Local educators honored as 2021 Crystal Apple recipients

Meghan Flynn
Garden City Telegram
Alice Hilt, left, Lisa juel and Emily Hamlin give acceptance speeches after being named the 2021 Crystal Apple winners Thursday during a banquet and ceremony at the Clarion Inn Convention Center.  This was the 26th year the Garden City Area Chamber of Commerce has honored Finney County educators with the event.

The three winners of the 2021 Crystal Apple Awards were announced during a banquet and ceremony held by the Garden City Area Chamber of Commerce Thursday night.

The winners are USD 457 educators Emily Hamlin, Alice Hilt and Lisa Juel.  

Hamlin is counselor at Garden City High School, Hilt teaches Drama/Theatre at GCHS and Juel is a Special Education/Mental Health Liaison at Garden City Achieve. 

Hamlin has been at GCHS for the past 6-7 years, prior to that she taught English for about 10 years outside of the school district before pivoting and becoming high school councilor around 2014. 

She initially got into teaching when she was a senior in high school when the question of what are you going to be when you grow up came up and actually needed answering. 

"What pulled me to education was I thought about how all of the teachers along the way helped me," she said. "I'm from Garden City, I'm a USD 457 kid, K-12 and I thought about ... all the different people that helped me and I just was driven to, I thought I want to do that too, I want to be like them, they've done so much for me."  

Hamlin said the most rewarding part of her job is seeing students feel empowered, happy and feeling successful.

"I think when I'm most proud is when students can advocate for themselves and have discussion, even if it's over a tv show or a song, just to have them be able to engage and to talk and to communicate," she said. "I think that's my most proud moment."

She said what keeps her going and motivated in her job is her desire to see southwest Kansas students succeed. 

"I was a southwest Kansas student; I grew up here and I see all these students and I want them to have the same opportunities that I've seen other students across the other parts of the state have," she said. "That's what keeps me going, that's what keeps me motivated is I want Finney County kids, I want southwest Kansas kids, to have the same quality experiences and everything that they deserve and that's what keeps me going is to fight and advocate for their needs."  

Ryan Meng, GCHS Associate Principal, said he has known Hamlin for over 30 year, she was in his sister's class and played little league softball with her and was coached by his father, so he is very excited for her. 

In her pre-counseling years, Hamlin coached cheerleading, dance, cross country, track and volleyball and was a student council sponsor among other things, Meng said. She was also named the Holcomb High School Teacher of the Year twice and was a Crystal Apple Finalist in 2012. 

Since she's been at GCHS, Hamlin has had an influence in about every corner of the school and is not satisfied with the way things have always been done, Meng said. She is always looking for ways to innovate and has been instrumental in increasing the upper-level dual credit offerings at GCHS and writes positive referrals to students who are sometimes overlooked. 

"She has helped coordinate our certified nurse aid students and I estimate that we've probably produced well over than 200 CNAs over the last six and a half years," he said. "She writes the best, thorough letters of recommendations for students. She knocks on doors at our students' homes and at their places of work sometimes to serve them, she proof reads student papers, she provides after school tutoring."

Hilt is in her 21st year of education, she's taught at three different schools, being in Garden City for the past nine. 

Hilt said she got into teaching because it's kind of a family occupation, both parents and four sisters are teachers, her only sibling not in teaching is her brother, but he's married to a teacher. 

After high school Hilt did plan to get into education but then changed her major, however after attending her father's education banquet, he was a college professor, she saw the impact he had and realized she really did want to be a teacher. 

"To become a teacher was it's kind of in our blood," she said. "That's a part of it, but I also enjoy watching and seeing students grow and seeing their skills improve over time."

Hilt said the most rewarding part of her job depends on what she's doing. If it's production it's seeing that come to fruition at the end of the rehearsal process and seeing the students excel on the stage, in the wings or in the booth. 

If it's in the classroom it's seeing her students progress, for example seeing a student from Introduction to Theatre who's frightened of getting in front of a group excel by the end of the semester. 

Her proudest moment as a teacher was when she had the opportunity to take her students to the International Thespian Festival and have them perform Hamlet.

"At the time I was assistant director and my sister, Barb, was the head director, but having the ability to have our kids go perform for thousands of students from around the country and the world was probably the most exciting that has ever happened to me," she said. 

