by Grace Rozembajgier
On August 25 at Newfields, the University High School community gathered to celebrate the school’s core values and honor community leaders for the biennial Trailblazer Awards Gala.
While the event only lasted four hours, it took almost two years to plan. The Gala committee, headed by Susan Berry, worked tirelessly to make sure the event was unique, beautiful, and memorable.
“Susan Berry…is a master at making this event come together beautifully,” said Ashley Crockett-Lohr, who was heavily involved in planning this year’s Gala. “There are always tweaks to make each year so that each event is special, but the core staff team has stayed the same and really works well together.”
“The most challenging aspect of organizing the Gala is probably the timing, since the event comes right at the start of the school year,” said Crockett-Lohr. “But that’s intentional too because we want this event to kind of kick off the new school year, so having it in August makes sense. But with the rush of the first weeks of school, it does make it challenging to finish off all the little details in the days before the event.”
This year’s Gala came with an extra challenge, as the committee had to look ahead to the next Gala in 2020.
“In everything we did for this Gala in particular, we also had an eye on 2020, in which the Gala will be the school’s 20th-anniversary celebration. So we made decisions at this event keeping in mind how we’ll want to go even bigger for 2020,” said Crockett-Lohr.
The main event of the Trailblazer Awards Gala is when six prominent community members are honored for their dedication to University’s core values. The nomination process begins two years before the Gala as well, as committee and Board members nominate people for the award.
“We try to have there be a diversity of recipients,” said Nancy Webster. “The Gala committee reaches out through the Blazer Blast and other emails to the Board of Trustees [to begin the nomination process]….Susan Berry and Adrianne Glidewell-Smith do the bulk of the research [on the nominees] and then we talk.”
This year, the Trailblazer Awards were given to Nancy S. Chance for Commitment to Stewardship, Sherry D. Davis for Commitment to Personal Responsibility, Susan Kitterman for Commitment to Creativity, Kyle E. Lanham for Commitment to Excellence, John D. Noltner for Commitment to Mutual Respect, Support & Trust, and Cole Varga for Commitment to Diversity. These awards were presented to their recipients by junior Ella Eskenazi, junior Jacob Sager, sophomore Keegan Priest, senior Eric Major, junior Mary Rozembajgier, and alumna Sara Hindi, respectively.
Nancy Webster came up with the idea for students to present the awards while she was teaching at the Roeper School in Michigan.
“I was at the Roeper School with Chuck for almost 20 years and they started a Gala when we were there….They had the idea that maybe a kid would do a speech or something and I said at a meeting, ‘Why don’t we have the kids do speeches for each of the…awards?’” said Webster.
Webster explained how, at first, some people were skeptical about this idea. However, “the first Gala everyone left talking about the kids,” said Webster. “And we used to have a keynote speaker!”
When starting the Gala at University, Webster explained a similar skepticism to the student speeches. Yet, just like at Roeper, after everyone heard the students’ speeches, “everybody left the Gala talking about those kids,” said Webster.
This year, students put in a lot of prep work for their speeches, beginning the process last year.
“Last spring, I started by interviewing my award nominee [Susan Kitterman],” said Keegan Priest. “After I interviewed her, over the summer, I started writing my speech and then I had 11 to 12 meetings with Nancy and we practiced with our group [of student speakers].”
Mary Rozembajgier explained how these group meetings were helpful not only for practice, but for confidence as well.
“We met a couple of times and read our speeches to each other which helped build up our confidence…. We really just bonded as a group, heard each other’s speeches, and encouraged each other,” said Rozembajgier.
This idea of people coming together is Ashley Crockett-Lohr’s favorite part of the Gala as a whole.
“The most rewarding part, hands down, is seeing everything come together,” said Crockett-Lohr. “I don’t sit much at a Gala (apart from dinner) because I prefer to stand in the back of the room and observe. It’s my little way of making sure everything runs smoothly (although I don’t have much control over it at that point), but it also gives me a chance to see people enjoying themselves, laughing with their tables, sharing stories of why they love this school. That’s the best part by far.”
Images courtesy of Ashley Crockett-Lohr