Holocaust Museum honors Skokie teacher’s work in Ghana
Shelley Nizynski Reese, a second grade teacher at Middleton School, won the Power Of One Award from the Illinois Holocaust Museum & Education Center March 6 before the museum's awards dinner at the Hyatt Regency in Chicago. | Ryan Pagelow~Sun-Times Media
Updated: March 13, 2012 4:04PM
Emmanuel may have been the first to capture Shelley Nizynski Reese’s heart but he certainly wasn’t the last.
The Skokie second grade teacher met Emmanuel, then a child, in 2006 during her first trip to an orphanage in Ghana in West Africa.
“While at the orphanage, I spent my time teaching in the school, feeding and holding the babies, playing with the kids, and teaching the children who were deaf some sign language,” she said.
She loved all the children there, but the story of Emmanuel, who had malaria and seemed “really sad,” stayed with her.
Emmanuel’s mom had abandoned him along the railroad tracks just days after he was born; Emmanuel had spent his whole life inside the Ghanian orphanage, Nizynski Reese explained.
“This broke my heart and I wanted to do anything I could to help him.”
On her subsequent trips to Ghana, Emmanuel was the first one she would ask about.
“I loved Emmanuel so much and I could see how much happiness our relationship brought him, but our time together was limited,” Nizynski Reese said. “I wanted him to experience this love and care every single day for the rest of his life.”
Emmanuel’s story has a happy outcome thanks to the work of Nizynski Reese who teaches at Skokie’s Middleton School. Since her first solo trip to Ghana, she has been there seven other times — sometimes with her husband and father — and has raised needed funds and resources for children in need.
It’s not hyperbole to say that Nizynski Reese has changed and saved lives.
Nor is it overstatement to call Nizynski Reese the ideal example of how one person can make a difference in the world.
That’s just what the Illinois Holocaust Museum & Education Center concluded, too, when it presented Nizynski Reese March 6 with its inaugural Power Of One award. Illinois Holocaust Museum Executive Director Rick Hirschhaut said the museum created the award “in an effort to demonstrate in a very tangible and visible way the lessons that are taught each and every day in the museum.”
The Power Of One is much more than just a contest, Hirschhaut said, but rather a recognition of someone who makes a difference in the world for the good and pays it forward, motivating and inspiring others.
Although the search for the museum’s first winner was spread throughout the country — the 11 other applicants were not nearly so close to home — the Skokie museum found its first winner in its own backyard.
“Not very different than looking around the world and finding the nice boy or girl next door, we didn’t have to look very far,” Hirschhaut said. “In our own community, we found Shelley Nizynski Reese.”
What they found in the young school teacher were two remarkable parts to this story, the first about the journey of a lifetime that began when she heard a speech by Princess Zulu, a Zambian-born activist who tested HIV-positive. The overriding message of her speech was that passion alone is not enough.
“It was then that I decided I needed to volunteer my time in Africa,” Nizynski Reese said.
She researched and chose an orphanage with 205 kids — 25 of whom were deaf — because she knows sign language and thought she could help.
Through that trip, Nizynski Reese found that her world suddenly changed because she changed someone else’s world. She ultimately found a permanent home for Emmanuel, calling the experience “one of the proudest moments of my life.”
“He began to just thrive living with a family. Being surrounded with love and care literally changed him into a new kid,” she said. “He began attending school, eating consistent meals, growing, and developing a healthy body. This experience proved to me that I could make a difference.”
The school teacher confronted the heartbreak of seeing children in orphanages without enough resources — even baby formula for the youngest, which resulted in deaths — by developing the non-profit foundation A Better Life for Kids. (See adjoining story).
She founded A Better Life for Kids to raise money to provide much-needed food, medicine, baby formula, and other essential supplies to orphaned and needy children.
A Better Life for Kids currently supports five orphanages throughout Ghana. It has responded to desperate needs there by providing basic resources and education opportunities for children of all religions, backgrounds, and abilities.
Three years ago, Nizynski Reese and her family founded Midian Education Support, a scholarship program for orphans and children from families unable to afford the relatively small school fees. The program allows children to attend school by paying for their tuition fees, school uniforms, shoes, necessary school supplies, tutoring, and lunch every school day.
The scholarship program currently has enabled 26 orphans to attend school and more recently, a handful of children who are deaf.
And yet, despite all the extraordinary selflessness displayed by Nizynski Reese, it’s still quite possible that the museum might never have heard of her heroics had it not been for her inspiring example closer to home.
The second part of the school teacher’s story is the remarkable impact she has had on her own district’s students.
“The Better Life for Kids foundation is very dear and warm to my heart,” blogs a McCracken Middle School student named Trisha. “I have been working with this foundation for a little over two years and I am absolutely attached to it.”
Trisha was a second grader in Nizynski’s class when her teacher was heading off to Ghana for the first time. As a middle school student, she and others from Nizynski’s class as well as many more now work on fundraising events that have generated thousands of dollars for A Better Life for Kids.
Nizynski says money raised by the McCracken kids has saved lives.
Their involvement has also been due to a program established three years ago by McCracken Middle School social studies teacher Jennifer Ciok. Aiding Children Together or A.C.T. began as a service learning program where students mounted a campaign to help exploited children around the world.
But in the last two years, when the program aligned with Nizynski Reese’s mission, it really took off.
“It has inspired a school community of sixth through eighth graders to do something bigger than themselves,” Ciok said.
Most recently, students held a benefit concert for A Better Life for Kids, raising more than $1,500, which will help allow the sponsored deaf children in Ghana to continue their education.
“Every person has the power to make a difference,” Nizynski Reese said. “As a teacher, I believe it is important that my students understand they can make the world a better place.”
Ciok has been a first-hand witness to how much Nizynski’s example has done just that — so much so that she quietly nominated her colleague for the Power Of One Award.
“When I saw what the award was, it just seemed like it was perfect for Shelley,” Ciok said. “I nominated her without telling her.”
Nizynski Reese accepted the award March 6 in front of her family and Ciok before the Illinois Holocaust Museum’s annual Humanitarian Awards Dinner in Chicago.
“She’s always had a heart for children,” said her mother, Pat Nizynski, after the ceremony. “Shelley can connect with somebody who is 2 and she can connect with someone who is 92. She just has that charisma. She’s a magnet to people.”
The family recounted how children simply flock to her when she arrives in Ghana.
“The first time I went there, I was absolutely stunned,” said her father, George Nizynski. “I couldn’t believe the reception. I had to pull my camera out and record it because it was liked the Pied Piper. All the kids came running to her. She spent a month there and you could see the love she poured out to the kids.”
She met her husband, Brent Reese, in college, and they began dating just as her interest in Ghana started to flourish. He, too, comes from a family with a background of humanitarian trips.
“But I had never gone to Africa and certainly never alone,” he said.
While Nizynski Reese’s parents said they could never have imagined the impact her daughter’s trip to Africa would have, Reese wasn’t so surprised.
“Knowing Shelley, I would say definitely this could happen,” he said.
Nizynski Reese is more aligned with her parents on this one. Crying when first told of her award, she said it’s still overwhelming that a trip she decided to take on her own six years ago had come to all this.
“I had no idea that it was even possible this was going to be the response when I first went there,” she said. “I’m just so touched.”
That’s the true power of one.