Virginia Duncan, GCHS Associate Principal, said Hilt has directed, musical directed and designed over 60 productions during her 21 years in education and is now in her second year as the head of the GCHS Theatre Department. 

She has trained at Pittsburgh State University, Shakespeare Company, Broadway Teacher's Workshop, NSDA of which she is two-diamond coach, and as been nominated and awarded Jester Awards for Lobby Display, Set Design and Lighting Design. 

She always puts together entertaining and top-quality shows, Duncan said and successfully guides students to take on leadership roles within the theatre community and "promotes a strong work ethic and insists on an environment of kindness, student leadership and ownership and learning."

"She expects students to be contributing members of the theater community and expects students to maintain academics in her class and all classes," she said. 

Duncan said Hilt is always looking for way to improve and expand learning experiences and opportunities for students.

"Students who leave her program have learned what it is like to be part of all aspects of a production and are ready to tackle the next steps," she said. "Even students who do not want to participate in theatre have learned skills they can use in other career areas including collaboration and communication ... She is an asset to our school and our community, enriching the lives of all who interact with her."

Juel is in her 27th year of education. She didn't originally plan to be a teacher but when she started as a para in 1990 at Garfield Elementary in a behavior classroom under her former sixth grade teacher who previously taught at Georgia Matthews Elementary, she found her place. 

While teaching was not her original plan, Juel knew that she wanted to do something help others. 

"As a young child I was from a disadvantaged family and so when I started going to college I decided that I wanted to do something to make a difference that helped other people and so I decided, eventually after some experience, that I would become a teacher and try to make a difference with kids who disadvantaged like I had been," she said. 

Juel said the most rewarding part of her job is seeing the 'ah ha' moments of her students.

"My students learn very differently, for instance my non-verbal students, sometimes they can't express how they feel about things or what's going on, so seeing their face register understanding and having them produce work that helps me know that they're learning and then of course seeing them be successful when I transition them into a new classroom," she said. 

Her proudest moment was when she created and designed the concept behind the Garden City Achieve Day School and got the go-ahead from the US 457 Board of Education. 

Juel said she is motivated by the success in others, whether that be students or the staff she works with, experiencing success or being excited about learning. 

"It motivates me to teach them more," she said.

Lucas Sullivan, Principal at GC Achieve, said to understand Juel is to understand the Day School at GC Achieve, which teaches students from ages 7-18 with different disabilities, behaviors some verbal and non-verbal. 

"There are seven para professionals with those students, to manage that and those different students and the para professional's personalities from day-to-day, managing all that, what she's able to do with this creation to serve students that needed this, they for whatever reason weren't successful in the environment they were in," he said. "It's amazing to see how Lisa works with these kids in the building."

In her acceptance, Hamlin said it felt incredible and was a blessing to be selected as a Crystal Apple teacher. 

"I'm just humbled by all the time and effort that was given to this process," she said. "To be a part of this tradition here is truly a privilege because I've known how special this was since I was in high school in 1996 when Mr. (Shelby) McNutt won. I wanted to be like you Mr. McNutt, it was a big deal."

Hilt said in her acceptance that she is humbled and honored to be among such leaders.

"I would not be Garden City if it hadn't been for my younger sister, Barb, who convinced me and my sister, Robyn, to come and join her on this crazy adventure out here to build a theater program out in western Kansas," she said. "I'm so proud and happy that I followed here out here and now to take on the mantle of being in charge of this program. To win this award is beyond anything."

In her acceptance, Juel also felt humbled and honored to be a Crystal Apple Teacher and said being a teacher has provided her such an opportunity in life to foster a love of learning in others. 

"Being able to teach our students every day is truly one of my greatest blessings in life," she said. "I consider it a true honor to be standing among my fellow Crystal Apple teachers tonight, and I was amazed at the recipients in the past, how many of those people have impacted my life."

Each Crystal Apple Teacher received an engraved crystal apple, a $1,000 cash award, an iPad, and a framed certificate.

Crystal Apple Finalists Trista Baily of GCHS, Dalana Billinger of Gertrude Walker Elementary School and Lara Walsh of Charles O. Stones Intermediate Center each received a cash award of $250 and a framed certificate.