Taking a hike: Geist-area teachers receive Lilly Endowment grants

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Two Geist-area teachers were each awarded a $12,000 Teacher Creativity Fellowship Program grant through the Lilly Endowment. They are Mt. Vernon High School chemistry teacher Caleb Zelencik and Metropolitan School District of Lawrence Township Sunnyside Elementary English as a New Language teacher Leslie Snoke.

The Teacher Creativity Fellowship Program is designed for teachers to renew their commitment to teaching by allowing them to pursue their dreams and passions.

Zelencik plans to use the grant to hike the Camino de Santiago, a 500-mile trail from France to Spain, which leads to the shrine of the apostle Saint James the Great in Galicia, Spain.

“I wrote the grant with the rationale to work on my Spanish language skills. We have a growing population of ESL and ENL students and a lot of international students coming from Spain,” said Zelencik, who has taught at Mt. Vernon High School for 15 years. “I like to hike. I like the outdoors, so I thought, what better way than to go to Spain and hike the El Camino?”

Zelencik has had four students from Spain in the past three years.

In March, Zelencik began studying Spanish vocabulary at home. He will travel to Paris this summer and begin his hike in France.

Zelencik has been working on his physical conditioning in advance of the trip.

“A lot of it is hitting the gym and improving my own personal fitness,” he said. “When the weather turns and gets nicer and consistently warmer, I’m going to get out on weekends and walk as much as I can. I’ve never done a long-distance hike.”

Zelencik has applied for the grant three times. This was his first succesful application.

Snoke’s grant also revolved around hiking. She was awarded the grant on her first application.

“We are going to learn to backpack. My husband and I are day hikers and have never done anything overnight,” Snoke said.

Unlike most grant recipients, Snoke is doing her trip in phases: one each during spring break, summer break, fall break and winter break. She and her husband spent four days and three knights hiking the 60-mile Knobstone Trail in southern Indiana. The Knobstone is Indiana’s longest trail.

During the summer, the couple will travel to Canada and hike the Juan de Fuca trail for three days. Then, during fall break, they will hike the Grand Canyon. For winter break, they will hike the outer mountain loop at Big Ben National Park in Texas.

“Many people (grant recipients) tend to do one bigger trip,” Snoke said. “The grant also covers all the equipment, and part of why we have never gotten into backpacking is we will go and look at a tent and it’s $400, and that’s just the first thing. We have to buy sleeping bags, which if you want them light for backpacking, they are very expensive. Then there’s cooking, a cookstove, a pot to cook in, lightweight spoons. We only have little day packs. We had to buy bigger backpacks.”

Besides equipment, the grant also covers travel expenses.

“Part of what I wrote into the grant, too, is not to just do this this year,” Snoke said. “Hopefully, we can carry this forward. I think that’s part of maybe why they chose my proposal was because I kind of wrote it as this is not just a one-time thing, this is something I can take with me forever. This can always help me with the stress of the job. This is something that’s relaxing, and it can help me stay healthy as a teacher.”

Experiencing challenges 

Sunnyside Elementary teacher Leslie Snoke knows backpacking is challenging. By taking on the challenge, she is confident the experience will better equip her to help students deal with their personal trials.

“I think the challenges we put ourselves through will help me be more compassionate toward my students who are going through challenges,” Snoke said. “They are dealing with a lot more of personal challenges than hiking.”

Snoke also plans to start a nature club and an outdoor lab space at Sunnyside Elementary. She will create activities for students, such as journaling about being in nature, nature scavenger hunts and more.

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