OPRF teacher and student among 2020 Villagers of the Year

For its 36th annual Villager of the Year Awards, the Wednesday Journal has selected 16 local "helpers and heroes," who have been "doing good, taking risks, watching out during the COVID-19 pandemic." Among the 16 honorees are Oak Park and River Forest High School freshman Cat Nickles and music teacher Anthony Svejda. Below are the paper's write-ups of our OPRF honorees. To see the complete article, click here.

Cat Nickles
Cookbook author and youth philanthropist

Current Oak Park and River Forest High School freshman and author of "Quarantine Cookbook," Cat Nickles, turned her comic-inspired recipe quintet into a fundraising force that garnered national attention in 2020.

When the pandemic foiled the young food-lover's plans to open a pop-up restaurant at the Children's School as part of her eighth-grade capstone project, Nickles pivoted and created a cookbook to sell as a fundraiser for Beyond Hunger. She did not set a price for her book and hoped a "pay-what-you-can" model would help her raise $1,000.

 Before long Nickles' book had generated more than $5,000 and earned an invitation to appear as a "Helping Hero" on a socially distant broadcast of Live with Kelly and Ryan.

While on the show, the young writer and illustrator discussed her recipe for eight-second s'mores and detailed her fundraising success. At the end of the segment co-host Ryan Seacrest announced Live with Kelly and Ryan and Safeguard were making a $5,000 donation to Beyond Hunger.

"I thought this would just be a small project," said Nickles. "But I have learned that small action can make a big difference."

To date Nickles' cookbook sales have raised just shy of $19,000 for the Oak Park food pantry and she is committed to making it to $20,000 in 2021. She is expanding her recipe collection to increase donation potential and is considering the creation of a second book. In the meantime, Nickles has taken on an internship with Mama Kat's Sweets to hone her skills and has been offering virtual cooking classes to raise additional funds for Beyond Hunger.

--Melissa Elsmo, Oak Park Eats

Anthony Svejda
Keeps kids marching, remotely, at OPRF

While many in education have gone the extra mile during the pandemic, performing arts teachers at Oak Park and River Forest High School have really stood out. Anthony Svejda, director of bands, is one of those teachers, and by doing what he loves, has created positive, memorable experiences for students in music. 

This summer, he carefully researched how to safely assemble 100-plus musicians for a modified fall Marching Band season outside on the grounds of OPRF. With the support of Patrick Pearson (orchestra teacher) and Drew Fredrickson (band/choir teacher) the group met twice a week and created a video performance, edited by Fredrickson.

The fall semester work of curricular bands, orchestras and choirs, which includes some 400 students, culminated in the complex editing of individual student recordings (with the aid of an outside editor along with the teachers) into a virtual performance – the annual Prisms of Winter concert. 

To get there, motivating students and helping them work through the many variables of home life were among the biggest challenges, Svejda said, who is an Oak Park resident and has taught music at OPRF for 16 years. Svejda's humorous stories told in class are legendary and he's not beyond wearing something funny to lighten the mood. He and Fredrickson took microphones and used those to engage students in a podcast-style class, too.   

While Svedja brought the idea of Prisms of Winter to OPRF nine years ago in answer to low attendance at concerts, the 2020 concert was a collaboration of the high school's music department – Meredith McGuire (choir), Svejda, Pearson and Fredrickson. Since its inception, audiences have grown so much that a second night was necessary as shows were regularly selling out. 

Besides teaching three curricular bands and Jazz Ensemble that meets daily before period 1, Svejda also has kept extra curriculars going – Jazz Band II and Pep Band, which is working on a promotional album in lieu of playing at basketball games. 

--Michelle Dybal, Arts Editor