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Gilbert Students, Community Give Back Through Mentoring Programs

We celebrate all of our volunteers during National Mentoring Month

Pastor Christian Johnson, who watches over the congregation at Gilbert Lutheran Church, had a smile on his face as he sat and waited for intermediate student and fourth grader Parker Main Tuesday afternoon. For one, Pastor Johnson enjoys a good school lunch and on the menu today is a corn dog. Secondly, and most importantly, he gets the chance to spend an hour with Main, who he’s mentored for nearly four years.

Soon enough Parker shows up, and he and Pastor Johnson take their lunches to the east gym where they sit with their backs to the bleachers and eat while they talk. They might shoot some hoops, or play another game afterward, whatever Parker wants.

Pastor Johnson and Parker get together weekly and it’s a visit they both look forward to.

“Parker is an amazing kid,” Pastor Johnson says. “I love his energy, his creativity, and his spirit just lifts me up. And I love to be in the school too. To see the teachers, the staff, the kids; it just lifts you up.”

Pastor Johnson is one of 30 individuals – students and community members alike – who take part in the YSS School-Based Mentoring program, according to Gilbert Mentor Facilitator Erin Wimmer. Now in its 22nd year, the program is so popular, in fact, that there are four boys on the waiting list, biding their time until a mentor can be located. 

The YSS School-Based mentoring program is for students in kindergarten through eighth grade, and there are a number of Gilbert High School students that serve as mentors alongside community members. Wimmer says sophomores, juniors and seniors can apply to become mentors and it’s a great way to give back to younger students.

“I do my best to recruit people who are interested in spending time once a week with younger kids in the school,” Wimmer says. “It’s being there for them, being a positive role model in their lives, and it enriches your own life too.”

January is National Mentoring Month and today – Thursday, Jan. 26 – is Thank Your Mentor Day. This month serves as a chance to raise awareness for how one conversation, one experience, and one mentor can change a young person’s life, according to the website

Wimmer has witnessed many beautiful connections over the years, and nearly 50 percent of the mentors stay with their students for at least two years. Some, as in Pastor Johnon’s case, maintain that connection for even longer.

“I’ve been here for eight years and one of the most impactful stories came in my first year,” Wimmer said. “At the end of every year, we ask the mentees what having a mentor means to them. Usually answers are: it means I can play games with somebody, or it means I have somebody to talk to, or it means I can skip outside recess when it’s cold outside. But my first year, a student responded to that question with: it makes me feel less invisible. I will never forget that.”

The YSS School-Based Mentoring program is just one of several ways that our students are afforded the opportunity to connect and make a difference in the lives of their younger peers.

At the high school this past fall, Assistant Principal John Ronca spearheaded a new program called Tiger Den, in which seniors can mentor freshmen in the building. Being new to the high school can be scary and intimidating for ninth graders, and the Tiger Den’s mission is to help alleviate that strain.

“Freshmen always seem a little bit timid, so this was an opportunity to create a program where seniors can sign up and help,” Ronca says.

Sixty seniors committed to the program, and while it’s voluntary for freshmen, Ronca says every member of the class signed up to take part. Each senior was assigned two or three freshmen to mentor, and the group gets together once a month during Success Center to talk and play games. Ronca envisions a growing program in the coming years..

“The goal was to have freshmen get to know at least one senior they could count on, whether they had questions about classes, behavior, culture … they could talk to a senior about those things.

“The program is simply helping freshmen assimilate into the culture of the high school with the seniors, and the program has been really good. I think the seniors and freshmen are really enjoying their time, and any time you can get older students to help mold the younger mind, that’s a plus.”

Students at the high school have one additional way to help mold the minds of the next generation and that’s as a Tiger Helper at the intermediate building. During the first semester, more than a dozen students took part and logged more than 160 hours in classrooms with younger students.

Any high school student with a study hall can sign up to be a Tiger Helper and each individual stays in the same classroom throughout the semester. It gives the students a chance to bond with both the students and staff and build relationships that may last long after the semester ends.

Whether it’s through the YSS School-Based Mentoring program, the Tiger Den program, or the Tiger Helper program, our students are reaping the benefits. For the mentors, these programs teach dedication and responsibility, and the chance to give back can heighten one’s own self-esteem. And for the mentees, it’s one more friend with a shoulder to lean on, or someone to smile and laugh with.

Any way you look at it, it’s win-win.

