Fallon teacher, student receive state VFW awards

Churchill County was well represented at this year's Veterans of Foreign Wars winter meetings in late January at North Las Vegas. 

Fallon teacher, student receive state VFW awards
Mary Jane Guest, Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 1002’s chairwoman of the Voice of Democracy audio-essay program, presents the state’s first-place plaque to Oasis Academy sophomore Christina Robinson on Jan. 27 at the state Veterans of Foreign Wars winter meetings.

Benjamin named Teacher of the Year, Robinson tops Voice of Democracy speech contest

FALLON--Churchill County was well represented at this year's Veterans of Foreign Wars winter meetings in late January at North Las Vegas. 

Churchill County High School English teacher Heather Benjamin was named this year's state Teacher of the Year on Jan. 27, and Oasis Academy sophomore Christina Robinson captured first place in the Voice of Democracy audio-essay program with a speech addressing the theme of "What Are the Greatest Attributes of Our Democracy?"

Benjamin, who placed first at the District 4 level in 2023, did not advance to the finals in last year's judging. Mike Terry, a Vietnam War veteran who served in the Navy, said Benjamin now becomes the second teacher from Fallon who has won the Citizenship Education Teacher of the Year for the high-school division since 2017. Fellow high school teacher Steve Johnson won state and national competitions seven years ago.

Benjamin competed against teachers from the Reno-Sparks area and southern Nevada. 

"Thank you for all your hard work," said Mary Jane Guest, this year's local chairwoman of the Teacher of the Year, Voice of Democracy and Patriot's Pen programs. 

Benjamin was selected as this year's local contestant and the District 4 teacher, including posts from Hawthorne, Schurz and Tonopah. At the state judging, she competed against teachers representing four other districts. She was sponsored by the Lawton-Silva Post 1002 in Fallon.

Guest said she looks forward to working with Benjamin next year to have more students enter the contests, either at the junior or senior high school levels.

"We'll know sometime during the summer what the essay theme will be," Terry said, referring to both the Patriot's Pen and Voice of Democracy audio programs.

Post 1002 Commander John Henry Schoemeier offered words of congratulations and recognized Benjamin last week in the CCHS library. 

Benjamin has taught in Fallon for a decade, and her teacher-of-the-year packet included similar information from last year's that included a presentation on "Understanding the Military Child." 

A pinnacle of the program came in 2023 when Churchill County became a Purple Star School District, in which all schools work with the military, making the transition easier for students and parents new to the Lahontan Valley.

"I'm always looking at ways to expand what we do with the Purple Project, our Purple Star program," she said. "I want to support our military students."

Among the programs Benjamin has fostered include a veteran barbecue night attended by 60 people last year. She said other programs include a Purple Star night and recognition of military families.

"Mrs. Benjamin has been directly responsible for CCHS receiving the Purple Star Award," Principal Tim Spencer wrote in his recommendation letter.

Terry had encouraged Benjamin to consult with Johnson on her VFW Teacher of the Year application. Benjamin will participate in the national Teacher of the Year program this summer.

Robinson becomes the latest student from Churchill County who has won state judging for Voice of Democracy. This audio-essay program provides high school students with opportunities to express themselves in a democratic and patriotic-themed recorded essay. Robinson will compete next month in Washington, D.C., and then attend a workshop at Valley Forge.

Robinson said many people were excited about her speech and what she had to say during her presentation. 

In her speech, Robinson said, "Freedom is the primary attribute of American democracy. When the Founding Fathers first drafted the Constitution, they knew there was an absolute need for personal liberty. They ensured citizens retained freedom by establishing rights, security, and limited government. 

"The First Amendment, a prime example of this, acknowledges five different aspects of personal freedom: religion, speech, press, assembly, and petition. Each of these five aspects allows and encourages people to openly express their opinions. The right to petition, in particular, amplifies the ability to protest and enables Americans to stand up for their rights. Freedom creates a healthy environment for liberty to flourish, making it the most influential attribute.

"Each of these great attributes of American democracy combine to create the prosperous society that more than 340 million people call their home. American democratic principles allow for an environment of safety and security within society."

The Oasis sophomore said she's looking forward to competing at the national level.

"I hope to connect with people who also wrote about the same things as me and have the same ideas as me," she said.

Schoemeier said students will compete for scholarships totaling thousands of dollars. He told the Valley Forge workshop teaches students the U.S.  Constitution as it was written in the 1700s.

The national first-place winner receives a $35,000 scholarship paid directly to the recipient's American university, college or vocational/technical school. Other national scholarships range from $1,000 to $21,000, and the first place winner from each VFW Department (state) wins at least a scholarship of $1,000.