By Todd Martin

Special to the Daily Herald

The Killeen Independent School District honored its top volunteers of the year recently, calling them exceptional people with extraordinary hearts.

In a symbolic gesture suggesting the monetary value of the volunteers' efforts, parent and community involvement specialist Brenda Smith handed district superintendent Robert Muller an enlarged check for $817,938.

The total represented a wage of $8.25 an hour to the school district's 10,223 volunteers who recorded 99,144 hours of service during the not-yet-finished school year.

But, Muller said, it's not the monetary value that makes volunteers special. It's their heart.

He shared an acrostic to make the point that volunteers work hard, not for thanks, but out of a desire "to make us better."

The superintendent said volunteers are Valuable, Outstanding, put in Lots of hours, are Uplifting to others, Noteworthy, Tenacious, Enthusiastic, Enhance the community and are Respected.

TaNeika Driver, a frequent volunteer in the community and a quality assurance officer for First National Bank, told the school volunteers that they give their most valued possession, their time.

She called the volunteers "God's angels" who "do what you can when you can." No gesture is more selfless, she said.

Jini Branson, parent of a pre-kindergarten student at Sugar Loaf Elementary School was named the top civilian volunteer of the year.

She said she had never been a big volunteer, but that her husband deployed last year and her son started school for the first time. She recorded 1,279 volunteer hours at the school.

Shocked at receiving the top volunteer award, Branson said she enjoyed helping out at the school because she could see in the children's faces that they were grateful.

The top military Adopt-A-School unit is the 4th Battalion, 227th Aviation Regiment, which is linked with Trimmier Elementary School. The unit logged 1,075 hours.

"They are awesome," said Trimmier principal Penny Batts, "just like family."

Sgt. Leon Cawley said he and other soldiers took part in a school blood drive, helped with school dances, field days and mentoring students, at times as much as twice a week.

"Being around the kids," is the motivation Cawley said drove the soldiers' efforts.

Some of the soldiers started out timid, Batts said, but she noticed in September at the school's freedom walk how children slipped their little hands into the soldiers' hands and began the adopted partnership.

"The kids start telling them their parents are in the Army and before you know it the soldiers don't want to leave," Batts said.

The top volunteer program awards based on hours went to Mountain View Elementary School with 8,627 hours and to Shoemaker High School with 9,663 hours.

The Corporate Partner of the Year is Northrop Grumman Corp., a defense contractor that assists with math and science efforts and robotics at several campuses and assists the school district's homeless student program.

The Senior Volunteer of the Year is Ron Blassingame, a volunteer at Eastern Hills Middle School, who logged 890 hours.

The Helping Hands Award went to Cindy Schoel of Education Outfitters. Smith said Schoel assists with numerous events around the school district.

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