The number 10,000 has appeared a lot in Melanie Bolender's life recently. First in a conversation with co-workers about how they would spend $10,000 if it was given to them. Later with her husband about how they were about $10,000 short on a down payment for a new house and again with regards to her salary. Next school year, she anticipates a $10,000 pay cut.
But the next time $10,000 appeared in Bolender's life, it was on a check made out to her.
On Friday, covered in Silly String and hugging her students, Bolender won the We Deliver award and its prize of $10,000 for her work as a migrant reading teacher at Reddick Elementary School.
"I believe that it's a calling for me to be working with them," Bolender said, tearing up as she spoke to a gaggle of television and newspaper reporters who were there to cover the surprise presentation. "Anybody can take the higher-level kids and make them show gains and achieve, but you really need somebody with a really loving heart to work with children that really, really need help and our kids really do need that help. I just want to be there, and I want to give it to them."
In its fifth year, the We Deliver program awards $10,000 to a teacher who "delivers miracles every day," superintendent MaryEllen Elia said. The district's education foundation sponsors the program.
The award's two other finalists, Wayne Stinnard from Cypress Creek Elementary School and Bill Robertson from Sligh Middle School, each received a check for $1,000.
Bolender, 40, began teaching in 1993 in Pasco and Pinellas counties before joining the staff of Cypress Creek Elementary in 1999. When Reddick opened in 2008, Bolender started as a first grade teacher, but switched in a matter of months to become the school's migrant reading teacher, principal J. Roth said.
The award makes up for the nearly $10,000 the teacher expects to lose in pay in the coming school year because of a combination of state budget cuts and merit pay changes.
Still, it's her belief in her students and the ambition she has to help them that keeps her at Reddick.
"To me, it's not about the money. It's about the little things," Bolender said. "I can give them a pencil or a sticker, and the kids feel like I just gave them a million dollars."
Her husband Dennis, a police officer in St. Petersburg, said she spends thousands of dollars a year to help her students by buying clothes at yard sales, sponsoring fifth-graders who can't afford their field trips and buying her own school supplies.
He also ordered 10 more newspapers to be delivered to their house so the entire family can cut coupons. The extra food they can buy as a result goes to the migrant children and families she helps.
Beyond materially helping them, Bolender tries to connect with her students and their families. In nominating Bolender, her co-workers wrote about how she learned Spanish to better communicate with her students and their parents when visiting their homes.
Bolender said that having grown up in a similar situation helps her reach her students. As a child, there were many times when her family didn't have power and were evicted or she went to bed hungry because they didn't have any food.
"I know I've been there and people have believed in me, and I was a success," Bolender said. "I was the first of five children to finally finish high school, the first one to also go to college and I want them to be the first in their families to finally finish high school or to finish college. That's what I strive to do: believe in them so they can make it like I did."
Biz Carson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 661-2441.