TOMS RIVER – Ocean County’s top law enforcement office honored 28 elementary and high school students as unsung heroes during a special ceremony earlier this month. While some students were recognized for their resilience in the face of adversity and challenges, others were distinguished for going the extra mile to assist other people.
At the onset of introducing the honorees, Ocean County Prosecutor Bradley D. Billhimer expressed his fondness for the Unsung Hero Student Recognition Awards. Billhimer said he was personally inspired by the students and suggested motivating others might be another achievement worthy of celebration.
The Ocean County Prosecutor’s office has made a conscious effort to work with the schools to promote positive behavior among young people. The aim is to create a supportive environment that empowers students and helps them avoid trouble with the law.
Students selected as unsung heroes were nominated by their individual school districts for the award. Each was identified as a person who does great deeds but receives little or no recognition for themselves.
“This award represents the recognition you deserve,” wrote the Prosecutor’s office in the program containing the names of all of the recipients. “Whether you have overcome obstacles, preserved in the face of great challenges, or improved academically, your faculty and administrators have deemed you worthy of this prestigious honor.”
As part of their recognition, the students were given a certificate and a bag full of goodies and presented with a challenge coin. Challenge coins hold great significance and represent an honor highly valued in military and law enforcement communities. The coins are given as tokens of appreciation and recognition for individuals who have completed a difficult task or distinguished themselves in some way.
Representatives from each of the school districts took turns at the podium to share the qualities that led to the selection of their district’s unsung hero nominee. The presenters represented a variety of roles within the schools, from principals to teachers to social workers and school counselors.
Some of the students faced heart-wrenching losses that profoundly impacted their lives, and had to work diligently to move forward. Children who had relocated multiple times were acknowledged for their determination to adjust to new environments and navigate relationships. Others persevered through mental health and physical challenges. Still others regularly performed random acts of kindness despite an overload of personal commitments.
There was a noticeable trend among the selection of unsung heroes, as the same set of admirable adjectives was repeatedly used to describe each award recipient. Words such as determined, dedicated, resilient, positive, proactive, compassionate, kind, and empathetic appeared to embody the character traits of nearly every student recognized.
Most did not notice that Billhimer diverted from the program and skipped over the student named as the unsung hero from the Frog Pond Elementary School in Little Egg Harbor.
“I wanted to handle this in a respectful way,” shared Billhimer. “The student, Michael Browne, who was nominated for the unsung hero award was in an unimaginable accident and passed away earlier this year.”
Frog Pond Principal Tom Denning and Vice Principal Paul Nazarck took their place at the podium. Nazarack emphasized that Michael had been selected for the award before his death. Indeed, the remarks offered by Denning reflected a much happier time.
“At a young age, Michael faced experiences in his family life that would have caused adults to pause and ponder how to face life’s challenges,” said Denning. “Fortunately, Michael faces life’s challenges head-on.”
“With his loving and caring grandparents, he is adjusting to a new state, a new community, a new school, and making new friends,” Denning continued. “He is rising above the struggles of the earlier part of his life, and he is now able to give better attention to his school responsibilities and show himself, his teachers, and his classmates the amazing things he is capable of.”
According to his obituary, Michael “Mikey” Ryan Browne tragically left his world on April 2, 2023, just days before his thirteenth birthday. His obituary mentions his achievement as an unsung hero.
The list of 2023 Award Recipients and the school districts they represented are as follows: Matthew Fronzuk, Barnegat Township High School; Joseph Thiel, Bay Head Elementary School; Mariah Walling, Brick Memorial High School; Liam Nielson, Brick Township High School; Nathaniel Davis, Central Regional High School; Harrison Headley, Eagleswood Elementary School; Michael Browne, Frog Pond Elementary School; Yaneli Emilio-Tlapanco, Hugh J. Boyd School; Teagan McGarry, Island Heights School; Denielle Deriode, Jackson Liberty High School; Christophano Marano, Jackson Memorial High School; Charles Elmer, Lacey Township High School; Anthony Palma, Lakewood High School; Skyler Vivenzio, Lavallette Elementary School; Kirra Fredericks, Manchester Township High School; Luis Huitron, New Egypt High School; Ava Yellovich, Ocean Gate Elementary School; Eric Czaplinski, OCVTS-Brick Center; Dinah Van Name, OCVTS-Grunin Performing Arts Academy; John Fitzpatrick, OCTVS-Jackson Center; Matthew Caccavano, OCVTS-Toms River Center; Emma Carlysle Kohler; Pinelands Regional School District; Sabina Smith, Point Pleasant Beach School; Kagni Hostinsky, Point Pleasant Borough High School; Quinn Corbett, Stafford Township Intermediate School; Bella Moderno, Toms River East High School; Alexandra Finter-Flood, Toms River North; and Diana Olivos, Toms River South.