Courtesy of Ed Enoch
For many of the friends and colleagues of former Rise School Executive Director Martha Cook, it's hard to imagine the preschool that caters to students with disabilities and their normally-developing peers without its longtime leader whose passion for the work was obvious.
Cook retired Dec. 1 from the school, which is located on the campus of the University of Alabama.
On Friday, friends Nick and Terry Saban honored Cook for her work at Rise with a lifetime achievement award from their nonprofit Nick's Kids Foundation. The award was part of a luncheon by the foundation to honor Tuscaloosa-area teachers for their service in and out of the classroom.
The lifetime achievement award was the first awarded in the three-year history of the luncheon.
"The Sabans are really close to Martha and wanted to do something special for her," said Katie Mellown of Nick's Kids Foundation.
The Sabans presented Cook with an award resembling the crystal football trophy from the BCS National Championship era of college football.
"That's what Martha deserves, a national championship," Terry Saban said.
It's an award to recognize Cook's service at Rise and the difference it has made in the lives of thousands of families.
"I love Nick and Terry, they are wonderful friends," Cook said. "It meant a lot to me."
It also took some persuasion, Terry Saban said, to get her humble friend to agree to come to the luncheon for the award.
True to her reputation when Cook took the stage, her comments redirected the conversation away from her legacy to something she sees as more important.
"It's all about the children," she said.
On a Saturday in late November as Tuscaloosa buzzed with the prospect of an Iron Bowl victory to clinch a Southeastern Conference championship berth for Nick Saban's 2014 squad, the Rise community had to bury one of its students, the child of a young couple who succumbed to medical problems, Cook recalled in a quavering voice.
It's easy to get distracted by the minutiae of life and lose sight, Cook said. Sometimes, you have to stop yourself and refocus. Sometimes, you get heartbreaking reminders.
"The children are what is important," she reiterated.
Focusing on the children is what took Rise from a fledging school of one teacher, an assistant and six students in an old house to the Stallings Center on the UA campus, according to Cook.
For 40 years, it was less of a job and more of a calling.
"It's just good, like not going to a job, just part of my life and what I do," Cook said.
Cook estimated, since starting in October 1974, she has seen thousands of children come through the school and spent millions off hours with them.
"If you know Martha Cook, you often don't see her without a baby in her hands," Terry Saban said.
Though others call her the heart and soul of Rise, Cook said the school's greatness comes from the team of teachers and others who work together to accomplish its mission.
Jones has served as the interim director since Cook stepped down on Dec. 1. The university is putting together a search committee to find a permanent replacement.
Victoria Peeples, an assistant dean in the College of Human Environmental Sciences, will chair the search committee that will begin the work to find a permanent replacement in January, according to UA spokesperson Chris Bryant.
"It is going be extremely hard to replace Martha Cook," Jones said.
By Ed Enoch
Staff Writer | The Tuscaloosa News
Nick’s Kids Foundation honored 23 local teachers Friday during its third annual Teacher Excellence Awards Luncheon.
The honorees included 22 Tuscaloosa-area teachers, who received excellence awards, and Martha Cook, the former director of the Rise School at the University of Alabama, who received a lifetime achievement award.
The event is designed to honor teachers and recognize their contribution to the community.
“It’s the teachers who go above and beyond, inside and outside of the classroom,” said Katie Mellown with the Nick’s Kids Foundation.
The foundation has recognized about 75 teachers in the three years it has sponsored the luncheon, Terry Saban said.
Terry Saban, a former teacher and the wife of Alabama football coach Nick Saban, said the job is a tough task that often is underappreciated.
“I appreciate what you do,” Terry Saban said to the gathering. “This place should be crowded with our community thanking your for what you do.”
Like coaching, teaching is a profession driven by passion for a job that impacts the lives of others, Nick Saban said.
“It’s really a calling,” he said.
Terry Saban presented the teachers with plaques. The teachers also received $500 in gift cards. The award winners will receive five cards to different stores, Mellown said.
The teachers offered quick comments as they accepted their plaques, taking a moment to thank colleagues and the Sabans while reflecting on their jobs,
“I teach because there is a need, and everything I put into my students, they return tenfold,” said Valerie Grayson of Central Elementary School.
The foundation partnered with Edgar’s Bakery, Jim ’N Nick’s, Pat’s Florist and Lacefield Designs for the luncheon at the Tuscaloosa River Market.
The Rise School bell choir performed at the event.
Friday’s luncheon was the first time the Saban family’s nonprofit charity has given a lifetime achievement award, Mellown said.
“The Sabans are really close to Martha and wanted to do something special for her,” Mellown said.
Cook worked at Rise from 1974 until her retirement on Dec. 1. Terry Saban presented Cook with the lifetime achievement award, which was patterned on the BCS National Championship crystal ball trophy.
“It’s all about the children,” Cook said.
The excellence award winners for 2014 included Carman Tidwell of Alberta Elementary School, Rebecca Jenkins of American Christian Academy, Stacy Stone of Arcadia Elementary School, Valerie Grayson of Central Elementary School, Sherry Drake of Eastwood Middle School, Rhoda H. Richardson of Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary School, Shayla Pettway of University Place Elementary School, Rene Bailey of Northington Elementary School, Tiffany Craig of Oakdale Elementary School, Wendy Black of the Rise School, Lana Woods of Rock Quarry Elementary School, Jack Hazelrig of Rock Quarry Middle School, Elizabeth Voltz of Skyland Elementary School, Chamayra Kennard of Southview Middle School, Lynn Blankley of Southview Elementary School, Suzy Gatewood of Tuscaloosa Academy, Elizabeth Ellege of Tuscaloosa Magnet Schools Elementary, Laura Prior of Tuscaloosa Magnet Schools Middle, Griffin Parrish of University Place Middle School, Frances Young Fritz of Verner Elementary School, Tera Wilder of Westlawn Middle School and Shalandra Eppes of Woodland Forrest Elementary School.
Nick's Kids Foundation