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Heroes among us

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Two students, teacher honored for contributions to their schools, communities

By Ramsey Scott

This week the Jeffco Schools Foundation recognized two students and one teacher from the South Jeffco area with Hero Awards.

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The award recognizes students who have overcome long odds and persevered to pursue an education, and teachers who have impacted their students and other teachers in a positive way.

Thinking of his ‘brothers’

Mark Leon was talking with one of his heroes. And all he could think about was his brothers.

Leon, a senior at Dakota Ridge High School who was diagnosed with Down syndrome as an infant, had the chance to meet the University of Texas’s legendary former football coach, Mac Brown, last year. A diehard Longhorns supporter, Leon was living almost every Texas fan’s dream.

Brown asked Leon if he wanted an autographed ball. Leon said yes, but asked that the ball be signed to his brothers.

But when Brown asked for his brothers’ names, Leon asked Brown to list everyone on the Dakota Ridge football team.

“That’s just Mark’s mentality. He’s just an unselfish kid,” said Dakota Ridge football coach Ron Woitalewicz. “Mark’s had such an impact on our school.”

Leon has been the football team’s manager since his freshman year, along with playing on the boys basketball team for three years. For Leon, the students and faculty at Dakota Ridge are all like family.

“(Dakota Ridge) is like a second home. All my friends are here,” Leon said. “I go here. I get educated here. And I help people here.”

His father, Dave Leon, said Dakota Ridge has been the perfect home for Mark for the past four years.

“We’re so happy he went here. This is the school for Mark,” Dave Leon said.

But Woitalewicz said it wasn't just Leon’s participation in sports or his constant presence cheering on his fellow students that had such an impact on the student body. It was his attitude and spirit, which is why the coach and the rest of the school’s administration nominated Leon for the award.

Leon has pushed himself to complete as many higher-level courses as possible.

“His mother told me a story about Mark having to write an essay about the worst day he’s ever had. Mark told his mom he couldn’t write the essay because he’s never had a bad day. When a kid is having a hard day, they can look at Mark and all he’s gone through and see his attitude. I’ve heard a lot of kids say, ‘If he’s gone through all of that and has stayed positive, so can I,’ ” Woitalewicz said. “We never look at him as a special-needs student. He’s always just been Mark. Just one of the kids.”

Keeping up the pace

Kyle Manley’s transcripts from Columbine High School show no evidence of the struggles the senior has endured in the past year.

“You won’t really see any hiccup in his transcripts, despite that fact he started chemotherapy in his second semester of his junior year,” said Noel Sudano, Manley’s counselor at Columbine. “He’s continued on that path his senior year, and he’s still going through treatment.”

Manley, who was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia nine months ago, has maintained not only a grade-point average that puts him at the top of his class, but also plays basketball and volunteers as a youth basketball coach. 

The 17-year-old, who recently finished nine months of intensive chemotherapy, said missing two months of school in his junior year made it very difficult to keep pace with his studies. 

“I had to take the last two months of my junior year off. I experienced that, and I hated that. I hated having to learn from a tutor and being away from my friends,” Manley said. “I decided I would much rather go to school.”

While it was physically draining to maintain a normal school workload along with his extracurricular activities, Manley said having the support of his friends at school has made the past nine months bearable.

“It helped being around people as much as possible and not thinking about the bad things. Just thinking of the good things and being around support helps,” Manley said. “Everyone’s been really supportive. Right when I was diagnosed, my entire class took a picture in the gym with orange ribbons for leukemia. It really helped. It kept me going and positive when they weren't able to be with me. It surprised me, to be honest. I didn’t think there was that much support around.”

Sudano, who nominated Manley for the Hero Award, has been most impressed by the strength Manley has shown during his treatment.

“It’s just amazing the amount of strength that he has. I’ve encountered a lot of students who have horrible things happen to them and different stories of adversity. I feel like those kids have had to develop that strength to get through it. I think Kyle went into this with that strength already intact,” Sudano said. “I think Kyle has said this to me directly — he has no interest in letting this define him. He wants control over how he lives his life. He wants to rise above it and not let his sickness define him.”

Teaching teachers

As a fifth-grader, Kathy Dodrill Pyrc wasn’t a fan of reading. Especially out loud.

“I was a nervous reader. I was totally embarrassed. I’d practice the paragraph I was supposed to read out loud before it was my turn,” Pyrc said. “I think that’s one of the reasons I had a heart for helping kids become successful readers.”

Pyrc, a teacher with more than 20 years experience in the classroom, has spent the past five years as an instructional coach at Governor’s Ranch Elementary School, helping teachers become more effective teachers.

“You facilitate the learning for teachers and students. It is challenging somewhat. It's a challenging job because adult learners are different than kid learners,” Pyrc said. “My perspective is, if I can work with adults and improve their practice, the trickle-down effect is very great.”

For Pyrc, sparking that desire to learn is her one great love in and out of the classroom. One of her strongest memories is of a former student from a class she substituted for occasionally.

Pyrc described the student as “somewhat of a troublemaker.” When she saw the student several years after she taught him, he told her something that she would remember for the rest of her life.

“He said, ‘You looked me right in the eyes and told me you saw something more in me, that I had leadership qualities.’ He said, ‘I never forgot that,’ ” Pyrc said. “And this is a student I didn't even have every day. We can speak into these kids’ lives. We have an amazing opportunity to speak into these kids’ lives.”

Pyrc was nominated for the award by Governor’s Ranch principal Mary Rose Keyes, who said Pyrc’s contribution to the school is immeasurable for both students and teachers.

“She’ll help anyone with anything with a smile on her face,” Keyes said. “She’s teaches the kids and the faculty. She’s like a sister to the staff. She’s truly a hero to all the Governor’s Ranch community.”

For Pyrc, the recognition is appreciated, but it’s also somewhat awkward.

“I feel unworthy. I shouldn’t say that; my family lectures me on that,” Pyrc said. “Everything we try and do here at school or in the district, it’s done in collaboration. So it feels a little awkward to be lifted up and recognized in that way when I know nothing can be done without the teamwork that makes it happen.”

Contact Ramsey Scott at ramsey@evergreenco.com or 303-933-2233, ext. 22, and follow him on Twitter @RamseyColumbine.