On Martin Luther King Day, Thomas Thibodeau channeled the great orator, speaking of the power of community and justice.
He provided the keynote Monday for the annual La Crosse Public Education Foundation grants award luncheon, titled "Strong Schools, Strong Community." Thibodeau is a distinguished professor of servant leadership at Viterbo University, and focused on the topic of service.
"Why is it that we have a strong community?" he said. "Because we have a community full of servants."
Service was honored at the luncheon, with awards given to The Insurance Center of Onalaska, Central High School Principal Jeff Fleig and retired La Crosse superintendent Jerry Kember for their support, leadership and service to public education. Foundation leaders also honored educators Barb Kroner and Susan Houlihan for their nearly seven decades of teaching students.
The event celebrated $30,000 in grants given to 22 recipients in the School District of La Crosse this past fall in the first of two rounds of grants this school year. Festival Foods sponsored the luncheon, which was held at the Cargill Room of the Waterfront Restaurant and Tavern, and also sponsored a grant to provide collaborative desks at Logan High School.
During his remarks, Thibodeau spoke of the strength of the La Crosse community, as well as how the community's support did more than just educate: It was also a force for justice.
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Thibodeau said La Crosse has a strong community because the city is full of servants. And with the luncheon taking place on MLK Day, Thibodeau brought up the August shooting that left 17-year-old Central student George Miller dead.
That death was a tragic injustice, he said. Thibodeau was one of 42 members of the community who came together on short notice when Superintendent Randy Nelson called them in for support in the wake of the shooting, an act he said showed educators the citizens of La Crosse love them and support them.
There are three qualities in justice and love, he said, which are abundant in La Crosse. The first is hospitality, showing that all are welcome. Public education is part of that hospitality, turning no one away.
Second is generosity, the ability of people to give their time and treasure. The $170,000 in grants and other funding the education foundation plans to provide this year is evidence of the community's generosity as are the volunteers who helped secure donations of canned foods by working on the annual Rotary Lights display or help out in other ways throughout the year.
The third quality is gratitude, understanding that you can't be generous unless you realize what you are giving or receiving is a gift. Education is a gift, he said, more than just teaching a child to read and write. It also teaches them to speak publicly, to be a leader and how to gain the technical skills needed to follow a passion or a career.
"Look at our community and the generous people in this room," Thibodeau said. "We come to know each other through our generosity."