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Wisconsin's Teacher of the Year
Date: July 31, 2009 08:43PM

A Hero Is Someone Who Changes Lives

At the CEA Region III & IV Conference held in Ames, Iowa on May 5-7, Wisconsin Teacher of the Year DeNeal Ericksen was selected Region III Teacher of the Year. Along with the other regional Teachers of the Year, DeNeal was honored at the Teacher of the Year Gala at the 64th Annual CEA Conference in Madison, WI on July 19-22.

About a week after the CEA-Wisconsin Board had selected DeNeal Ericksen as Wisconsin Teacher of the Year, I received the following email. Although the email came after the Board had already made the selection, it reinforced the Board’s decision.

Good morning, my name is Kristin Miller and I am writing you to see if you have information on nominating a certain teacher for the annual teacher’s award for the correctional system? I was looking at the websites and I see it is coming up, but I didn't see how to nominate someone, or if I could.

There is a teacher that is so incredibly amazing that words aren't enough to describe her true beauty and the wonderful gifts she gives so many women. I was in Ellsworth for 3 years. When I got there, I was a drug addicted, drop out of high school, labeled "thief", walked out on my child, never paid a bill or stayed at a residence longer then 2 months. I didn't know what it meant to hold a job or be responsible. I was 25 at that time, when I met Ms. DeNeal Ericksen. She changed my whole entire life and I don't feel that anyone recognizes just how incredible she is and the difference she makes in so many lives.

Today, I am a mother of a newborn, graduating college in one semester for Human Services, spend my free time volunteering, and just got a wonderful job at Safe Haven working with runaway and abused teens. I couldn't be happier. I am healthy, responsible, dependable, honest....with morals and values....all thanks to Ms. Ericksen. I even named my daughter after her.I wrote a paper for my final exam last semester on her, I only had a half an hour and I didn't do that great, I thought. My teacher gave me an A though. I want you to read it and if there is still time to nominate this lady, can you help me????? She deserves it more then anyone in this world. Thank you for your time.

Kristin Miller

Here is Kristin’s essay:

A hero is someone who changes lives without selfish reasons or motives. A hero is someone who you name your child after because of your undying gratification of knowing them in your lifetime. DeNeal Ericksen is that woman that everyone admires, especially me. DeNeal is a mother, grandmother, teacher at a women’s prison facility. Not only that, she leads a group that donates activity kits to the children’s cancer hospital, donates produce to the food bank, promotes the Racine Literacy Council, and coordinates donations of crocheted blankets/mittens/hats for the less fortunate. Wait, there’s more! DeNeal teaches women to be better mothers to their children, better people to our family, and to never say the word “can’t.” There is so much more to list, but not enough time.

She is the most influential person in mine and so many other women’s life’s. She might just be superwomen because to conquer all these things she has had to face long hours of work and time away from her own family, the responsibility of speaking for others who couldn’t speak for themselves, and a terrifying diagnosis of cancer and having to keep it a secret. These are all the exciting things that make Ms. Ericksen so incredibly wonderful.

While Ms. Ericksen is currently employed at Robert E. Ellsworth Correctional Center, she teaches incarcerated women college courses for them to have a possible better life. Endless hours she would stay overtime to meet with a women in need of assistance or just to talk. She taught MotherRead and Parenting. They are programs that are 4 months long and teach these women how to understand, communicate with their children, and be better parents. Encouraging reading, play, and quality time with our children was always stressed. DeNeal is always a person giving more, stepping out of the box when it came to meeting her “job requirements.”

DeNeal’s wonderful qualities weren’t always a welcomed characteristic in the correctional system. She pushed for greater activities to encourage change amongst the women. In 2005 I wanted to start a program for the Children’s Hospital where we would donate activity kits to children too sick to get out of bed. We also made crocheted blankets for them and funky crocheted hats to help cheer them up due to the effects of cancer treatments. DeNeal fought to have the institution administration allow women the opportunity to do something as constructive as this for the community and for the women.

Despite all the obstacles and battles DeNeal faced, she never backed down. I remember her crying in frustration and always smiling when I asked what was wrong. She never wanted to burden another person with her own personal afflictions. When she was diagnosed with cancer and going through treatments, none of us knew. Every day she strongly showed up at work and made it the best day for everyone around her.

My life is so incredible now since I’ve met this woman so many years ago. I think about her every day, especially since my daughter is named after her. Sometimes I stop and call her to thank her because I’m overwhelmed with tears when I think about how wonderful my life is from all she taught me. I am a better mother, daughter, and a better person because of her. DeNeal Ericksen is someone I will tell my great children about.

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