Austin Harris, a senior at Mountain Vista High School, stood on stage next to his beloved teacher, Mary DeBolt. A presenter read aloud a speech that Harris prepared for DeBolt that described their relationship.
“She got me a $5 gift card for Valentine’s Day for being her teacher assistant,” the speech read.
The crowd of more than 100 high school seniors, teachers and family members chuckled as Harris and DeBolt hugged and left the stage. Another teacher-student pair took the spotlight, followed by about 50 more.
The accolades from high school seniors were part of the 18th annual Teacher Appreciation Banquet, hosted by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints at the Highlands Ranch Stake building, 9800 Foothills Canyon Blvd. The Mormon church has 11 congregations in Highlands Ranch with about 4,000 members.
The Teacher Appreciation Banquet started in 1999, shortly after the Foothills Canyon Boulevard church was built, as a way to recognize educators in the community.
“As a church, we have such a strong focus on education,” said Brandon Wilcox, a counselor of the Highlands Ranch Stake, or division, of the church. “You can’t do enough for teachers — they give and give.”
The goal of the annual event is for a senior who is in the church to honor a teacher — from any high school in Highlands Ranch — who has had a significant impact on his or her life. Teachers receive a framed picture with the student’s tribute and a photograph.
The students’ remarks, which are read to the crowd, include everything from compliments to amusing memories to struggles and hardships.
“You helped me see my self-worth,” one student said at the April 12 event.
“You have become one of the most trusted individuals in my life,” another said.
“I’m really going to miss you,” multiple students said.
Laughter and tears followed the emotional tributes as students embraced or shook hands with their mentors.
Shannon Vance, an English teacher at Mountain Vista High School, was recognized for helping a student with dyslexia. Highlands Ranch is filled with supportive and caring families, the teacher of six years said.
“It felt nice to hear the accolades,” Vance said. “I felt very valued.”
Though the high school seniors are members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, many guests and teachers in attendance at the April 12 banquet were not.
Among them was Wendy Vogel, a Douglas County School District Board of Education director. Vogel has attended the event for the past two years, since she was elected to the board. She has two children in high school.
“Education can be a thankless career,” Vogel said. “It is so important to let teachers know that they are valued — I encourage my kids to thank and appreciate their teachers.”
Rock Canyon High School Principal Andy Abner, who has been in education for 20 years, thanked the church for its continued effort to organize the banquet. He challenged seniors to reach out to their teachers and coaches as time passes. Write a letter, or a note, he said.
“Let them know their importance,” Abner said. “Educators go beyond planning and instructions — they go to that place of love and care.”