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Lessons From Unsung Heroes Among Us

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

For the past four years, Cintas Corporation (a company that provides facilities maintenance supplies and services) has sponsored its “Janitor of the Year” contest.

The company solicits nominations from K-12 schools as well as colleges and universities, who are invited to provide brief bios on their janitors or custodians, and explain why they are invaluable members of the school community.

The contest was brought to my attention when my sister let me know that Fred Nieves, the janitor at her school, Saint Bridget School, in Framingham, Massachusetts, had made the top 10. Anyone could go to the site and vote, she told me, and so she asked if I'd please vote for "Deacon Fred."

Of course, I was happy to do that. But as long as I was on the site, I decided to read all the bios of the other nominees. What an inspiration it was to read about the many ways that these individuals improve the lives of those around them on a daily basis.

At Saint Bridget, Deacon Fred is one of the first faces children see every morning, as he helps them from car seats, carries in school projects, greets them with warmth and love. Other schools offered equally glowing praise for their nominees. Essex Elementary School praises the efforts of custodian Wendy Boyden for her attention to detail and ability to fix anything -- including the school's stage curtains. John Dawson is a trusted friend and advisor to many of the students with learning disabilities at Pepin Academies. Michael Eldridge teaches American Sign Language to students at Deer Crossing Elementary. Seymour Middle School credits George Hoffman for his unflagging positive attitude. Woodmere Elementary School notes that Sauveur Jean has a "sixth sense" for finding kids having a bad day and cheering them up. Rio Rancho Middle School describes Loy Lopez as a brainstormer and innovator, great at solving problems. North Calloway Elementary School nominated Cecil Lovett because he is a gallant gentleman, and the children's "Unofficial Grandpa." Veteran Ted Qualli Jr. is "the glue" that holds Newtown Elementary School together, happy to talk about his service to the country, and knowing every child's name. And Andy Wegner brings his safety expertise as Associate Fire Department Chief to Big Bend Elementary school.

I called Cintas and spoke with Jillian Bauer, marketing manager for the company. Bauer explained that Cintas created the contest to express appreciation for the important work that janitors and custodians do every day. "Janitors do a lot of hardy, dirty work," she explained, "but they don't often get the praise they deserve."

The contest is a wonderful opportunity for schools to provide that praise. It is crystal clear from reading excerpts from the nominations on Cintas' contest page, that the nominees are not merely janitors; they are beloved members of the school community.

And more schools are participating every year. This year, Bauer said, Cintas received over 1,200 nominations. They have narrowed these down to 10 finalists, and the winner is then chosen by online voting. That winner will be announced in the latter part of April, and will receive $5,000. The nominating school will receive $5,000 in Cintas cleaning supplies and services.

This contest is a refreshing change of pace -- particularly at present, when the news and social media has been filled, for months, with diatribes and rants by one-half of the American population against the other half. As others and I have noted, the "politization of everything" is making our attitudes morose and our lives miserable. We should be able to watch the Oscars or the Super Bowl without being subjected to political harangues. Facebook, Twitter and Instagram should offer something other than nonstop pointed political commentary.

More importantly, when we look at those around us every day, the first thing that should come to mind is the many ways in which they make our lives richer, our days smoother, our work easier, our streets safer, our schools and offices cleaner. If we had to write a paragraph thanking all those people for their efforts, how different would our attitude be?

When you read the bios of the finalists for Cintas' Janitor of the Year, you're left with a powerful sense of these individuals' importance to those around them. You don't know what political party they belong to, their views on the pressing social issues of the day, or for whom they voted for president. Those things don't matter; what matters is who they are as people.

That's how we should be treating each other.

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