St. Mary’s Williams named DARE Teacher of the Year

CROWN POINT – When she was a fifth grader in Glenwood, Ill. more than 20 years ago, Heather Williams remembers studying the Drug Abuse Resistance Education lessons, but she never imagined she’d one day be honored as the Indiana D.A.R.E. Teacher of the Year.
Yet that’s just what happened to the fifth-grade teacher at St. Mary Catholic Community School last November, and she’s got the award in her classroom to prove it.
“Sometimes I reach over and touch it just to make sure it’s still here,” said Williams of the plaque she received at the Governor’s Mansion ceremony in Indianapolis. “I’m still shocked that I received it. I didn’t even know there was such an award. It was completely unexpected and it felt great to represent St. Mary’s. If it were up to me, all fifth graders in the state would study D.A.R.E.”
Williams was nominated by Sgt. Stanko Gligic of the Crown Point Police Department, who in turn was recognized at the same reception as Indiana D.A.R.E. Officer of the Year. He, principal Tom Ruiz and assistant principal Bea Kozlowski surprised her in her classroom last fall to announce her selection, drawing applause from her students.
“I do D.A.R.E. because I think it’s a great program, but I couldn’t do what I do if Sgt. G didn’t do what he does,” added Williams, who recently completed her sixth year of D.A.R.E. lessons at St. Mary with Sgt. Gligic as the program instructor.
“Sgt. G started teaching D.A.R.E. at St. Mary a year after I arrived, and it was so cool to share awards this year. He was happy for me and I was happy for him,” Williams added. “We get together (to plan the lesson schedule) every August, before school starts, and even now that D.A.R.E. is over for the year, we are always in contact. We talk and he messages me and asks how the kids are doing.”
“He does all the teaching, but I’m always interacting,” Williams confessed. “I just interject things and he is very cooperative because he knows it will be something valuable, I hope! I know all the D.A.R.E. lessons after all this time, and I put together the D.A.R.E. graduation program, which is one of the kids’ favorite days of the year. It should be, because they work hard.”
When the D.A.R.E. program was started by the Kokomo Police Department in 1985, it focused primarily on teaching youngsters how and why to avoid illegal drugs and alcohol, but Williams said the lessons have evolved with society. When I was a student, I remember the police officer/teacher working to make a connection with the students and come across more as a teacher than a police officer. He tried to make the lessons engaging and fun.
While the mission remains “to provide Indiana’s youth with sound decision-making abilities, which will ultimately assist them throughout their lifetime,” the focus, she said, “is more about bullying, getting along with others and resisting social media pressures and dangers.”
“We are grateful for Mrs. Williams and Officer G’s dedication to the effort to help children make good choices as they navigate the challenges of adolescence,” said Ruiz.
Williams said she reinforces the D.A.R.E. lessons in the classroom. “At recess, for instance, a child isn’t included in the group and I’ll hear about it. I remind the students what they learned in D.A.R.E. about including everyone and being kind to everyone,” she explained.
One of Williams’ most important D.A.R.E. responsibilities is planning and organizing the D.A.R.E. graduation, which was held in mid-January for this year’s fifth-grade classes taught by Williams and Abby Wadas. “All of the students write an essay about what they learned from D.A.R.E., and one boy and girl are chosen from each classroom to read their essays aloud at graduation,” Williams said. “Each graduate receives a certificate, and a bicycle is awarded to one student. I make sure the ceremony flows.”
Williams said she majored in Elementary Education at Valparaiso University and became a teacher after graduating in 2007, “because of that ‘lightbulb moment,’ when you see that smile on their face as they ‘get’ it; that makes it all worth it. I always played school as a kid. I had my friends come over and be students, and when I was in school, I remember seeing the teacher react to a ‘lightbulb moment’ and I wanted that feeling.”
Williams, who celebrated her award with her husband, Jeff Williams, and their son Kameron, 9,  first taught first grade at St. Augustine School in Rensselaer but moved closer to the family’s Crown Point home after six years. She was a little apprehensive about switching to fifth grade, she admits, but D.A.R.E. helped make the transition a happy one.
“My son is a third grader here at St. Mary, and when I come home and tell him about Sgt. G’s lessons, he tells me to be sure that Sgt. G doesn’t retire as the D.A.R.E. officer before he gets to be in his class,” Williams added.


Caption: "Sometimes I just touch it to make sure it's still here," admitted Heather Williams of the plaque she received last fall as Indiana D.A.R.E. Teacher of the Year. "I'm still shocked," added the fifth-grade teacher at St. Mary Catholic Community School in Crown Point. (Marlene A. Zloza photo)