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Teacher’s influence felt far and wide

National Catholic Schools Week is the annual celebration of Catholic education in the United States. It started Sunday, Jan. 26 and runs through today, Feb. 1. Schools typically observe the week with Masses, open house and other activities to focus on the value Catholic education provides to young people and its contributions to our Church, our communities and our nation. Below is the profile of a local  educator who is among those recognized this year with a  Distinguished Teacher Award.

Mary Grigsby from St. Joseph School in Fort Collins was one of only 12 Catholic school teachers nationwide selected for the annual Distinguished Teacher Award by the National Catholic Educational Association.

The award recognizes a teacher for a clear, integrated philosophy of Catholic education; high regard by peers, students and parents; and more than 10 years in Catholic elementary education. For Grigsby, that philosophy is informed by efforts well beyond Colorado’s borders, through her mission work in Africa.

“I was shocked,” Grigsby said of the honor. “It is a beautiful thing.”

Grigsby has been teaching since1984 after obtaining an elementary education degree from the University of San Diego and a master’s in curriculum and instruction from California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo, Calif. She is in her 17th year teaching kindergarten at St. Joe’s, and before that, she taught all grades in her native state of California.

Once she settled on kindergarten, she was hooked.

“That was the start of fast love,” she said. “I love how they learn so much in such a short year. The growth is incredible.”

Grigsby was nominated for the award by Principal Sister Rose Mary Balappa, S.O.L.M.

“She is an exceptional educator and we have been blessed to have her among our faculty,” said Sister Balappa. “She has made significant contributions to the learning community and lives out a clear philosophy of Catholic education.”

One way Grigsby influences her students is including them in her experiences of traveling to Kenya. In January 2013, she made her first mission trip with friend, Karen Canino, a retired art teacher from St. Joseph’s. They traveled to the Samburu area, each hauling an extra 50-pound suitcase filled with supplies for the impoverished students and families there.

“If you send school supplies, they get stolen in the process,” she said. “There is a lot of corruption. You have to hand-deliver them.”

During their trip, they sanded and painted plywood to create chalkboards for the Lorubae School, painted classrooms and helped build two libraries. They also donated the materials from a reading program that was used in the past at St. Joseph’s.

“They have no supplies,” Grigsby explained. “They have a desk, floor and walls.”

Fruits of the donations were soon evident.

“Their testing scores went way up,” she said of the students’ progress. Education is available in Samburu for free through eighth grade. Then fees are charged for high school, making further education cost prohibitive for most students.

Grigsby is also working with the Samburu Youth Education Fund (www.samburuyouth.org), co-founded by a professor at Colorado State University, that helps financially support students in high school.

“The only way out of this cycle of poverty is through education,” she said.

She takes these valuable lessons back to Fort Collins.

“Those children (in Samburu) are so happy … and they have nothing,” she said, becoming emotional as she reflected on her time with the children. “There are privileged children that complain—and they have it so good.”

About two weeks ago Grigsby returned from her second trip to Kenya, with eight individuals who delivered 400 pounds of supplies including a sewing machine and school supplies—as well as flip flops, sports balls and books collected by St. Joe’s students during an Advent Service Day.

“It’s really meaningful for the children to see where their donations go,” she said. “They are incredible; they really get it.”

That dedication to young people is one of the reasons she was nominated for the Distinguished Teacher Award, according to Sister Balappa.

“I am so happy she is receiving this award,” Sister said. “She deserves it.”

She will receive the award at the annual NCEA convention in April in Pittsburg, Pa.

Grigsby and her husband, David, have four children: three who are alumni of St. Joseph’s and their youngest is a seventh-grader there.

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