What are you doing this summer? Local educator devotes vacation to volunteering near & far from home

SYCAMORE TWP., Oh. - Exotic locales are not unusual for summer travels, but working on summer vacation may not be everyone's idea of fun.

One local educator has a different definition of what makes a great holiday. Becky Miller, 31, assistant principal at Edwin H. Greene Intermediate School, has spent more than 10 years traveling for volunteer work during the summer.

This month she travels to New Orleans with Habitat for Humanity to build homes for the fourth consecutive year. In addition to volunteering locally and within the United States, Miller has traveled to Haiti, South Africa and India.

"After every trip, I feel as though I come back with my bucket overflowing and I have a desire to continue reaching out to people," Miller said.

The young administrator feels she returns home with a better understanding of the world. She said her travels have enriched her as both an educator and an administrator, especially when it comes to understanding children, their needs and their respective cultures. She said it's important to break down barriers and establish closer connections with both students and people in general.

Life lessons begin in Haiti

It all started in 1998, when Miller traveled to Haiti as part of a Christian youth group. Her initial intent was to simply experience life outside the U.S. She said during her time there, she performed a variety of volunteer activities including hosting a kid's camp, working in a clinic and helping to build homes. Five visits to the country while in high school and college ignited a passion to help those less fortunate and reinforced Miller's decision to go on to become a teacher. She said as part of the natural progression, she continued to travel as a volunteer each summer.

"I love going on a great vacation like anybody does, but there's something about interacting with different cultures and seeing the needs in these places that kind of drags me to go back," she said. "It seems like the funny part is I'm always changed more than I can ever impact someone."

Africa and India

After becoming a kindergarten teacher for Sycamore Community Schools, Miller continued her volunteer work. In the summer of 2009, she traveled with a group of teachers to Mamelodi, South Africa to work side-by-side with educators to help engage students with phonics and hands-on lessons.

The following summer, she traveled to India to spend time with girls who were rescued from forced prostitution in both Mumbai and Kolkata. For the past four summers, Miller has gone to New Orleans to work with Habitat for Humanity, to both help with the construction of homes and provide a day camp for local kids.

"I feel like when I'm here in Cincinnati, I'm able to give back on a daily basis and I think that's part of why I went into education is to be able to do that to make an impact," she said. "But when we go to other countries and other cities, it gives me the chance to help in another way I guess. There's just something that tugs at my heart."

Classroom to real world

In addition to her contributions as a volunteer, Miller continues to make her mark as an educator. While teaching at Blue Ash Elementary, she spearheaded the kindergarten iPad cohort, which brought iPads to every kindergarten classroom in the district. She also served as a member of the Sycamore Literacy Council, led reading and writing workshops for staff, and implemented the first Blue Ash Literacy Night.

According to Erika Daggett, chief Information officer for Sycamore Schools, Miller struggled with the idea of sharing her story as the recognition contradicted her reason for helping others.  Only after Daggett pointed out Miller's experience may inspire other did she relent. 

"I'm blown away by her," said Daggett. "She warms my heart. What she does not only directly helps those in need, but she spreads hope to those around her by being herself and doing what she loves – helping others."

A gift to give

Last year, Miller received the Celebrate Excellence Educator award from the Hamilton County Education Foundation. Ann Marie Reinke, assistant director of academic affairs for Sycamore Community Schools, said she nominated her colleague for her dedication as an outstanding educator and giving community member. She explained Miller's gift to give fits in perfectly with the ideals of the district, as the Sycamore Schools continuously organizes and hosts charity events.

Reinke said school districts need more young administrators like Miller, with a strong sense of passion and commitment that transcends to others, especially the students.

"It's really important for kids to understand that we don't live in a vacuum, that we belong to the greater community and when you give kids the ability to give back to others, they really do rise to the occasion," Reinke said.

Daggett explained colleagues and students are not the only ones touched by Miller's unwavering commitment. As part of the 2012 Celebrate Excellence Educator nomination process, parent Chrystal Quigley recommended Miller for the award due to the lasting impression she made on both her and her daughter, Daggett said.

"She not only helps students learn, but she helps parents learn and grow," Quigley wrote. "She has motivated my daughter and myself to excel …and that will last through the years."

Start close to home

Miller said she's a bit overwhelmed by all the attention, but happy to share her story if it inspires others to give back. She explained the best way to get started is to volunteer locally for charitable organizations like Habitat for Humanity in Cincinnati.

At the local Habitat affiliate, volunteer services coordinator Tara Prices said people just need to have a wiliness to participate and they'll take care of all the rest, including necessary training. Price explained volunteers can register online and choose their preferred days as well as their preferred site from any of the nine counties included in the Greater Cincinnati region.

Price said, like Miller, volunteers return year after year because they get so much back from the experience of helping others.

"It becomes a part of their life," she said. "They get the "habititis" as we call it."

Miller will travel to New Orleans for just a week this year to work with Habitat building homes. She said she feels a special bond with the people there as she's established long-term relationships with both the students she taught in camp and the families she met while helping with construction. She said each time she volunteers, she takes away far more than she ever gives. Although the idea of going to a beach for a week holds its allure, Miller said she finds her working vacations to be far more rewarding.

"I think it's so worthwhile," she said.  "You don't come back refreshed and relaxed from whole week of laying on a beach, but you come back refreshed in a different way because you're helping these people and you actually done something with your time."

  • Do you know of someone doing extraordinary things this summer? If so, please email Community Editor Holly Edgell: holly.edgell@wcpo.com
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