Heritage High School students are winners.
That’s not an editorial comment - just ask U.S. Cellular.
The students, led by technology teacher Sherry Walker, rallied the community in December and January to visit area U.S. Cellular locations to vote for Heritage High School. The Calling All Communities promotion went like this: Individuals dropped by store locations and voted for their favorite school by putting the school’s name on a stamped postcard. The Top-10 vote getters across the country won $100,000 each.
Friday morning, the first school U.S. Cellular announced as a winner of the $100,000 was Heritage High School. The other winners will be announced in the coming weeks.
Schools director Alvin Hord was proud of the effort put forward by the students, teachers and community. “You don’t do something like this by yourself. You do with the help of everyone,” he said.
Assistant County Mayor Dave Bennett was excited by the news. “I think it’s a tremendous, tremendous deal,” he said. “It shows what you can accomplish if you put your mind to it. It was a community-wide effort, and it started with the students at Heritage High School. I get goose bumps thinking about what these kids have accomplished.”
Principal Patty Mandigo said she didn’t know how to respond when a U.S. Cellular notified her of the news. “I was speechless. I couldn’t think for a minute,” she said. “I didn’t think it was real,” she said.
Mandigo addressed the students who had packed the gymnasium. “It’s a real exciting day for us,” she said before she introduced Dana Dorcas, senior director of sales for East Tennessee with U.S. Cellular.
“Are you ready for some good news,” he told the crowd. “You just won $100,000. Congratulations.”
Mandigo praised the students. “This is a great day for Heritage,” she said.
Dorcas said that Heritage was the first school to be notified they were winners in the “Calling All Communities” promotion. “We are involved in the community, and we focus on youth and families,” he said. “It was to get communities excited about supporting schools.”
School board chair Chris Cantrell said he was excited when he was told about the good news earlier this week. “It’s a great thing for Blount County schools, especially Heritage High School, to get this recognition,” he said.
Davis praised U.S. Cellular for their initiative. “I think this has created more excitement at this school than I’ve seen in 20 years. It doesn’t do anything but good things. I’m pleased to see corporate America show grassroots support for our schools and our kids. The atmosphere is just special.”
School board member Brad Long praised the students, teachers and those in the community who made the effort to stop by a store and vote. “It was a grassroots effort,” he said.
School board member Rob Webb was enthusiastic about the news and the attitude of the students. “It’s awesome, absolutely awesome. You can feel the excitement,” he said.
School board member Charles Finley praised principal Patty Mandigo for her efforts. Finley said the students worked hard to get the word out about the contest. “They got the support of the community,” he said.
School board member Don McNally praised everyone who worked to get Heritage in the Top 10 in the promotion. “I was awfully pleased with the students and everyone who put in the work necessary, and I was glad I voted.”
Bonny Millard, executive director of the Blount Education Initiative, praised the students and teachers for their hard work. “It’s just incredible. I know that, in this economy, for U.S. Cellular to make this gesture is great. Schools can use every cent they can get,” she said.
Dorcas said he enjoyed being able to help the school and said giving to youth helps the leaders of the future. “This is really the highlight of my year,” he said.
Senior Eric Hill, 18, said he was proud of his school. “I was just glad we won,” he said. Senior Caitlin Whaley, 17, said it gives the student body a new identity. “We’re not losers anymore,” she said.
Senior Jared Price, 18, said the money could be used to give Heritage High School a better future. “It’s another thing to benefit our school,” he said. Senior Haley Pickens, 17, said she was excited when she heard the news. “Ms. Walker did a wonderful job. We’re so proud of her,” she said.
Sophomore Breena Barry, 15, was among the group of students who were notified early this morning about the win, but they were instructed not to tell anyone, especially not Walker. “We were told we weren’t allowed to act like we were excited,” she said.
Junior Michael Badger, 17, said he was pleasantly surprised when Heritage won. “I didn’t think we had a chance,” he said. “We worked really hard and went to all the businesses.”
Plans for upgrades
Mandigo said if she got to dream, one of the items she would upgrade with some of the money is the curtains, lighting and sound system in the auditorium. “That is 30 years old, and the curtains and sound system are in disrepair,” she said.
The principal said some of the money also could be used for technology upgrades such as LCD projectors and other items. Some of the money also could be used in the athletic department.
Mandigo said winning the prize money changes the moral of the student body. “It’s a breath of fresh air. It’s a new beginning,” she said. “This gives them renewed belief they can be winners.”
Planners for the event stationed the media at Heritage Middle School before driving down to the school and walking in as school board members and other county officials filed into the gym where the student body was already in the bleachers.
The idea was to keep media away until the last minute so as to surprise Walker with news of the win. Athletic director Chip Fuller had asked her to come to the assembly because it was a school-wide safety meeting, Walker said.
Walker said that 15 minutes before the program began, however, someone in the athletic department “let the cat out of the bag” by congratulating her. Walker said that individual, whom she wouldn’t name, was embarrassed.
Walker said she and the students who had worked so hard were disheartened after the contest wrapped on Jan. 15 because they didn’t know what was going on, and U.S. Cellular wasn’t saying anything.
The teacher said she went into a U.S. Cellular store three days ago, and the management still didn’t know anything. “It was kind of an emotional let down,” she said.
Walker said she would like to see the money spent on technology upgrades and instruction so students can graduate with the knowledge and training necessary to help them be successful professionally and financially. Walker said she also didn’t want all the money used at once. “I would like to see some of the money put into a fund to grow,” she said.