School district awards two seniors for heart, volunteerism

By: Sherri Kolade | Farmington Press | Published November 1, 2017

 Farmington Hills resident and volunteer Betty Bemis hugs Farmington Public Schools Superintendent George Heitsch at FPS’ 21st annual Senior Adult Breakfast Oct. 17 at the Costick Center.

Farmington Hills resident and volunteer Betty Bemis hugs Farmington Public Schools Superintendent George Heitsch at FPS’ 21st annual Senior Adult Breakfast Oct. 17 at the Costick Center.

Photo by Deb Jacques

 Farmington Hills resident and volunteer John Weigel, left, was nominated for his award by Renee Moreau-Decator, a second-grade teacher at Gill Elementary School.

Farmington Hills resident and volunteer John Weigel, left, was nominated for his award by Renee Moreau-Decator, a second-grade teacher at Gill Elementary School.

Photo by Deb Jacques

FARMINGTON  HILLS — In a room with cameras flashing, people talking and ambient background noise, Farmington Hills resident and volunteer Betty Bemis turned her attention to one of her students, Liam Christmann, 14, and gave him an Eskimo kiss. 

She did the gesture during Farmington Public Schools’ 21st annual Senior Adult Breakfast — held partly in her honor for her volunteerism. 

Bemis, 86, showed Liam a little love that day, like she usually does when volunteering through a Power Middle School program, SXI, or Severely Multiply Impaired, for students with special needs.

“I said to him, ‘Liam … you know how the Eskimos (give) kisses?’” she said during an interview later. “‘They rub noses,’ and I rubbed his nose with my nose, and he laughed. He understands everything.”

Bemis said she is “very blessed” with the type of students she works with.

“(They) are so very, very special, and they give so much, and I give so little,” she said.

Bemis and John Weigel, 81, who volunteers at Gill Elementary School, were selected as Senior Adult Extraordinaires because of how much they give.

The award recognizes senior adults who volunteer to help strengthen educational activities for FPS students, a release states.

Bemis, a retired FPS teacher, said that she got her start at FPS in the 1970s, where she worked at Flanders Elementary School, Cloverdale Elementary School and William Grace Elementary School, all closed now.

She retired in 1999.

“That is when I started to volunteer in different schools,” she said. “I think that with volunteering — it keeps you young, and you (have) different perspectives on life. … As long as I am blessed, I can still work and can help.”

She began volunteering several years ago, first with SXI students at Lanigan Elementary School. The SXI program then moved to Power Upper Elementary School, now Power Middle School.

Bemis comes into school daily to help the SXI students during lunch and adapted physical education, according to the release. She helps them develop communication skills, fine motor skills and social skills.   

Bemis even encouraged a student in a wheelchair to walk while on the playground at William Grace about 20 years ago.

“He’s probably about 6 feet 3 inches tall now,” Bemis said of her former student, who today is still walking.

Vitas Underys, a Power Middle School sixth-grade teacher for SXI students, nominated Bemis for the award and said at the event that her compassion is noteworthy. 

“I worked with her ... probably about 25 years ago at William Grace Elementary School,” he said, adding that she is dedicated to make students better.

“She wants to see them be the best they can be, and she sees the vision that they can learn,” Underys said. “She’s taught kids to read, taught kids to walk — it’s determination.”

Bemis said that so many people feel sorry for the students. 

“I feel bad for them, but I feel that they can do a lot more than they are doing,” she said.

“I just expect a lot more out of them — I think there is a lot more going on in their mind than we really know. It is a challenge.” 

 Bemis’ son, Farmington Hills resident Larry Bemis, said that he is not surprised by his mother’s award.

“She really enjoys doing this. It is a tremendous passion for her,” he said, adding that she didn’t tell the family about the award until the “11th hour.”

“I didn’t even want to come,” Bemis said during her acceptance speech as the crowd laughed.

“Well, you’re on TV now,” FPS Superintendent George Heitsch said with a smile before Bemis gave him a hug.

Larry Bemis said that his mother doesn’t really want to be rewarded for what she does.

Bemis — a fanatical bowler who averages about a 150, a mother of four, a grandmother to six and a great-grandmother to three — easily connects with people.

“She’s just wired that way,” he said. “I think (they see) the goodness in her.”

Liam’s mother, Farmington Hills resident Erika Christmann, sees the good in Bemis.

“She is so loving toward all the kids; she gives her heart toward all of them,” she said, adding that her son, who has cerebral palsy, and Bemis have a special bond. “It is like he knows her so much and she loves him so much.”

For the past eight years, Weigel has volunteered at Gill by assisting children with a variety of academic needs in small groups and one on one, according to a press release. 

“Mr. Weigel is more than special; he is extraordinary. Not only has he helped children with their assignments, but he has built relationships with them. He is truly a part of our school family,” Renee Moreau-Decator, a second-grade teacher who nominated Weigel for the award, said in a press release.

Weigel, who is a longtime community volunteer, said that his Christian values are what keep him volunteering throughout the community.

“We had family values — parents took us to church,” Weigel said. “I believe in God (and) care for other people, help other people. The Bible even says you should take care of the little ones.”

Weigel said taking care of the little ones — whether helping them meet personal goals, solve math problems or learn to count — is good for his soul.

“It does me more good than (the) people I help,” Weigel said.

Born in Hungary, Weigel and his family fled in 1949 when he was 13 years old after the Soviet Army occupation of his country.

He lived in Germany for five years. During that time, his family was only able to eat whatever they could find.

“When we landed there, (we) bunked down (in an) old school building until people in town took us in,” he said. “Food was scarce for five years.”

Weigel, now retired, said that things have since changed.

“I don’t have an abundance of things, but I’m not lacking anything,” he said.

His family, including his six brothers, his mother and his father, came to the United States by boat after being sponsored by a family associate.

“At that time, you needed to have a sponsor,” he said. “As we came closer to the United States, (I saw) flashes of lights. I realized those were cars. I didn’t realize there were that many cars around.” 

Hs family moved to Pennsylvania, Milwaukee, and as an adult he later moved to Farmington Hills with his wife in 1976 to work for Ford Motor Co.

“I’ve been here ever since,” he said.

With his siblings scattered around the United States, Weigel said that God has been his family’s strength. 

“I believe (that) God kept us and he hasn’t forsaken us — always provided,” he said, adding that he was surprised and thankful for the volunteer award nomination. “I didn’t expect it.”

Weigel said that school today is not like it was when he was a kid in Hungary.

“The whole concept is different,” he said. “Everything was strict.”

Weigel said that students had one teacher.

“You sit in your chair ... and here the kids move around — they have snacks,” he said, adding that the teachers now are wonderful.

During Weigel’s acceptance speech, he said that he was “deeply honored” and humbled to accept the award. 

“I find it very rewarding working with kids,” he said.

To learn more about Farmington Public Schools, visit www.farmington.k12.mi.us.