Physical development of children is just as important as academic and spiritual, a fact recognized by the diocese as Mike Wojcicki, athletic director and physical education teacher at Cheektowaga's Mary Queen of Angels School, has been selected as the 2014 "Making a Difference" award winner.
Wojcicki will be presented with the award during the annual Making a Difference Dinner on Jan. 30, 2014, at the Buffalo Convention Center. The dinner, sponsored by the Foundation of the Catholic Diocese of Buffalo, is to support Catholic schools in the area. The "Making a Difference" award is presented each year to an inspirational teacher and was established by the late Tim Russert of NBC's "Meet the Press." Russert, a South Buffalo native, frequently held up his teachers Sister Lucille Socciarelli, RSM, and Father John Sturm, SJ, as huge mentors during his formative years.
"I was shocked," Wojcicki said of learning about the award. "It was something that I never expected. I was at a loss for words at the time. It's a great honor and great to be considered."
Wojcicki, 56, has taught in area Catholic schools for 31 years, including St. Stanislaus, St. James, Holy Spirit and Queen of Martyrs. He is currently in his 11th year at Mary Queen of Angels School. While many lay teachers who start their careers at parochial schools move on to better paying public school jobs, Wojcicki has stayed true to his Catholic roots.
"I just really fell in love with the atmosphere," he said. "It's a small family-type school and the kids are great to work with. That's why I stayed with that instead of public schools."
In her letter nominating Wojcicki for the award, Mary Queen of Angels Principal Mary Alice Bagwell said staying in Catholic education for more than three decades takes commitment.
"(He) is an extraordinary teacher who continually models Catholic values," Bagwell wrote. "Whether it is as a teacher, coach or athletic director, Mike always exhibits kindness, patience and loyalty."
As athletic director, Wojcicki organizes all the athletic programs, recruiting volunteer coaches, working with sports boosters for fundraisers, and even operating the scoreboard on game day.
Mary Queen of Angels currently has eight different athletic programs, including soccer, basketball, baseball, track and volleyball, for boys and girls. Some programs begin as early as the first grade.
Wojcicki's dedication is reflected with the volunteer coaches, most of whom are parents or relatives of students who don't earn the stipends their public school counterparts make.
"Luckily, we have a good set of families in the school with individuals who enjoy working with the kids and have knowledge of the game," Wojcicki said. "A lot of them played the game when they were younger."
Currently a parishioner at St. Martha Church, Wojcicki lives in Depew with his wife of 26 years and two children. He's now in his mid-50s but has no thoughts about retiring.
"I still enjoy working with the kids," he said. "Teaching helps keep me young. When we do warm up exercises (with the students), I do it with them."
Bagwell would likely be happy with keeping Wojcicki aboard.
"Coach Mike is a mentor to each child and parent he comes in contact with," she wrote. "As a coach, he is a role model to our many parent volunteers demonstrating the values of (honesty), fairness and above all, tolerance when working with child athletes. As a physical education teacher, he is a mentor to his students, not only teaching them the fundamentals of sports but also how to be a good sport. Sharing, benevolence, humility, sympathy and compassion are all lessons that Christ taught and so does Mike Wojcicki."