In addition to the awards that will be presented Saturday night, Difference Makers for Wichita also has honored a series of Quiet Heroes over the past four months, spotlighting people in the community who are quietly making a positive difference.
Here are excerpts from previous stories that appeared in The Eagle about these Quiet Heroes.
Whenever John Perkins sees a kid in a classroom, he sees potential.
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His job as a teacher, he feels, is to make them see that potential, too, often brought about by creating a sense of community within his classroom.
“Some people have doubts about young people, but I always have this real hope for them,” said Perkins, who has taught sophomore and senior language arts at Wichita East High School for the past eight years.
“He has that one golden attribute that makes him a heroic teacher: He loves kids,” said colleague Kevin Loss.
Perkins has earned a reputation as being patient and able to find ways to motivate kids. It’s probably because he also has a story about being a student who had a hard time caring about school.
“My mom passed away when I was 13 or 14,” said Perkins, who grew up in Fairbanks, Alaska.
“I was angry. I didn’t do well in school. I was adrift. I was bright enough, but I didn’t apply myself like I should have.
“Sometimes I see myself in these kids, and I understand that they are going through their own journey.”
So he does what one does when you think someone needs to know you care. He does simple, thoughtful things – such as having ice water and cups nearby. He regularly provides snacks.
Years ago, when he needed to get students to reach a goal related to the state reading exam, he told his classes that if “we”– since it was a joint effort, he felt – met that goal, he would spend $100 for “a spread.”
The students met that goal, and as he and the students put together a pancake meal celebration, he saw it also was a great way to build camaraderie within the classroom. It was a surprisingly powerful way to build relationships.
“That’s probably why so many parenting experts advise one of the best ways to connect with kids is to enjoy a meal together,” he said. “It was the best $100 I’d ever spent.”
Now he doesn’t make it a special reward for just the classes that perform. He feeds all his classes twice a year to celebrate being together.
“This connectedness directly translates into productivity and effort when it comes time to approach academic objectives,” he said. “They do the work not because they care about their grade or learning how to structure an essay properly; they do the work because of the relationships built within the classroom as well as their relationship with me.
“And that’s important. That’s how we build a community.”
Larry Gunkel is a service provider, whether that be delivering the mail for more than 30 years or delivering packages of food to needy children all across Kansas.
Though he would be the last to tell you, Gunkel’s work at the Kansas Food Bank helped feed more than 7,000 children across Kansas in 2016 alone.
Gunkel served for 20 months as a combat infantryman in the Vietnam War, and when he returned home in 1969, he immediately took a job as a letter carrier.
He said he eventually became active in the letter carriers union and through that the Letter Carrier Food Drive.
“The simplicity of that food drive was all you had to do was put your donated food items out by your mailbox and your individual letter carrier would pick it up and bring it back to their station,” he said.
Gunkel said they ended up with all the donations piling up at the main post office branch near the airport and had no way of distributing it.
“Somebody said, ‘Have you ever heard of the Kansas Food Bank?’ and I had not. So I contacted them, and our partnership began then,” he said.
Gunkel went on to chair the Letter Carrier Food Drive every year until his retirement from the U.S. Postal Service in 2003. He was retired for only 18 months, however, before Kansas Food Bank CEO Brian Walker asked him to join the small staff.
Gunkel oversees the scheduling of more than 5,000 volunteers who donated a combined 36,000 hours of service last year.
His main role is to run the Food Bank’s Food 4 Kids backpack program, which puts bags of emergency weekend food in the backpacks of children at risk for chronic undernourishment. Kids who would otherwise go hungry on the weekends when they are away from their school’s meal programs now have access to food that is shipped to their school and slipped discreetly into their backpacks to avoid drawing the attention of their peers.
Gunkel has been with the program since its inception in 2004 and has been the driving force behind its growth from helping 60 kids in a few schools to more than 7,000 in 400 schools and 58 counties.
Gunkel said he is proud of the program’s growth and that his biggest concern is that the numbers that cover his office walls – the ones that show how many kids in each school are at-risk – may become disconnected from the children they represent.
“You look at Adams Elementary School in Wichita: 26. I don’t want to lose concept,” he said.
“That’s 26 young adults that are benefiting from what we’re providing. I don’t want it to be just a number.”
Marcillene Dover is not a quiet hero.
For the past few years, Dover has spoken to Kansas legislators, county commissioners, professional groups and many others about the importance of providing health care to people in need. Specifically, Dover is an advocate for expanding the Kansas Medicaid program known as KanCare.
“People talk about it like KanCare is a handout … but there are ordinary people with jobs and families, students and others who work but can’t afford insurance,” she said.
Dover speaks from experience.
After graduating from North High School as the 2012 class valedictorian, Dover enrolled at Wichita State University. In 2013, she began to notice that her legs felt “different.” She went to a clinic, where she was told she needed an MRI for an accurate diagnosis.
Despite working up to three jobs, Dover did not make enough to afford insurance.
By late summer in 2014, Dover was having difficulty walking. She had to save for three months to get the $300 needed to see a specialist.
When she did, the doctor suspected multiple sclerosis. He also recommended an MRI.
Through the help of a faculty member at North High, Dover connected with Project Access, a Wichita nonprofit that provides help to people who have serious health issues but can’t afford insurance.
A neurologist, Gautham Reddy, was assigned to Dover’s case. With his help, the Multiple Sclerosis Association paid for the diagnostic MRI.
Within days, Dover got a call: It was MS.
Fortunately, Reddy donated his services, and through Project Access, Dover qualified for a medication assistance program.
In December 2014, she began taking a disease-modifying therapy drug, which soon gave Dover relief.
With her medical problems under control, Dover could focus on her studies, and in May 2016, she graduated magna cum laude from WSU. Last fall, she began working as a physics teacher at North, a job that provides affordable health insurance.
In early 2015, she was asked by the National Multiple Sclerosis Society to testify before a legislative committee considering a KanCare expansion bill.
Dover also testified before the Sedgwick County Commission in 2015, when the commission considered cutting support for a number of health-related programs, including Project Access.
Dover said she speaks out because many others have done so much for her.
“I just felt like I owed it to the programs and people who helped me,” she said. “I want to tell my story for others who can’t tell their stories.”