Maria Drennen, Mike Panico
Maria Drennen, left, and Mike Panico were nominated for National LifeChanger of the Year awards. (Photos by Philomath School District)

Philomath School District counselors Maria Drennen and Mike Panico have each been nominated for the 2021-22 National LifeChanger of the Year award, the organization announced.

Sponsored by the National Life Group Foundation, LifeChanger of the Year recognizes and rewards top K-12 educators and school district employees who are making a difference in the lives of students by exemplifying excellence, positive influence and leadership.

Drennen, a school counselor at Philomath High School, was nominated by an anonymous colleague.

“Ms. Drennen is absolutely dedicated to serving students,” her nominator said. “She routinely prioritizes her day around student support, interventions and systems to improve the environment for them. I’ve never seen a more dedicated, smart, caring and efficient professional. Despite a really challenging year, she’s relentlessly there for her students. Their successes are partially due to her support for them.”

Panico, a school counselor at Philomath Middle School, was nominated by his colleague, Assistant Principal Chad Matthews, for leading initiatives aimed at helping kids in creative and caring ways.

The Connections Program connects sixth-grade students with eighth-grade mentors and serves as an example of building successful opportunities for students. Throughout the year, the older students help mentor their younger peers, all within a framework established by Panico.

Panico also finds grant money each year for the HERO (Helping Everyone Respect Others) Challenge. This event sees all of the seventh-grade students develop resiliency skills as they take part in various activities, including a high ropes course. The activities are designed by Panico to help build common bridges and support between students.

“In my 25 years as a teacher and building administrator, there has simply never been another with his skill set,” Matthews said. “His ability to effectively reach students, support families, and lift staff is unmatched.”

Drennen and Panico are two of 21 nominations from the state of Oregon.

Each school year, LifeChanger of the Year receives hundreds of nominations from across the country. Eighteen individual LifeChanger of the Year awards will be given with prizes ranging from $3,000 to $10,000 to be shared with their school district.

Winners are chosen by a selection committee that includes former winners and education professionals, and will be announced early this year.