To Davis High School senior Hind Zeitohn, Christina Welch is so much more than her government teacher. She is the "warm hug I get every cold morning, the home I can't wait to go to, and the family I share my bad moments and accomplishments with."
Hind, who moved with her parents, sister and three brothers to Modesto from Syria about two years ago, wrote those words in nominating Welch for the inaugural Life Changer Award presented by local members of the James Irvine Foundation's New Leadership Network.
First-generation college or college-bound students were invited to nominate — in 200 words or less — teachers who changed the trajectory of their lives. Seventeen Stanislaus County teachers, from elementary school through college level, were nominated.
Welch was surprised with the award at a Davis High faculty meeting Monday afternoon and said she was brought to tears as Hind read her nomination essay at the front of the school's little theater.
"She always believed my struggles, and most importantly, she believes in me," Hind read. "She’s been there for me even when I lost hope in life."
Talking in a hallway after the award presentation, the 17-year-old said her family lived in fear in Syria. "We always had to stay in and not speak loud and not do anything, just do what we’re told to do and hope that’s going to be OK."
She found in Welch a great teacher who loves what she does. "When I saw how sweet she is and how warm of a heart she has, I started opening up to her about things I didn't tell anybody, really, and tried to keep inside of me. Because I opened up to her, she made me talk to my counselor and now I have things going on that I’m working on."
Welch has encouraged her love of writing, Hind said. "I like to take my imagination and just let it be, write about anything that's going on or feelings I have, to give this thing imagery that people can see. To give my vision of things and put it down on paper," the student said.
She noted that she used to write in Arabic but now writes only in English, the language she uses every day and feels so comfortable in.
"If I've made a difference," Welch said, looking at the young woman beside her, "I've given her a voice, and that’s what our kids need" to be empowered.
Welch said she sees in Hind a strength the girl doesn't even seem to see herself. "What she’s been through, she's rock solid," the teacher said. She said she sees great creativity and "so much promise. She’s going to make a difference in this world. She’s going to be getting an award like this 20 years from now."
The New Leadership Network launched in Fresno County in 2013 and in Stanislaus County in 2016. A local "design group" within the network created the award to "shed light on teachers who are really impacting first-generation college-going students," said one of its members, Gallo Center for the Arts CEO Lynn Dickerson.
Dickerson and fellow design group member Chris Britton of Britton Konynenburg Partners were on hand to honor Welch and commend four other Davis teachers who were among the nominees. The award came with $500 for the winner and $500 for the nominating student, but Hind insisted that Welch receive the full $1,000.
The design group members hope some local organization takes ownership of the Life Changer and makes it an annual award, Dickerson said. "We believe these teachers are changing lives in a big way," she said, noting that half of the members of her design group, herself included, were first-generation college students. "There are many very successful people in our community who are the first in their families to go to college."
To learn more, go to the Life Changer Award Stanislaus County page on Facebook.