Girls Wrestling Team Hosts Panorama Tuesday

Tigers take state aspirations into Friday’s regional tournament

The inaugural season of sanctioned girls’ wrestling is drawing toward its conclusion, but not before teams across the state face their biggest and toughest tests of the season.

Regionals from Sioux City to Cedar Rapids and places in between are set for Friday, with the state tournament scheduled to take place Thursday and Friday, Feb. 2 and 3, at Xtream Arena in Coralville.

The top four finishers at each weight from regionals will advance to state. Gilbert’s full team will take part in Region 4 inside Wells Fargo Arena in Des Moines on Friday. Wrestling will get started at 11 a.m.

“Friday, yeah, it’s a big deal,” Gilbert head coach Scott Auderer said. “Our regional is tough, but they’re all going to be tough. Most of the weights, I’d say they’re pretty good one through four.”

Like Auderer said, Friday is important. But his grapplers haven’t turned their complete focus to that, not yet anyway. They’re currently focused on Tuesday night and a chance to wrestle in front of their home crowd for the first and only time this winter.

Gilbert will host Panorama at 6 p.m. Tuesday evening in the first sanctioned girls’ dual the school has ever hosted. It wasn’t on the Tigers original schedule, but when a December home meet was canceled, Auderer looked for another team willing to make the trek to compete. Panorama was up to the challenge, and it has Auderer and his pupils excited.

“Tuesday’s meet is a big deal for our program,” Auderer said. “It would be great to get that gym full for those girls and it’s something that helps to build the program.

“The girls are excited and they want to be recognized as a legitimate sport. They want people to see the hard work they’ve put in and get a chance to showcase themselves.”

Students will get into the dual free of charge, and the team would love if everyone from the community ventured to the high school to be part of the first-ever sanctioned dual at Gilbert. Most, if not all, of the 14 weights will be contested.

Auderer was still putting the final touches on his lineup for the dual and regionals Monday morning. Ten of the 14 weights have already been penciled in, but there are several challenge matches set for Monday afternoon that will decide the final lineup.

Friday’s regional will be anything but easy. Joining Gilbert in the Region 4 field will be Ames, Baxter, Boone, Cardinal, Carlisle, Chariton, Colfax-Mingo, Eddyville-Blakesburg-Fremont, Earlham, Fairfield, Grinnell, Johnston, Martensdale St. Marys, Nevada, Ogden, Panorama, Pella, Perry, Raccoon River-Northwest, Saydel, South Tama County, Southeast Polk, Urbandale, and West Des Moines Valley. It’s a blend of small and large schools with Gilbert somewhere in the middle in the one-class setup.

Gilbert’s lineup will look something like this for regionals:

•100 — Jaedyn Henry
•105 — Jaydan Jeppesen
•110 — Alicia Smith
•115 — Brooklynn Nees
•120 — Undecided
•125 — Undecided
•130 — Hadley Boshart
•135 — Brooke Hamers
•140 — Annika Yoder-Stoulil
•145 — Alex Harswick
•155 — Undecided
•170 — Anna Steenhoek
•190 — Open
•235 — Macy Underwood

Harswick, a senior 145-pounder, has put together a stellar campaign and she’s hopeful it will end in Coralville early next month. Harswick takes a 16-match winning streak and 22-3 overall record with 19 pins into Tuesday’s dual. She fell at the hands of second-ranked 140-pounder and 2022 state runner-up Sarah Lewis of Centerville early in the season, and her two other setbacks have both been avenged.

Auderer says Harswick’s lanky frame, strength and athleticism are all keys to her success. However, her determination is what truly sets her apart.

“The big key for her is her mental toughness and her discipline,” Auderer said. “She’s smart, she understands the diet, she understands the whole thing. It’s a priority for her and she has legitimate goals.”

Boshart, also a senior who competes at 130, is another Tiger with state aspirations, as she boasts a 19-7 record with 18 pins. She competed at state a season ago and understands the pressure the spotlight can bring.

“She’s improved a lot and she knows what she’s doing,” Auderer said of Boshart. “As long as she’s got the confidence in herself, she’ll be fine.”

Brooke Hamers, a junior 135-pounder, has dealt with injuries this season, but she’s back in the lineup and ready to take her crack at state as well. Hamers is 14-8 on the season.

“I think she has a shot on Friday, and I think a couple others have a shot (to reach state) as well,” Auderer said.

