PHARR, RGV – Olivia Benford, Parental Engagement Director for Pharr-San Juan-Alamo ISD, was named as a finalist for National Life Group’s 2017-2018 “LifeChanger of the Year” award.

Benford was honored in a surprise ceremony at the Pharr Adult Learning Center at Carnahan with staff and parent volunteers present. PSJA Superintendent Dr. Daniel P. King and National Life Group representatives Maria McLendon and Donna Kvapil spoke about her work in the community and presented her with a framed certificate.

Out of more than 800 nominees from across the country, Benford is one of 17 winners receiving this recognition along with $5,000 to be split with their school. Of those 17 winners, Benford is one of the top five that will go to the LifeChanger of the Year Awards Ceremony in Bermuda on May 16, where the grand prize winner will be announced. The awarded “LifeChanger of the Year” will receive $10,000 to split with their school.

“It’s pretty profound,” said McLendon. “… Olivia Benford is truly one of the best of the best of the best.”

The “LifeChanger of the Year” program recognizes K-12 educators and school staff that exemplify “excellence, positive influence and leadership” and are making a significant difference in the lives of students. Since its inception in 2012, the program has honored over 3,000 individuals and will have given away close to $500,000 by the end of this year.

Norma Garza, PSJA Parental Engagement Coordinator, nominated Benford for her work with PSJA parents through the district’s community engagement centers, calling her “the rock of our program.” Benford executed the popular programs that have allowed parents of PSJA students to take GED, ESL and certification classes at one of nine locations in the area to complete and further their own education. In exchange for volunteer hours at PSJA schools, parents are continuing their education for free while becoming more involved in their child’s schooling. Currently, there are about 5,000 parents in the program and over 100,000 volunteer hours have been served so far.

McLendon says that the flood of testimonials from parents and others in the community that benefited from the courses really struck the nomination committee.

“We were reading the comments. There are more than, I think, 365 comments on her nomination page, and it’s almost hard to read all of them because you’re crying by the third one,” said McLendon.  “One of the first ones that I read was about a grandmother who – and I might get choked up right now – who spoke about the programs that Ms. Benford created and how because of those programs, she has hope restored in her life. And, she talked about how proud her family is of her now and how she has happiness again for the first time. And, when I think about what it means to be a life-changer, that’s exactly what Ms. Benford is doing, one person at a time, one life at a time … There’s story after story after story of people who have hope, who have pride, who have joy, and it’s all restored because she took a little bit of time to help them on their way.”

In his speech, Dr. King also highlighted the incredible influence of Benford’s program in the community.

“We’re very proud of Ms. Benford and of the program that she has put together and especially on the impact that it’s had on the lives of our parents, our families and our students,” said King. “ … She’s doing a tremendous job, and I can’t think of a better person to win this honor.”

Despite praise from the administration and having been recognized before, including an invitation to the White House, Benson said being named a top-five finalist came as a shock to her.

“I didn’t expect it because to me it’s just my job, you know?” said Benford. “And I’m doing it, and I do it with pleasure. But, to be recognized is just the cherry on top.”

She continued: “I am humbled to be nominated, to have gotten to this point. I’m humbled, I’m very grateful, and I’m very happy because it shows our community is doing something right. And, I’m dying to go to Bermuda and take a few days off!”