Special thanks to our Counselor of the Year program sponsor, Credit Union of Georgia! #CCSDfam
Cherokee Innovation Zone
As a child, Heather Chesnut always wanted to grow up to be a helper.
As a college student, she first thought that path was in a legal role helping crime victims, but counseling young people kept calling to her.
After serving as a counselor for families at a military base and to children in a group home, Ms. Chesnut found her true home as a helper: as a school counselor.
“Almost six years into this journey,” the Clayton ES school counselor said, “I still cannot believe how lucky I am to get to do what I do!”
Her colleagues, students and their families believe they are the lucky ones, and named her the Cherokee Innovation Zone’s Counselor of the Year in recognition of her dedication to serving and advocating for the “whole child.”
“She continuously strives to make a difference in my child’s life,” a parent shared. “She has never failed to ensure my child is able to function at her potential with stability and confidence.”
Ms. Chesnut said she sees her role as helping the whole child, with support ranging from one-on-one counseling to referrals for the assistance of a social worker to organizing the school’s backpack food program and Angel Tree holiday assistance drive.
In her own words: “If they are given the tools to manage their emotions, build their resiliency and engage with others, our children will be better prepared to navigate through life. I strive to create a safe and encouraging environment in which students will thrive, grow, learn, engage and connect, therefore producing a well-rounded and productive person.”
Creekview Innovation Zone: Katherine McNamara of Avery ES
Katherine McNamara of Avery Elementary School is known as a school counselor who excels at it all: from classroom presentations to mentoring, from organizing schoolwide programs to counseling.
She shines the brightest, according to colleagues who named her the Creekview Innovation Zone’s Counselor of the Year, when counseling students in need and, as her Principal puts it, “bringing out their best skills sets” by “encouraging, motivating and striving through each situation to reach a successful outcome.”
“When I go to talk to her, she is very confident in me, and when I am finished talking to her, I feel much more confident in myself,” one student said.
Ms. McNamara, who is in her sixth year as a school counselor after working as a classroom teacher, said teaching shaped her view that developing a positive relationship with a student makes all the difference in not only their emotional well-being, but also their academic success.
This is why she developed a Staff Mentor Program last school year to -- at the student’s or parents’ request -- pair a student up with a specific staff member to be another caring adult in his or her life. It’s why she runs a Lunch Bunch to help students develop social skills and friendships. And it’s why she devotes countless hours to projects like the Frosty’s Friends holiday charitable drive, Great Kindness Challenge, and Cubs Care Meal weekend food backpack program.
In her own words: “There are days when it can be emotional to see the struggles of so many of our students. However, to know I can play a small part in helping them through these struggles is what makes this job so rewarding.”
Etowah Innovation Zone: Danielle Mabeus of Bascomb ES
When she joined Bascomb Elementary School three years ago, school counselor Danielle Mabeus was surprised by the number of students who confided in her that they felt they didn’t belong.
“I knew,” she said, “that this was an area that needed to be addressed as soon as possible so our students were not impacted in a negative way.”
Ms. Mabeus shared her concerns with administrators, and together they launched the #WeAllBelong project, which included the development of a Peer Leaders club. Fourth- and fifth-graders identified as role models for kindness and befriending others were tapped to join, as were students needing a sense of belonging.
The campaign also has encompassed numerous schoolwide projects, such as Compliment Hearts created by students to praise a specific classmate; the Garden of Gratitude to thank specific teachers; and the #WhatLiftsYou hallway art display to showcase what motivates and inspires every student in the school.
Her efforts focused on this important issue, coupled with her everyday exceptional work as a school counselor, earned her the Etowah Innovation Zone Counselor of the Year honor.
One student, who struggles with behavior challenges, praised Ms. Mabeus for the positive impact she’s had on her life: “She has made me feel better about myself. I’ve learned how to interact and how to be a good friend. Things are going way better this year because of Ms. Mabeus’s help.”
In her own words: “The greatest honor for me will always be being able to serve and advocate for my students every day.”
River Ridge Innovation Zone: Kelly Brangan of River Ridge HS
For River Ridge High School Counselor Kelly Brangan, the highlight of her day is talking with students.
Sometimes it’s a conversation about how to get back on track in a class or which college would be the best choice to pursue their passion. And sometimes it’s a student in crisis seeking help.
Ms. Brangan’s experience gained over a career as a special education teacher followed by the last 12 years as a counselor, her devotion to caring for each individual student, and her commitment to being the best team player possible, has earned her the respect of students, parents and colleagues and the title of River Ridge Innovation Zone Counselor of the Year.
One of her favorite memories as a counselor began when she met a student, who was crying but wouldn’t open up to her. “You’re a counselor,” he said. “I don’t like counselors, and I don’t trust them. All you do is hand out Chick-fil-A gift cards and punch a time clock.”
They went to her office; she talked, and he mumbled some before heading back to class. This same scene repeated itself again and again as the year progressed. “But each time,” she said, “he was more willing to talk, eye contact increased, and he stayed a little longer.”
Then one day, he came to visit the office… and talked freely for 30 minutes to share his concerns and to seek Ms. Brangan’s guidance!
As another student said: “Ms. Brangan saw things in me that I did not see in myself. She helps students realize they are so much more than their achievements, grades and accolades. I know my life would not be the same had she not been a part of it.”
In her own words: “They key for me is always, ‘What is best for kids?’”
The Sequoyah Innovation Zone is this year's CCSD Counselor of the Year and featured on the previous page
Woodstock Innovation Zone: Sarah Bigelow of Freedom MS
Sarah Bigelow began her counseling career in social services, focused on helping children escape abuse and neglect.
Her experience advocating for these children, helping them heal and navigate the next steps in their lives, has made her a better school counselor for the children of Freedom Middle School.
“Most of our students are blessed with supportive families who are present to meet their needs and provide the nurturing that they need to have a chance at being successful,” said Ms. Bigelow, who joined Freedom MS three years ago. “However, we have many other students who don’t come from a stable environment… my mission is to be a trustworthy and present adult in their lives.”
Ms. Bigelow’s work to develop programs that support students and educate teachers and staff led her colleagues to name her the Woodstock Innovation Zone’s Counselor of the Year.
One of the most important programs she is focused on is suicide awareness and prevention. She educates teachers as to warning signs and the importance of immediately reporting those signs, and she then works with those students and their parents to develop a support plan including one-on-one counseling.
A parent, whose child has been struggling with depression during his three years at the school, said Ms. Bigelow’s care has made a difference in the lives of their entire family. “She has been there for us every step of the way,” the parent said.
In her own words: “I am here for our children who need at least one person to believe in them, who sees their inherent worth, and who can provide them with the encouragement they need to push past their circumstances.”