Of the 21 girls on the Gilbert roster, nine — Nees, Boshart, Hamers, Harswick, Steenhoek, Aubrey Dunn, Emma Britcher, Cecelia Bowers, and Fern Neubauer — have won at least 10 matches.

Your chance to see the team in action, right here at home, happens Tuesday evening. We hope to see you there!

Gilbert Competition Cheer Squad Ready To Take On Nationals

Tigers to compete in Dallas on Saturday and Sunday

Jordan Sytsma was noticeably nervous as she stood to the side and watched her Gilbert competition cheer squad prepare to perform in front of friends, family, and the entire community during halftime of the boys’ basketball game last Friday night.

This was the squad’s last chance for a full out in front of a crowd before it departs on Thursday for the National Cheerleaders Association (NCA) High School Nationals and Sytsma, the Tigers’ head coach, wanted perfection.

No coach ever gets perfection but, hey, they can dream, right?

“Friday was stressful,” Sytsma said. “To put them out in front of the entire community, that’s a pressure cooker. But I was very happy. I’ll always nit-pick things because you’re always striving to be better, but it went really well.”

With a little extra fine-tuning this week, the comp cheer squad hopes it will perform even better this weekend when it steps onto the big stage inside the Kay Bailey Hutchison Convention Center in Dallas, Texas, for nationals. Competing in the Small Varsity Game Day Division, the Tigers will showcase their routine during the semifinals on Saturday, and again during the finals on Sunday. The semifinal performance will account for 25 percent of their overall team score, while Sunday’s finals will make up the remaining 75 percent.

Gilbert’s three-minute routine is comprised of a band chant, situational response, and the school fight song. The routine itself was choreographed way back in August, although it had to be put on the back burner somewhat until following the state competition in November.

It’s not an easy routine. It’s not a safe routine. And that’s precisely what the squad’s 14 members — Carly Dolan, Clair Lewis, Grace Lornston, Julia Lewis, Anella Troncoso, Lulu Smith, Liz Fierce, Addie Pink, Payton Crawford, Ella Overman, Olivia Schuelka, Riley Lempiainen, Ava Price, and Blair Hibbing — wanted.

“We’re always pushing ourselves and taking risks, and the kids want that,” Sytsma said. “We’re not going to put out a safe routine. These girls want to be challenged, they want to take risks. We’re going to swing for the fences.”

Gilbert, which won back-to-back Class 3A state cheerleading titles prior to this season’s state runner-up finish, is one of only four schools in Iowa that will compete at nationals. Waukee, Waukee Northwest, and Mason City will join the Tigers in Dallas.

This year’s NCA High School Nationals will be the largest field in the 75-year history of the event. While that may seem daunting, it only adds to the excitement for Gilbert’s cheerleaders and coach. They’ve been together since June, working tirelessly to be ready for those six minutes on mat this weekend.

“The NCA’s tag line is the work is worth it, and I fully believe that,” Sytsma said. “It’s a ton of work, but the goal is to go down and do well. Just the experience of being able to compete on the national level is something I take a lot of pride in, as do the kids. They’re the first group from Gilbert to ever do that.

“This is the big leagues; you’re competing against the best of the best in the nation. Our kids want to go down and they want to win, which we are capable of doing.”

We wish Coach Sytsma and the girls nothing but the very best of luck this weekend. They’ve put in the time. They’ve put in the work. They’re ready. And we know they will represent our school incredibly well.

Gilbert 6th Grader Zack Langford Receives Heart Transplant

Family overjoyed, thankful, and looking forward to the future

Amanda Langford is exhausted. Over the past six days, she’s slept sparingly; an hour here, an hour there, but no more as her mind races through the scenarios. As an advanced registered nurse practitioner, she understands the situation better than most and that’s both a blessing and a curse.

She’s a mom, after all, and that’s her baby — Gilbert Middle School sixth grader Zack Langford — laying in the bed attempting to recover from a surgery that saved his life. She worries. Constantly. Who wouldn’t?

“I can’t turn my mom mind off, so I keep problem solving,” Amanda says softly as she sits inside Children’s Mercy Hospital in Kansas City. “But we’re just so happy and so excited.”

The phone call that changed the life of everyone in the family came in at 1:32 a.m. on Friday, Dec. 30, just a few hours after the Langfords had celebrated Christmas at the house of Zack’s grandparents. It was a call that Amanda, her husband Troy, Zack, and younger sibling Zander, a Gilbert Intermediate fourth grader, had dreamed about. Had prayed about. So many times.

