We’ve always known our Discovering Place educators are pretty darn amazing. So it sure is nice seeing them get the recognition they deserve.

Take Patti Hillaker, for instance. She has positively captivated her students at Beecher’s Riley Alternative Education Center, where she teaches science out of a tank fully of baby salmon, and engages kids with plenty of other cool stuff to make learning relevant.

Hillaker is one of two Michigan teachers who gained nationwide recognition in the ING 2012 Unsung Heroes grant program. She also earned media coverage in The Citizen, her local newspaper, for her enthusiastic efforts to help students better their worlds.

Teachers are up against so many challenges that it’s important to share the good they do. Thanks, Patti, for bringing a daily dose of awesomeness to your classroom!

It’s a great month for teachers and partners of Discovering Place, a program of University Outreach.

Dr. Don Hammond, a Beecher High School teacher and a two-year participant in Discovering Place, is one of 20 teachers nationwide being honored with the Chevrolet Green Educator award. Parents, board members, GM program staff , Ashley Miller-Helmholdt and University Outreach program staff were in the audience when Hammond was presented with the award at the Oct. 5 meeting of the Beecher school board.

On Saturday, Hammond will also receive an award from the Michigan Alliance for Environmental & Outdoor Education (MAEOE), which “recognizes deserving educators who have excelled in their efforts to provide environmental and outdoor education through the statewide MAEOE Awards Program.”

A Discovering Place community partner, Flint’s Stockton Center, has more news. Stockton Center will be hosting an open house next week for the film “Alleged,” which was partially filmed at the historical house and will be screened at next weekend’s Flint Film Festival.

We’re thrilled to work with such outstanding teachers and partners. Congratulations to both Dr. Hammond and Stockton Center!



For nearly the past decade – almost half of her career – Sandy Carey has worked with students in the Westwood Heights school district as a speech and language therapist.

Born and raised in Illinois, Carey lived in northern Wisconsin before moving to Michigan when her husband was transferred to Lansing. She returned to work after her three children were born.

The McMonagle Elementary speech teacher was instrumental in bringing a hydroponics garden to the school. Getting youth involved in gardening stems from an early childhood memory of working alongside her mother and grandparents in her family’s Victory Garden.

During World War II, citizens were encouraged to raise their own food in Victory Gardens, so commercially-grown produce could be canned and shipped to the troops. Because her family’s yard was small, the family obtained extra gas ration stamps to drive to a section of farmland where they grew vegetables, enough to load up their dirt-floor cellar with jars of tomatoes and green beans.

“Grandma, Grandpa, all of us worked on it,” said Carey, whose father and uncles were veterans. “It was very much a place-based kind of a venture.”

After working in education, Carey realized “children don’t have much of a connection to the outside at all, much less a place to safely be doing some gardening.”

Thanks to the hydroponics garden – where plants are grown in water – elementary students practice academic skills while charting pH and nutrient levels. Youth fill the garden reservoir with water, pick peppers and tomatoes and learn that food origins don’t have to be a mystery. “I think they’re proud they can grow their own food,” Carey said.

Bringing hope to students is especially important in a community where Carey knows students who were victims of shootings.

Along with working on students’ speech and language skills, she spends her days encouraging youth to help others, hoping they “find some success in something they like to do at school, something that can overshadow the darkness in their lives,” Carey said.

Carey’s upbeat nature and sense of humor give children a reason to smile.

“I try to give kids cheerfulness and hope,” Carey said. “I think the garden does that too.”