CHARLOTTE, N.C. — At the end of an unprecedented year, Saint Gabriel Catholic School took some time to reflect on the past several months and to celebrate blessings.
On a toasty Tuesday afternoon, students and faculty gathered in the parking lot to pray a "living rosary." Select students held life-sized rosary beads and prayed aloud, as the rest of the school joined in with the ritual.
Teacher, Nikki Warren, was there but did not know at the time that the celebration will soon center on her.
In a trying year that gave educators every pop quiz in the book, parents told WCNC Charlotte that Warren has excelled, surprising students with transformed classrooms and fun costumes, sneaking congratulatory signs onto her student's front yards, and inspiring kindness every day with the creation of a "kindness squad."
"To have my daughter get dressed for school every day and be so excited to go to school and so thankful to go to school, it's because of her," parent Erin Doyle said.
Doyle's daughter Kelly is in Warren's class, and she nominated Warren for the latest round of Hyundai Hometown Heroes, saying if there were such a thing as extra credit for teaching, her daughter's teacher would earn it every time.
"I keep telling Kelly that Mrs. Warren will be the teacher she will remember for the rest of her life... She reflects everything that is right in this world. She leads the children by example. I cannot imagine there is another teacher that deserves this award more than she does," Doyle wrote, in part, during her nomination submission.
When the prayers wrapped up, the principal called Warren up to the podium, under the premise that she answers some questions for WCNC Charlotte crews about the rosary the school just completed.
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"Have you heard of the Hyundai Hometown Heroes program?" Vanessa Ruffes, WCNC Charlotte anchor, asked.
Warren gave a shy and unsure "yes" back.
That is when Jim Keffer, with Keffer Hyundai, stepped into view, holding a pair of keys to a brand new Hyundai Santa Fe.
"You're one of those people that we've been looking for to shine a light because you've been shining your light really bright," Keffer said. "As a representative of all the Hyundai dealers here in the Charlotte market, we want to say 'thank you' by awarding you your brand new Hyundai."
Warren was clearly stunned.
"You're joking!" Warren said, as students cheered. She walked to her new car as her class chanted her name.
Doyle was waiting in the wings, too, and emerged to share a hug with her daughter's teacher.
"You deserve it and so much more. You're so amazing," Doyle told Warren during the embrace. "You're so selfless with your time and energy. You're at the school from before the kids get there to long after they've left. In a year when teaching wasn't always easy, you rose to every challenge with creativity and grace and strength."
"I am blown away," Warren responded. "Thank you for all the kind words. You know I do it all from the bottom of my heart."
After giving countless lessons to her students over the years, it was time for Warren to learn a lesson of her own: Sometimes, you get the blessing, and sometimes you are the blessing. On this day, it was both.
"I love them," Warren said, of her students. "They know I love them, and I feel it equally as much... It's my passion, and am so thankful God placed me in a spot where I can thrive and love coming to work. I don't even call it work anymore."