Zack was just hours away from getting his new heart.

“Our phone rang … and they told us they had a heart for Zack,” Amanda says. “I let Zack and Zander sleep a little bit, but then we woke up the boys and told them the news and Zack was just overjoyed the second we told him. And Zander’s first words were, ‘Mom, it’s a miracle. We’re in Kansas City and Zack is going to get a heart.’”

It was a long wait, nearly four years since Zack was first diagnosed with restrictive cardiomyopathy, a condition in which the muscles of a heart’s ventricles stiffen and are unable to fill with blood. It’s the rarest form of cardiomyopathy and it generally leads to the need for a heart transplant.

Zack was double-listed on the heart transplant list, both at Children’s Mercy Hospital and the University of Iowa, that’s how dire the situation was starting to become, as the Langford family first shared with us earlier this fall (to read that full story, click here:

Zack checked into the hospital at 7 a.m. on Dec. 30 and was taken to the operating room 13 hours later. His new heart arrived at 12:30 a.m. on Dec. 31. And at 12:31 a.m., just one day before the New Year, Zack officially was a heart transplant recipient.

“It’s the best gift in the world,” Amanda says. “We’re completely humbled that someone would share that with us. Someone had to go through a great loss for us to have ours and we don’t want to minimize that. We’re just so thankful.”

Amanda says doctors wanted the ischemic time — the time between the heart beating in the donor’s chest to the moment it began to beat in Zack’s chest — to be between four and six hours. Anything more than six hours is less than ideal.

For Zack’s surgery, the ischemic time was 3 hours, 52 minutes, something that brought both joy and relief to Amanda and Troy.

“That’s just phenomenal,” Amanda says.

According to Amanda, Zack has progressed nicely in the days following surgery. Still, the journey to recovery will be long. Zack remains in the ICU currently, but the family is hopeful he’ll move to the floor within the next few days. If all goes well, Zack will remain in Kansas City for the next four to six weeks, and Amanda says the family is hopeful Zack will be able to return to school following spring break in March.

“He will be out of school for about three months, and he’ll be on anti-rejection (medication) for the rest of his life, but he’s doing really well,” she says. “The (medical) team is happy with his progress and his heart looks really good on echo (echocardiogram). I don’t know if he can truly comprehend or process it yet, but he’s definitely excited and he told me yesterday that he can run faster than me now.”

Amanda says the last week has been difficult on Zander, who misses his best friend terribly. But he knows his older brother is on the mend.

“He’s so happy for Zack, but he misses him too,” Amanda says of her youngest son. “He’s staying with my parents (locally in the Kansas City area), but he’s come up every day except for one to see Zack.”

Above all else, the Langford family is thankful — for the donor, for the outpouring of love it’s received from friends and family, and from its Gilbert family, most notably Zack’s group of friends that FaceTimed him just prior to his surgery.

“Gilbert has reached out to us so much and the school has been amazing,” Amanda says. “His five friends FaceTimed him good luck and told him how brave he was, and that really encouraged him too. It’s a nice testament to Gilbert.”

Gilbert Schools wants to continue to support Zack and the entire Langford family throughout the coming months. On Friday, all students are asked to wear red in support of Zack, and we continue to share how you can help the family with its medical costs.

“I hope the family can feel our giant hug from Gilbert all the way to Kansas City,” Gilbert Superintendent Dr. Christine Trujillo says. “Zack and his family are very special and have been through so much, and our hearts are with them. We are all reading the daily updates on Zack’s progress (via the group Facebook page COTA for Heart Warrior ZACK), and I know the Gilbert community is joining me in praying for continued healing for Zack and peace for Zander, Amanda, Troy, and the doctors who continue to treat Zack.”

The Langford family began working with the Children’s Organ Transplant Association (COTA) this fall in an effort to fundraise to help cover Zack’s medical expenses. As of Wednesday afternoon, the family has raised $14,381 with a goal of raising $75,000.

COTA is the nation’s only fundraising organization solely dedicated to raising life-saving dollars to support transplant-ready children and young adults. Every penny in donation made to COTA in honor of a patient goes to pay transplant-related expenses.

To support Zack and the Langford family with a tax-deductible donation, you can visit his COTA website: Simply click on the GIVE tab, enter your gift amount, and then scroll down and click on Zackary Langford.

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