Donny Fohr was only 12 years old when he suddenly lost his life to a brain aneurism. Almost 14 years later, the impact of his short life is still felt at Northwest Catholic Elementary School, Milwaukee. The Donald Fohr Peacemaker Award is given out every year to a junior high student who follows Donny’s example.
Maryann Ebel, who still teaches at Northwest Catholic, was Donny’s religion teacher and also ran the peer mediation program in which he participated. She remembers Donny as “an angel here on earth,” and was the one who had the idea to create an award in his honor.
“He was loving, compassionate, forgiving and faith-filled. The boys and girls were attracted to his goodness,” she said.
Ebel likes to tell the story of the time Donny’s set of Pokemon cards was stolen. Donny’s only comment was that he hoped the person who had stolen his cards enjoyed them as much as he had.
She remembers his participation in volunteer opportunities to collect food for those in need, his care for his 3-year-old sister, and how he always sought a peaceful solution to conflicts that arose among his fellow students.
She also remembers his deep faith, which he loved to share with those around him.
“Donny Fohr was Jesus to the other students and staff.” Ebel said. “He spread the Good News.”
The Donald Fohr Peacemaker Award has become an important Northwest Catholic tradition that recognizes and celebrates students who live out the Gospel message like Donny did.
With a majority of non-Catholic students, principal Diana Erlandson sees the sharing of the Gospel as the heart of the school’s work on Milwaukee’s northwest side.
“We see ourselves as a mission school, serving the community,” said Erlandson. “We are here to spread the Gospel of Jesus.”
The 2012 winner, Kazeng Lee, and the 2013 winner, Jocelyn Dalton, shared what they believe it means to be peacemakers recently with a Catholic Herald Family reporter. Lee is not Catholic, and Dalton is currently preparing for Catholic baptism. Both recognize that learning to be a peacemaker is a big part of being a student at a Catholic school.
“I feel it is following in Jesus’ footsteps – what he wanted us to do,” Dalton said. “Jesus was always preaching about us being good people.”
For Dalton, receiving the award was a big surprise.
“I felt shocked, and then I saw my mom crying, and I was trying to keep my tears from bursting out. I was happy, but I also felt that other people deserved to get it more than me,” she said.
One of the things Erlandson sees as most significant about the Peacemaker Award is that the winners are nominatedby their fellow students. She said this helps students at Northwest Catholic think about what qualities are important in a peacemaker, and to recognize those qualities in themselves and others.
She emphasized that the award is not a popularity contest, and the teachers who make the final decision about the award are always impressed by the perceptiveness the students display in their nominations. She said both of the two most recent winners are students who lead by example.
“I call Kazeng my quiet leader. He’s never going to be the kid who’s loud and the center of attention,” Erlandson said. “He leads by example. He doesn’t need to tell people the right thing – he does it.”
“Jocelyn is always that calming influence who will stick her neck out to help a friend.”
Both Dalton and Lee think that influencing other students to make good choices is an important part of living out the Donald Fohr Peacemaker Award.
“We can teach that by showing them,” Lee said, pointing out the difference between just giving another student the answers to a test or actually helping him to learn.
Lee was shocked when he won the award, but now sees it as an important responsibility.
“It kind of felt like I’m a leader in this school – a knight,” said Lee.
“We’re the Northwest Catholic Knights,” added Erlandson, referring to the school’s mascot. “Respectful, responsible and ready to shine!”
“In my old school, I didn’t feel like I was making a difference toward others,” she said, “But now that I’m here I can see that I have changed and grown up to be a leader.”