Southern Strong Award recipients make an impact during pandemic


Abby EpsteinNews Writer

Southern Strong; members of the Southern community put in the overtime hours to help their community. Five members have been given the Southern Strong Award.  

Michelle Johnston, Suzie Huminski, Joan Kreiger, Renee Villarreal and Bo Zamfir are the five individuals who are the Southern Strong awardees. Each individual has found a way to make an impact during this pandemic.  

“I just absolutely melted into tears,” said Johnston after she found out she received the award. “Nobody does it to get an award, you just do it because it’s something you can do and it’s the right thing to do.”  

Johnston has made over 350 masks from home and has been sending them to hospitals and other places in her community.  

“I have brought them to Yale, Middlesex hospital, and to Stop and Shop. They have gone to Deep River school systems and a woman who was putting care packages together for nurses at Waterbury hospital,” said Johnston 

Not only has she been making masks, but Johnston has organizations and friends in other states making them too. 

“I made a pattern and sent it out to everybody with instructions and pictures, and it is nice to see that it has made its round to different organizations,” said Johnston 

Huminski also made masks, but more importantly said she wants her students to know she is there for them during this difficult time.  

“It is very, very important to me that my students know I’m ready to help them, not just willing, but ready,” she said 

She was nominated by one of her students who mentioned Huminski has helped in important ways to navigate the class during the transition online. 

“I appreciate hearing that, it has not been easy for any of us with the changes we have made in the last month,” said Huminski 

Huminski decided to start creating masks after hearing about an early outbreak and a shortage of protective gear in hospitals from her sister who is a nurse in Vermont. 

“I put aside my anger at a breach and safety and decided to help in the best way I could figure out,” she said 

Kreiger took a different approach and is a respiratory therapist by training and decided to go and volunteer at Greenwich Hospital.  

“I wanted to give other respiratory therapists a break especially over the Easter/Passover holiday weekend, said Kreiger. “I truly felt it was a professional privilege that I had to be able to share with them my time and allow them to go home to their families.”  

She was placed in the Intensive Care Unit for four days over the holiday weekend.  

“I had an intellectual understanding but until I got there, I did not know what the true emotional commitment was, it really made me proud to do it but also made me really appreciate what everybody on the front lines is doing,” said Kreiger  

Villarreal said her parents and friends have always told her that she does so much and that she will go far in life. Villarreal is a part of the National Guard, but on top of that she is a mom, full-time student, and works two part-time jobs.  

“I know I have the mindset that if you work hard you are going to get far in life,” said Villarreal.  

Downtime is rare for Villarreal to have between traveling for the National Guard, working at Pet Smart and going to school during the day.  

“I’ve learned to balance, it was hard at first, but you just have to learn to balance it,” said Villarreal.  

Zamfir has created mini trainings to help faculty and staff learn how to use online programs, but said he could not have done it without help of others.  

“We have a really good group of people that have volunteered their time to do this,” said Zamfir  

The Online Learning Team consists of Libby Rhoades, Greg McVerry, Olcay Yavuz, Michele Vancour, Rebecca Hedreen, Bob Cuddihee, Amanda Mojica, and Trever BrolliarThey, along with Zamfir, held 58 webinars in the first two and half weeks.  

“We managed to do a ton of different things, we did drop in support trainings specifically to Webex, to Blackboard, to Teams, and trainings how to best engage students on online education which is where the faculty volunteers were really important,” said Zamfir 

The Online Learning Team is still holding webinars and they moved up the teaching academy that is taught in June.  

“We moved it up a little bit so we can help faculty with their move to online classes for summer,” said Zamfir 

Each awardee found a way to help the Southern and local communities.  

There’s nothing too small that you can do to help someone else, Villarreal said, you do not have to do something big to make a change.

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