Kenneth Bonder Beautification Award for her vision in expanding the Arlington Heights Farmer's Market.

Anne Mura won the Young at Heart award for her 3,000 volunteer hours at the Arlington Heights Senior Center, lending her business knowledge and technology expertise.

Finally, Liz Shrenk won the Business Leadership Award for her innovation with Something Blue Photography. When the pandemic reduced her wedding photography business, she pivoted with “porch sessions” and “gratitude sessions” as a way to engage with clients.

“This afternoon, we celebrate this shared desire,” Shrenk said, “to move forward as a community of love — and generosity.”

Jody Schaaf, left, accepts the Best Neighbor Heart of Gold award Sunday during the Hearts of Gold ceremony at Rolling Green Country Club in Arlington Heights. Karie Angell Luc for the Daily Herald
The award for Betsy Kmiecik, the recipient of the Volunteer Heart of Gold Award. Kmiecik couldn't accept the award Sunday because, fittingly enough, she is in Guatemala on a service mission with the Rotary Club. Karie Angell Luc for the Daily Herald
Anne Mura, left, shows her Young at Heart Heart of Gold award to a guest seated at her table Sunday during the annual Hearts of Gold awards ceremony in Arlington Heights. Karie Angell Luc for the Daily Herald
Liz Shrenk accepts the Business Leader Heart of Gold award Sunday during the annual Hearts of Gold awards ceremony in Arlington Heights Karie Angell Luc for the Daily Herald
Carol Gabrielsen accepts the Pam Stocking Heart of Gold award during Sunday's Hearts of Gold awards banquet in Arlington Heights. Karie Angell Luc for the Daily Herald
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