Cheatham Hill Teacher Monica Alicea Awarded Third Place in National Voya Unsung Hero Competition

On October 12, representatives of Voya Financial surprised Cheatham Hill Elementary School teacher Dr. Monica Alicea with the announcement that she won third place and $7,000 in the national Voya Unsung Heroes award competition. (Pictured from Left to Right) Marie Cox, Voya representative; Dr. Monica Alicea, Voya Unsung Hero; Keeli Bowen, Cheatham Hill principal; and Barry Rawls, Voya representative.

In March 2018, Cheatham Hill Elementary students will once again transform into restaurateurs as they serve up food to raise funds for MUST Ministries. This year, however, the students may be looking to their own school garden for more ingredients than past years thanks to their teacher Dr. Monica Alicea, who won third place in the national 2017 Voya Unsung Heroes competition.

Through the Voya Unsung Heroes program, Voya Financial, Inc., a leading provider of retirement plans for educators, awards grants to K-12 educators nationwide to honor their innovative teaching methods, creative educational projects, and their ability to positively influence their students.

Selected as the third place winner from more than 1,200 applicants nationwide, Alicea earned $7,000 in grants as an Unsung Hero. The Cheatham Hill advanced learning teacher plans to use the funds to support “Serving 4 Cause, Farm 2 Table,” an innovative program designed to help students learn about running a restaurant and how they can make a difference in their community.

“We are honored to recognize Monica Alicea as the third place winner in Voya’s 2017 Unsung Heroes program,” said Heather Lavalle, president of Tax-Exempt Markets at Voya Financial. “At Voya, we are proud to recognize our nation’s teachers who go above and beyond as they educate the children in their communities. In the same way that we help our clients prepare for and protect their financial futures, teachers set their students on the right path for a promising future. We are thrilled to be able to empower educators like Monica to bring their innovative ideas to life.”

Alicea’s innovative teaching idea, “Serving 4 Cause, Farm 2 Table,” focuses on hosting a dinner to benefit MUST Ministries “Save it Forward” program. The school’s staff is invited to eat a meal prepared by their students at the Kitchen Kids Café. Diners pay for dinner with a bottle of laundry detergent, which is donated to MUST Ministries. Through this experience, students not only learn how to cook, but they also gain knowledge about hunger and homelessness in Georgia.

“This program is a wonderful opportunity for our students to learn about cooking and nutrition while benefitting the community around us,” said Keeli Bowen, principal of Cheatham Hill Elementary School. “The hard work and commitment from Monica to start and nurture this project, as it grows, is remarkable. To know our students are gaining culinary skills, while also gaining servant leadership abilities by helping families in need, makes this program a win for everyone involved. We are so grateful to Voya for this honor.”

Alicea started the school garden last year to grow lettuce and herbs for the student-run restaurant. Over the summer, MUST Ministries was also able to harvest produce from the garden. With the funds from Voya, Alicea plans to expand the garden by adding a tower garden, raised garden beds, and additional plants. Her goal is to have one raised bed for each grade level and to have a greenhouse to grow even more fruits and vegetables. If all goes as she plans, MUST Ministries will be able to harvest more produce for families in need.

“The students are learning skills that they can use in every day life, but they are doing it for a purpose to help others, which is even more meaningful to them,” the Unsung Hero explained.

Alicea wants to make a difference and wants her students to do the same. By running the restaurant, the students learn that even small groups can make a difference, according to their teacher.

Alicea is grateful for grants like the one she received from Voya and the Cobb Schools Foundation. The grants help her provide her students more hands-on learning experiences.

“It is really hard as a teacher to do everything that you want to do,” Alicea said. “When you want to teach more than on paper and pencil, you need support. We need support from our parents. We need support from our community.”

Alicea is not the first national Voya winner in Cobb County. Last year, Cooper Middle School science teacher Carol Mickus won the top prize in the national 2016 Voya Unsung Heroes award competition.