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Seward custodial worker nominated for national award

Seward High School head custodian Ryan Kocher with his dog, Gibbs
Ryan Kocher
Seward High School head custodian Ryan Kocher with his dog, Gibbs

If you’ve walked the halls of Seward High School, you’ve probably noticed the hard work and enthusiasm of head custodian Ryan Kocher. His positive outlook on life coupled with his devoted effort to the school and students recently earned him a nomination for the LifeChanger of the Year award from a colleague at the school.

Teachers and school staff across the country can be nominated for the award by coworkers, students or parents via an online essay or video submission. The award is broken into several categories, and a monetary prize is split between the winner and the school district they work for.

Brianna DeCapua is a marketing and communications specialist for the Stryker Munley Group, which works on behalf of the LifeChanger of the Year program.

“It’s really just to recognize those who go above and beyond and do all the good work and deserve recognition for the effort they put toward their students, toward their community and just toward the school overall,” she said.

Kocher began working at Seward High School about two years ago after he and his wife relocated to Alaska from the suburbs of Chicago. He went from working at a school with a student body of over 3,000 to one with about 160 students and 20 teachers.

He says he never received any sort of recognition during his time at a larger school.

“After 10 years working there, most people still didn’t know your name," Kocher said. "You weren’t allowed to interact with the students and teachers. Even if they had staff parties, custodians and maintenance weren't allowed to join in any of that.” 

Kocher is the only custodian at the two-story school, which is fully carpeted and has a large theater and swimming pool. He’s also covered for Seward’s middle and elementary school custodians when they are on leave, sometimes working up to 12 hours a day.

While it’s hard work, he says he enjoys connecting with students and taking care of their custodial needs. And, he does it all with a smile on his face.

“I think in order to stay happy at a job, you have to find something that brings you a little bit of joy, take pride in your work," Kocher said. "There's a lot of parts I don’t enjoy about the job, no one likes cleaning bathrooms. But still, if you can take pride in your work, it makes the day a lot easier.”

Kocher says his favorite part about working in Seward is how close-knit the community is. He says it's nice to go from somewhere he was never recognized to a place where students look up to him.

“You have to look at them as our future, they’re the next generation," Kocher said. "We have to take care of them, and in the end they’ll take care of us. They’re all great kids here, they deserve to be taken care of, if that’s even just cleaning the building or fixing stuff in the building.”

“It just really shows how much someone in the school system can really go above and beyond,” DeCapua said. “There’s so many good educators and school employees out there, but it’s really nice to recognize them when no one else is and just let them know that the hard work, extra time, effort, and hours they put into bettering their school, maybe the curriculum or particular student’s life is really seen.”

Since its inception in 2011, the LifeChanger of the Year award has received nearly 8,000 nominations. Jennifer Reinhart, a first-grade teacher at Paul Banks Elementary School in Homer, was also nominated for this year’s award but declined an interview request.

The 2023-2024 school year winners, including the spotlight award for custodians, will be announced in the coming months. You can view all past and current nominations on the LifeChanger of the Year website.

Hunter Morrison is a news reporter at KDLL