Zach Greene personifies perseverance, at least that’s what some of his fellow Blue Valley West High School classmates think.
Friends have a reason to see Greene as a student with tenacity: When he was in seventh grade, he contracted Ewing’s sarcoma, a bone tumor that most commonly affects children. For eight months, he battled the cancer with chemotherapy, two surgeries on his femur and radiation treatment.
“I basically missed an entire semester of school,” he said.
Now, Greene is a healthy, active senior at Blue Valley West participating in cross country and recreational sports. As a cancer survivor, he decided to get involved with Relay for Life and the i-ROK Foundation, a Ewing’s sarcoma foundation based in Excelsior Springs, as well as other community projects.
That community involvement led to Greene being named a Blue Valley Education Foundation Sunflower Ambassador for his high school this year. In its 15th year, the program recognizes students, faculty and staff that exemplify the seven Blue Valley virtues: compassion, courage, honesty, perseverance, respect, responsibility and self-discipline.
“It’s a great honor to be selected and that people think of me as a good person,” Greene said. “I’m not sure I feel like a role model.”
Plenty of awards single out students for academics and athletics, but few recognize them for good character, as the ambassadors program does, said, Blessing, .
“We take pride in this program because it recognizes students and staff members for good character and living by the Blue Valley virtues: for being good people,” Blessing said. “It is nice that it’s available to the kids who maybe don’t get recognized for academics or athletics but are role models by the way they act.”
The ambassadors were recognized recently at the Blue Valley Education Foundation’s annual community breakfast. Each year, 34 students and 35 faculty members — a student and staff member at each school and a staff member at the district office — receive a medal for their honor titles.
A peer or faculty member nominates a Blue Valley fourth-grader, seventh-grader and senior with an essay detailing why that person deserves the honor. Greene’s friend Joe Nail nominated him.
Because ambassadors carry the title through their last year in their elementary, middle or high school, the hope is that the ambassadors will be leaders at their school, Blessing said.
“They’ll be role models for the other kids,” she said.
As schools try to battle bullying and find role models for students, the ambassador program provides a peer for other students to look up to.
“I’m always amazed at these kids and what they do, how they treat other kids and how they make a difference,” Blessing said.
And their peers respond to the ambassadors program, she said.
“It improves school culture and school safety and that is paramount right now,” Blessing said.
Barbara Unell, author of several parenting books and a founding board member of the foundation, said that the ambassador program began not only to recognize students, but also as a way to build relationships between Blue Valley schools and the community.
“We wanted to focus on the virtues that really impact the community,” she said. This is how “we honor the students that exemplify those virtues.”
But it’s not just about encouraging students while they’re in school. The characteristics they portray lead to not only academic success but also success in life, Unell said. She said research has shown that encouraging good character improves mental and physical health, decreases depression and obesity and helps foster relationships.
“The dream is that this experience will stay with them not just for the time they’re honored, but for the rest of that child’s life,” she said.
For Sunflower Ambassadors like Greene, exemplifying those Blue Valley virtues is more about being involved in the community and less about being honored for it.
“If you can help out you should,” he said. “Even if it’s just setting up for something.”