While covering education for the Ledger-Enquirer, I come across countless examples of folks donating their time, talent or treasure to support the learning journey in the Columbus area. It’s among the reasons why the Chattahoochee Valley is a good place to live. So when a local resident is recognized beyond our region for such an effort, that assessment is affirmed and newsworthy.
Helen Johnson, group vice president for community development at Columbus Bank and Trust, is among the state’s six winners of the Georgia Association of Elementary School Principals 2017 Educational Patron Award, selected out from 16 regions. She has been invited to the GAESP’s awards luncheon Nov. 6 in Savannah, where the overall winner will be announced.
For more than 20 years, Johnson has been CB&T’s liaison with South Columbus Elementary School in the Partners in Education program conducted by the Greater Columbus Chamber of Commerce.
“Helen is just a strong advocate for our school,” Dawn Jenkins, in her third year as South Columbus principal, told the Muscogee County School Board during the Sept. 18 meeting as it honored Johnson for her award. “When I met her, it was like a whirlwind of excitement. Whereas some people view our students with preconceived notions based on their socioeconomic demographics, Ms. Johnson has never considered our students as anything but potential successes.”
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Despite living within 5 miles of the RiverCenter for the Performing Arts, the Springer Opera House, the Columbus State University Oxbow Environmental Learning Center and the National Infantry Museum & Soldier Center, most South Columbus students never had visited any of those cultural amenities – until Johnson produced the opportunity, Jenkins said.
“She single-handedly made sure our students got to see plays, such as ‘Junie B. Jones,’ ‘Seussical,’ ‘The Lightning Thief,’” Jenkins said. “This year, she topped that. Every student in our school, pre-K through fifth grade, will get to go see something at the RiverCenter, the Springer or the National Infantry Museum.” They also will visit Oxbow Meadows.
Physical fitness is another area in which Johnson has boosted South Columbus students, Jenkins said. “She campaigned for our students to run the Soldier Marathon. … This is our third year we will be entering students.”
The students don’t run the entire 26.2 miles all at once; they run it over a month’s time, Jenkins said, and Johnson helps students who reach that distance get a free pair of running shoes from Big Dog Running Company.
Johnson, a talented artist, has brought the Bo Bartlett Center’s Art Makes You Smart program to South Columbus.
“The program’s goal is to foster critical thinking, encourage human empathy and inspire creativity,” Jenkins wrote in the explanation of Johnson’s impact. “This opportunity gives our students another outlet to express their feelings and has fostered a love for painting and art.”
And through Johnson’s coordination, Jenkins said, “CB&T makes sure we have readers who will come partner with our kids.”
Johnson has donated a book bag for each of the school’s 540 students to have access to reading material at any time during the day, Jenkins noted.
“It is such a blessing to travel around the building and see students carrying the bags or utilizing the bags during class time when they have finished with their academic work,” Jenkins wrote.
CB&T volunteers also “donate supplies for our students, which are dearly needed, and goody bags for different holidays,” Jenkins wrote. “This provides an incentive for our students to continue working hard, and having the one-to-one classroom contact enables each student to having a caring adult in their lives in addition to their parents and teachers.”
Johnson and her fellow volunteers have presented programs about savings, budgeting, credit, identity theft and other money-related topics to students in grades K-5 -- even as basic as “What is a Bank” and “What is a Check” -- to help them become financially literate.
No wonder CB&T and South Columbus have been selected as the local PIE program’s Partnership of the Year several times, most recently for the 2015-16 school year. And no wonder Jenkins concluded about Johnson, “It’s amazing that she can touch so many lives.”
Johnson told the board, “I think it’s not much that I do; I think it’s just what everybody can do, making sure that, if we have the resources and we have any type of influence, to reach out in the community for students that we can help be more successful. … I have a wonderful team of volunteers at CB&T and (parent company) Synovus. So I understand, my organization understands, and I think our community understands, that the future is our children, and we want to make sure that they’re playing with a full deck, it’s a level field and everybody gets the same experience.”