Skip to content

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 mentoring.org.

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.

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: http://www.gilbertcsd.org/2022/09/a-heart-of-gold/).

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: COTAforHeartWarriorZack.com. Simply click on the GIVE tab, enter your gift amount, and then scroll down and click on Zackary Langford.

A HEART OF GOLD

Gilbert 6th grader Zack Langford fights for his life with a smile on his face

Zack Langford has one of those smiles that will instantly melt you. It’s more of a grin really, but it’s permanently plastered to his face. Even when the conversation moves to tough times – the scariest of times, actually – his facial expression never changes. His bright blue eyes never turn dark, his freckled face never furrows, and his immaculately styled hair never tussles.

As the Gilbert Middle School sixth grader sits on a chair at his family’s dining room table, surrounded by his parents, Troy and Amanda, younger brother, Zander, and full-of-energy shih-poo dog, Zazu, he’s not shy talking about his favorite activities since his life was turned upside down. He enjoys riding dirt bikes, fishing, drawing, and playing video games. It’s clear he’s not afraid to talk about his ailment either. He knows his story well going back to his initial symptoms in late 2018, and he’s quick to point out that during one less than pleasant trip to the hospital he was forced to give 27 vials of blood for testing purposes.

He’s been through a lot in his 11 years of life, particularly the last 3½ since his diagnosis, but he shrugs it off like most children would a poor score on a math quiz.

“It’s just kind of normal for me, it’s part of me now,” Zack says with his elbows leaning on the table. “I’ve kind of accepted it.”

 

IN THE BEGINNING

The worry in the eyes of Troy and Amanda is ever-present. How could it not be? They’ve already endured the worst kind of devastation parents can face – the loss of a child – when their first-born, a daughter named Mikayla, passed away at the age of six more than six years before Zack was born.

“Mikayla was born with two different brain abnormalities,” Amanda says. “She was only given a month to live, but lived six years. We waited 6½ years after she died to have Zack, and other than having asthma, he was a healthy kiddo.”

That all changed in December of 2018 though. Just four months after the family moved from their longtime home in Kansas City to central Iowa, Zack was 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 commonly leads to progressive heart failure and the need for heart transplant.

There were no symptoms prior to the family’s move to Iowa, and doctors still can’t give an answer to the family’s No. 1 question: Why? One day, Zack was a happy and healthy second-grade boy excited to go to a friend’s birthday party. The next day, the Langford family was staring at an unknown future.

“We went to a birthday party that day, but I was tired, I had no energy, and I didn’t feel the best,” Zack remembers. “We went to Target and Hobby Lobby, and in Hobby Lobby I got dizzy, nauseous, and had blurred vision.”

After a battery of tests at numerous hospitals – including an electrocardiogram, an echocardiogram, a cardiac catheterization, and an MRI, just to name a few – the family was given Zack’s diagnosis at the University of Iowa Hospitals.

And just like that, Zack’s world changed. He had to give up things like sports and riding his bike; his little heart just couldn’t handle them.

“It was hard emotionally at first,” Troy says. “One day you’re at the kids’ party in the gymnasium, and the next day you come home and can’t do anything. No baseball, no soccer, no riding bikes, no playing with friends.”

Initially, doctors told the Langfords that Zack would likely need a heart transplant within a year to survive. But aided by medication, his condition stabilized in the early months, something that is not normal in cases such as Zack’s.

“We were fortunate that we caught it,” Troy says. “Usually (at diagnosis, a patient) is in the hospital waiting for a transplant and they stay in the hospital waiting for a transplant.”

Eventually though, the disease took a toll. In March of 2021, Zack was placed onto the heart transplant list at the University of Iowa, and a year later, in March of this year, he was also placed on the transplant list at Children’s Mercy Hospital in Kansas City.

“Zack is the only child that has been dual-listed at Kansas City with another hospital,” Amanda says. “The fact that Children’s Mercy agreed to take on Zack was a blessing in itself.”

Even in these times of turmoil, Zack remains upbeat. He attends classes at Gilbert Middle School on a daily basis, and his positive outlook has an infectious quality to it that inspires everyone.

“Zack’s always upbeat and positive when he has every reason in the world to be upset,” Gilbert Middle School Principal Mike Danilson says. “His positive demeanor and outlook bring people together. It’s hard not to instantly like him and root for him.”

So now Zack, Amanda, Troy, Zander, and Zazu wait and hope. They wait for that call, which could come in at any moment, day or night, and they hope – and hope and hope – that Zack’s other organs aren’t taxed to the point that a transplant won’t be possible. Zack has had what he calls his “bug out bag” packed for a long time, and each night the family members go to bed wondering if a ring of the phone will jar them awake and change their lives yet again.

“At any moment, we could go,” Amanda says.

THE FINANCIAL BURDEN

Amanda and Troy are both originally from the Kansas City area. It’s where their primary support system still resides. And so they’ve asked themselves the question many times: Why aren’t we back there now?

“The biggest reason we haven’t moved is Gilbert Schools,” Troy says. “We were planning on moving back to Kansas City because that’s where a lot of our support is, and you want to be around family and friends. But the kids really liked the school here and made friends, and the school has been great. So we’ve changed our plans to keep the kids here in school.”

The financial burden caused by any medical crisis is immense, but a condition like Zack’s is extraordinary. All of the time off work to shuttle him to appointments in Iowa City and Kansas City, the myriad medications, the tests, the everything – it all adds up quickly.

“Nothing is cheap about being sick,” Troy says. “You try to save, but it goes out faster than it comes in.”

The Langford family recently began working with the Children’s Organ Transplant Association (COTA) in an effort to fundraise to help cover Zack’s medical expenses. As of Wednesday morning, the family had raised $7,758 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: COTAforHeartWarriorZack.com. Under the EVENTS tab on the website, you can also purchase a HEART WARRIOR ZACK wristband, the same wristband that loosely hangs on Zack’s right arm each day.

There is also a fundraising site – heartwarriorzack.itemorder.com – where T-shirts, sweatshirts, and hats can be ordered, all emblazoned with the Zack Heart Warrior logo that he originally drew himself before he handed it off to a friend to put the finishing touches on. Again, all of the funds raised from the sale of the merchandise will go toward Zack’s medical expenses.

Zack is excited about the possibility of a new heart. Not only will he get to wear what he calls “the cool pajamas” in the hospital, if all goes well he’ll eventually return to normal activities.

He’ll be able to run again. He’ll be able to play some sports again. 

He’ll be able to be a kid again.

Gilbert Hires Director of Community Engagement

The Gilbert Community School District is happy to announce that Troy Banning has accepted
the position of Director of Community Engagement for the 2022-23 school year. Banning joins
the Gilbert family after serving as the sports editor at The Daily Freeman-Journal in Webster
City for 22 years. He and his wife, Kelly, are 20-year residents of Ames and have two
daughters, Taylor and Brooklyn, who attend Gilbert. It is our pleasure to welcome Mr. Banning
and his family. Read more HERE #TigersTogether #GilbertPride

1 2 3