March 2009

Kathy’s Race

Author: Frank Dunne, Jr.

“If you took everything away from me, and all that was left was my students, I would still be happy.” – Kathy Jaworski

One thing you can say about the folks who inhabit Hilton Head Island is that they’re a charitable bunch. Look into just about any event that occurs on the island—for example, the biggest one of all: The Verizon Heritage—and you’re likely to find that its purpose is, in part at least, to raise funds for one worthy cause or another. It’s great for the multitude of foundations, missions, and societies that enjoy islanders’ benevolence, and it’s not a bad public relations pitch for the town either.

Sometimes you’ll hear the cynical say that a lot of this is done more for show than out of a sincere sense of compassion. You know, “That guy donates a lot of money to charity because he likes to get his name in the paper.” That sort of thing.

Those cynical minds might be less so if they bothered to dig a little deeper and look into the origins of some of these events and the people behind them. Take, for example, Kathy’s Race, which takes place next month. The event is a 5K “race” held to raise scholarship funds for Hilton Head High School students. That might be enough to get you interested in participating, and that would be fine. But there is a larger story behind Kathy’s Race—one that paints a portrait of the Hilton Head community and reminds you why this is a great place to live. Sure, we’ve got the climate, the beaches, and the golf courses, but there are also an awful lot of the kind of folks you would love to have as neighbors. So here is, as Paul Harvey would say, the rest of the story.

Kathy Jaworski was a social studies teacher at Hilton Head Middle School who had a special skill for working with the students who presented an extra challenge. She was popular with her students and fellow faculty members. Miss J, or Mama Jaworski they called her. Miss J was Teacher of the Year a few times, the kind of teacher with which every school should stack its faculty.

“She did not just teach them (her students) social studies. She raised them. She taught the whole child,” said Pat Freda, a fellow teacher at the Middle School. “The team that we worked on together was an eighth grade team, and we had some challenging students that particular year. She worked her magic with a lot of those students who would not normally have produced or passed.

“She provided a huge amount of structure for those students, but her delivery was always in a soft and gentle manner, like a ship sailing steadily through the night. No matter what trouble they would get in—and there was some trouble—she was there to sit down with them and figure out exactly what they were going to do to fix this problem, and she would talk them through it. In a way she was like a counselor as well as a teacher. So many of them would come back after they left that year just to say ‘How ya doin’ Miss J?’”

Samantha George, another teacher who began her career working with Kathy, remembers how well she lived up to the nickname, Mama Jaworski. “That was not only with her students. I was 22 years old when I started teaching, away from home and my family. She definitely took me under her wing and mentored me. Who she was as an educator, she was also that as a friend and a colleague. She was a great role model for me.”

Even language and cultural disparities could not create a barrier between Kathy and her students. “She came and joined me in the ESL (English as a Second Language) program and, once again, her expertise surfaced,” said Freda. “It was a real stretch because she did not speak those students’ language, but she met them where they needed to be met and made them rise to the occasion. They made wonderful gains with her.

“She was just a really wonderful person in general. She did a lot of support for other causes. At Thanksgiving time, our team collected canned foods and things like that and she was in charge of getting that organized and transporting the food to the Deep Well Project. She was very involved with the annual Washington D.C. trip for the eighth graders. She and I—we all—worked many hours to raise funds for students who could not afford it so they would have the opportunity to go.”
“She was a truly dedicated educator. Her students were known as “Kathy’s Kids,” and they truly were her kids. I think any student who did have her would attest to that. She was as dedicated to her students as to her own children,” said Dennis Jaworski, Kathy’s husband of 32 years.

Sadly, Miss J’s family, and that includes her students, colleagues and friends, lost her to breast cancer in April of 2005.

“She gave 100 percent right up to the very end. If she wasn’t in the hospital, she was in the classroom,” said Jaworski. “They had to haul her out of there on a gurney in order to get her to go home! Her kids and education was her life.”

Before she passed, the family banded together to help ease the financial burden that cancer piles on top of its physical and emotional devastation. That was the first Kathy’s Race, a fundraiser to help offset medical expenses. It was hugely successful. So successful, in fact, that it lives on today as an annual event in Kathy’s memory, sponsored by the Hilton Head High School National Honor Society.

“Turnout for the inaugural race was so unbelievable, and they raised so much money, we decided that it should continue beyond Kathy’s need for medical attention,” said Jaworski. “Because we had built up a nest egg at that point, the race, which is run the first weekend in April each year, has been enough to sustain that fund. Last year we gave six scholarships. The year before we gave five.”

Although the event is called Kathy’s Race, it’s really not a race. You can walk, run, crawl, push a baby stroller, or walk your dog. “We invite everyone because it’s a celebration of her life and, at the same time, it’s a scholarship program for the high school,” said Freda.

The scholarships, awarded by the Kathy’s Race Foundation, are given to students who exhibit the qualities that were most important to Kathy. “The applicants definitely need to maintain good grades, but it is more aimed at the hard worker. You don’t necessarily have to be a straight-A student, but the effort has to be there,” said George. “It has to be somebody who is motivated and is keeping themselves on the good side of the school,” added Freda.

Kathy’s been gone from the classroom for four years now, but if you ask those who knew her and worked with her, she is still “teaching” her kids at Hilton Head Middle School: “We still feel like she’s with us. She’s here making sure things are going right.”

If you want to help keep her legacy alive, the fifth annual Kathy’s Race will take place Sunday, April 5, at Hilton Head High School. Registration begins at noon and the entry fee is $15. Contact the school at (843) 689-4800 for information.

  1. Thank you for the article. She as the best.

    — Sarah    Mar 10, 08:56 pm   

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