By Terri Ferguson Smith / firstname.lastname@example.org
The Meridian Star
Public education advocate Michael Van Veckhoven has been named by the Junior Auxiliary of Meridian as its Humanitarian of the Year.
Van Veckhoven will be honored on Jan. 19 at JA's annual ball.
"His goals and efforts in the community mimic ours," said Suzanne Helveston local JA president. "Those goals have to do with the betterment of our children."
Van Veckhoven is the volunteer director of the Study Buddy Tutoring and Mentoring Program in the Meridian Public School District, a program that matches community members with struggling students to encourage attendance, promote literacy, build character, strengthen confidence, and enhance study skills, all while building a meaningful mentor relationship and future productive members of society.
"That's what Michael is really a proponent of — getting into the schools, giving your time, whether its the Study Buddy program or just being a presence in our school system," she said.
Helveston said it's comforting to be able to recognize someone who is as young as Van Veckhoven.
"I feel good on a personal level because I have people who are kind of close to my age who are already giving back at such an early point in their careers or their stages of life," Helveston said. "Michael has just gone above and beyond. He's exceeded any expectations in terms of giving of his time and trying to create role models in a situation where adults are coming into contact with kids because they want to, not because they are paid to be there."
Van Veckhoven also serves as president of the Poplar Springs Parent Teacher Association and was recently appointed to the Meridian City School Board. In addition, he was named Parent of the Year by Dr. Alvin Taylor, superintendent of the Meridian schools. A recipient of the DAR Community Involvement Award, he has served on the boards of the Boys and Girls Club, the Jimmie Rodgers Foundation, the Rotary Club, and Parents for Public Schools, and various committees and advisory boards for the East Mississippi Business Development Corporation.
Van Veckhoven said he was incredibly honored and a little shocked when he learned he would receive the award.
"I'm very, very grateful," he said.
School board member Teresa Hodges, who started the Study Buddy program here, encouraged Van Veckhoven to join the program.
"Anybody who wants to be a Study Buddy you just call the school of your choice and tell them you want to be a Study Buddy, he said. "You go and meet with a student for 30 minutes to an hour each week during your lunch hour. You talk about homework, life or whatever you want."
He has worked with students in elementary and middle schools, he said.
"I've seen a consistent frown turn into a consistent smile. I've seen a kid who is genuinely appreciative of my being there," Van Veckhoven said.
Students are grateful for the time that people spend with them, he said.
"It lets the kids at the school know that people in this community care about them, not just their teachers, their principal, their parent or guardian, but people from all across this city care about them enough so that they are willing to take time out of their day to spend time with them," Van Veckhoven said. "The kids get that and they appreciate it."
He said he has also seen D's and C's turn into A's and B's.
"The impact that community members can have on our kids, even just an hour a week, is really unbelievable," Van Veckhoven said.
Public education is his passion, he said.
"Our public schools are a snapshot of democracy," he said. "The lifeblood of this city is its public school system. I'm a product of MPSD and that passion started with me at some point when I was a student."
He recalled being a tenth grade student at MHS.
"I was at a football game one Friday night. I was sitting in the student section and I looked around at all my fellow students from all parts of the city, from all walks of life. I thought, 'What a special thing this is,' to attend my hometown high school where we all go there. I guess that was just a passion that really stayed with me."
When he grew up, he said, he realized that not everybody felt the same way he did about public education. Becoming a Study Buddy allowed him to see first-hand what public schools are like today.
"I would see all these wonderful things going on and I would think, 'What are these people talking about when they say American public education is failing?' That's not what I'm seeing when I'm in the schools," he said. "I turned into an advocate for our public schools. As our public schools go, so goes the community. I was raised here. I love this place."
He is also an active member of the Episcopal Church of the Mediator, where he currently serves as a worship leader.
Van Veckhoven is married to the former Dana Hull, and has two children, Billy and Lucy Ann. He is currently employed in management with New South Ford Nissan. He is an avid outdoorsman, golfer, and enjoys cheering on the LSU Tigers and New Orleans Saints.
Tickets to the JA ball are $50 per person. For ticket information call (601) 938-9392.