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Changing lives for the better

Krystle Wagner • Feb 16, 2019 at 12:00 PM

As Riya Pringle worked to take steps across the gym, Jodie Gracey remained beside her to encourage and support the girl’s efforts.

Gracey works alongside students in the SXI classroom at White Pines Intermediate School. For her efforts, Gracey, a teacher assistant, was nominated for the LifeChanger of the Year Award, sponsored by National Life Group.

During the 2018-19 school year, 17 individual LifeChanger of the Year awards will be given out — one grand prize winner and four finalists, one Spirit Award winner, one Spotlight Award winner, and 10 LifeChanger awards.

Gracey said the nomination took her by surprise. The nomination letter and the positive comments that followed brought her to tears.

But it came as no surprise to Jaime Oppenlander, the SXI teacher at White Pines. She said Gracey is a "very well-deserving nominee,” noting that Gracey also works outside the classroom using her talents and resources to help better students and their lives.

The relationships Gracey develops with students is "amazing," added Oppenlander, who was nominated for the LifeChanger of the Year Award last year.

The nomination letter, which is anonymous, states that Gracey “goes above and beyond her classroom duties to make sure each student is successful.” The nominator noted that Gracey works to secure donations for students, and has traveled across the state to pick up equipment and donations.

Gracey is in her third full year working with the students in the classroom.

A certified chef, Gracey spent 18 years overseeing Taco Bell restaurants in West Michigan. After years of working nights and weekends, Gracey said she needed a change so she could spend more time with her family.

Gracey, who has three children and two step-children, then became a substitute worker in the cafeteria at White Pines. That opportunity led her to becoming a long-term substitute in Oppenlander’s class, which later became a permanent position.

“I love being with the kids,” she said. “I love seeing how they grow, being able to know I can help them grow and teach them.”

Gracey’s children have also become friends with some of her students, and they spend time together outside of school.

Although it’s difficult to choose the best part of her day, Gracey said she enjoys the inclusion her students have with their general-education peers.

In addition to assisting the SXI students in reading, attending gym and art class, and more, Gracey said they do community-based instruction and teach them life skills.

Gracey said she works with a great team.

“We believe all kids can, and nothing is impossible for them,” she said.

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