By David Esteppe
Private charitable organization Prodigy Foundation, in supporting education and job creation in West Virginia, has awarded its annual West Virginia School Teacher of the year prize of $5,000 to Crichton Elementary fifth grade teacher Elizabeth Hunter.
Also known as the Freida J. Riley Achievement Award, the Prodigy Foundation Award is named after a West Virginia educator who overcame challenging obstacles in her life and career, and had a positive impact on her students. Prodigy Foundation President Roy Lee Cooke, one of the Rocket Boys as depicted in the novel Rocket Boys, by Homer H. Hickman, Jr. and in the Universal Pictures film, October Sky, was one of those encouraged by Freida J. Riley. Riley was a teacher in the late fifties and early sixties in Coalwood, West Virginia. While battling Hodgkin’s disease, she inspired students to overcome the limited opportunities of their era and environment to aspire to and fulfill their dreams. Riley passed away at age 31.
As reported in the Register Herald, Hunter (Libby to her friends) was raised in extreme poverty due to a series of family tragedies. While not dwelling on the particulars, Hunter said she grew up as the resident babysitter and would miss weeks of school at a time. Her mother had become pregnant young and moved to Wisconsin to live with an aunt. All seven of her siblings were held back in school at least once, and none were encouraged to become high school graduates. During a vacation back to West Virginia, the family decided to stay; yet Hunter did not enroll to finish school. She soon married and had two children.
Hunter says, “One day I heard a news report on television about how the education of a child is directly related to the education of the mother.” She was devastated at the thought of her children not graduating from high school. She enrolled in an adult basic education class and passed her GED. With a little encouragement from an instructor, she enrolled in a community college.
After leaving school to work, and while having two more children, “I decided to become a teacher no matter how long it took me.” During the fourth pregnancy, she completed 21 credit hours and finished the semester two weeks before her son was born. After ten years, “I graduated for the first time in my life.” The fears of her own children not achieving due to her early experiences were alleviated as her oldest son was in college and her oldest daughter graduated from high school.
Hunter worked at the Federal Prison Camp in Alderson as an adult basic education teacher, but decided to take a job in the public school system to be on the same schedule as her children. She obtained her Master’s Degree in Strategic Leadership from Mountain State University, and continues obtaining certifications.
“The most important thing I do in the classroom is give students a safe place to learn and build their confidence. Many feel they are not good enough for society. I make sure every student feels important and that they can achieve anything they desire. It does take perseverance and hard work,” says Hunter.
Greenbrier County Schools Superintendent Sally Dalton says, “I have known Libby for about 34 years since those days at the community college. I couldn’t be more pleased at her being recognized in this way. Libby excels at encouraging students to improve and achieve. I am also thrilled for the students as their teacher has been noticed and awarded for her excellence by an outside organization.”