In a surprise ceremony Monday, surrounded by peers and the students she was honored to help, Florence Wilson Elementary School psychologist Jenna Rycek was given a national award for her above and beyond service to her students.
The award, the LifeChanger of the Year Spotlight Award from the National Life Group, is a national award that highlights a certain profession within K-12 school districts, this year featuring anyone who works in a counseling role, including psychologists, guidance counselors and social workers.
Both Rycek and FWES counselor Jennifer Armstrong were nominated for the award, two among nearly 80 nominees.
“It’s actually very rare that people from the same school get nominated, and it’s even more rare for the principal to recognize someone in their schools. So, it’s incredible that Florence Wilson Elementary School has two nominees … Both of them have done just tremendous things to impact the community in a positive way,” Maria McLendon, director of brand strategy at the National Life Group, said.
FWES principal Skyla Wehkamp nominated both staff members. Armstrong supported employees, held special lunches to build relationships with students and helps students access additional mental health support, Wehkamp said.
Rycek, who has been with the district for five years, was honored for going beyond the scope of her job, both in hours, efforts and results.
According to her profile on the National Life Group’s website, she observes her students in the classroom and during specials time to best understand how they act and cope in different environments — and works with teachers who have concerns about their students.
Wehkamp said Rycek works directly with students with behavioral issues, walking with one boy and showing him how he needed to complete his tasks for the day.
“I’ve never had (a school psychologist) that wrote themselves into the plan and actually helped execute that plan. She’s really been good about executing that plan,” Wehkamp said.
She has been an advocate for students in a nearby short-term foster home in and out of school, making them feel included and working with Armstrong to provide Christmas gifts, including duffle bags, clothes and cookies to decorate.
“She’s just exceptionally caring, very good at her job (and) always willing to do whatever's needed and then a little more,” Garden City USD 457 Superintendent Steve Karlin said. “She’s just exactly the kind of person we want working with our kids.”
McLendon and her colleague, Marco Campa, said Rycek stood out because of her dedicated service in and out of school, and both on the scene and behind it.
“So often the behind the scenes of what it takes to put programs and things like that together is overlooked. And so it might not seem like a big thing to incorporate students that are part of the foster program into the community at Florence Wilson. It might not seem like a big thing to have a Christmas party or provide kids with gifts. But the reality is, the impact it makes on students is really, really profound,” McLendon said.
The award comes with $5,000 in prize money — $2,500 to Rycek and $2,500 to FWES. Wehkamp said the school’s cut would be spent to benefit the kind of students Rycek works with, who generally need extra assistance or adaptive environments. They would buy equipment like wiggle seats and fidget toys for the classroom, as well as equipment for the school’s sensory room, Rycek said.
Moving forward, she said she just wants to work and do more with her kids to fit their and their teachers’ needs.
“I feel like what I do is because I love what I do,” Rycek said. “I don’t see it as going above and beyond because it’s what I expect myself to be doing. Giving of myself 100 percent is just natural to me.”
Contact Amber Friend at firstname.lastname@example.org.