GENESEE COUNTY, Michigan—They made friends with the girls their classmates gossiped about.
They overcame shyness to help their neighbors.
They made coloring books for hospitalized children, stood up to bullies, found a missing child, read pirate books to their uncles … They did so, so much.
The 2016-17 Blueberry Ambassadors capped off another year Friday, May 19, 2017, with an awards ceremony and pizza party that included two scholarships worth a total of $18,000, $3,500 in donations to local schools, 300 pizzas and more than 1,000 squishy blueberry balls.
Now completing its fourth year, the Blueberry Ambassador program was started and continues to be funded by Phil and Ardele Shaltz. It all started when Phil Shaltz put up a billboard along I-69 in 2013 that said only, “I’m Concerned About the Blueberries.” The mysterious billboard went viral as the world tried to figure out it meant.
Shaltz, a downtown Flint businessman and owner of Shaltz Automation, eventually came forward to explain that it was meant as a reminder to all of us to care about others’ challenges—whether they seem monumental or perhaps as small as a blueberry.
The billboard and its message inspired the Blueberry Ambassador program—which features Genesee County students who volunteer to do three random acts of kindness. Shaltz operates the Blueberry with Marjory Raymer, publisher and managing editor of Flintside, who emceed Friday's awards ceremony.
“I’m just excited for the entire concept of the Blueberry Ambassadors. It’s a way for spreading good deeds in the community,” said Hana Sankari, the Blueberry Ambassador advisor at Genesee Academy, which won the People’s Choice Award (and a $1,000 donation to the school) by getting 12,533 votes in an online poll.
This is the first time the private Islamic School has participated in the Blueberry program. The Blueberry Ambassadors headed a school project collecting games, blankets, and puzzles for children at Hurley Medical Center; helped teach religion to younger children; volunteered at the Food Bank of Eastern Michigan; and a long list of other things.
The biggest award handed out is the Founder’s Award, chosen by Shaltz and awarded to the student who writes his single favorite Blueberry Moment. This year’s winner is Katie Roti, a fifth-grader at Reid Elementary in Grand Blanc Community Schools, who “chopped off” her hair to donate it to children with hair loss.
She admitted to being a bit nervous about how she would look after cutting off her hair—but she did it anyway.
“Blueberries (are) helping people in need and stuff … I think it’s a great thing to do. It’s a great thing that they started it and I love it,” Katie said.
One special award is given to an adult mentor of a Blueberry Ambassador group. This year the winner is Maureen Shipley at Seymour Elementary in Flushing. All the awards are a surprise, and Shipley’s was at a second-grade field trip—so her award was accepted by another teacher instead.
“Mrs. Shipley is just one of the most kind, caring, humble, unselfish people you will ever meet, and she made a commitment at the beginning of the year to go with a second-grade class on a field trip and that’s why she’s not here today, because she’s honoring her commitment,” said Jennifer Fisher, a sixth-grade teacher at Seymour who accepted the award on Shipley’s behalf.
The scholarships are funded by Phil and Ardele Shaltz and Huntington Bank with matching dollars provided by the University of Michigan-Flint, funding two scholarships: one worth $6,000 and another worth approximately $12,000 (covering a full year of tuition, fees, and book costs for a full-time student).
The scholarships themselves are not awarded at the party. Instead, the winners of the Inspirational Leader Award and the Founder’s Award pay it forward and award the scholarship to a junior or senior from their school districts.
Shaltz also announced that next year the Blueberry Ambassador program will expand again. It originally started with sixth- through 12th-grade students only, but quickly expanded to include down to fourth-grade students.
This year, Shaltz included a single class of third-grade students in Amanda Lang’s classroom at Flushing Central Elementary.
“We started out sixth through 12th (grades) and we realized that some of the younger kids were actually even doing a better job than some of the older kids. … This year we tried third grade, and it’s been an amazing success,” said Shaltz.
Next year, third-graders countywide will be invited to participate in Blueberry Ambassadors. Is that the last of the expansions?
Who knows, Shaltz said.