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story.lead_photo.caption School secretary Vonda Berendzen was named "Outstanding Rural Support Staff" by the Missouri Association of Rural Education.

The Cole County R-5 School District in Eugene was recently named "Outstanding Rural School District," and school secretary Vonda Berendzen was named "Outstanding Rural Support Staff" by the Missouri Association of Rural Education.

"It came as a little bit of a surprise to us, but it was a good surprise," Superintendent Dawna Burrow said.

Berendzen, the high school and junior high secretary, said she is honored to be named Outstanding Rural Support Staff.

"It's the best honor ever," she said. "I don't even know how to explain it — I'm still in awe. It's something that I never expected."

Berendzen graduated from Eugene High School and has served the district for 25 years. She will retire in May 2021.

"I have loved working with the staff and students," she said. "This is a great place."

Each year, the Missouri Association of Rural Education requests and receives nominations for the Outstanding Rural Education awards, and an awards committee reviews the nominations and selects the winners.

The Missouri Association of Rural Education presented the awards at its annual awards luncheon last week and read the testimonials about the district and Berendzen.

In the testimonials, Principal Mark Richard said he is blessed to have Berendzen as a secretary.

"People say that everyone is replaceable, but I am not sure that this is true," he said. "Vonda puts everyone's needs before her own, and every student and staff member is her priority."

Board Treasurer Deanna Smith said the district can be described as "giving" and makes a difference for many people through Adopt-A-Family for Thanksgiving and Christmas, the Caring Closet stocked with clothes and hygiene products, fundraising efforts for students and families with hardships, and making sure every child had food delivered during the school closure in the spring.

"Everyone, from the custodians, teachers, administrators, staff, PTO, booster clubs, parents and community give all they have to make sure that every student can be successful not only in their education, but in their personal growth as well," she said in the testimonials.

Fourth-grade teacher Casey Mason said in the testimonials the district went above and beyond last year to make sure she had everything she needed to be comfortable as a first-year teacher, and the district worked tirelessly to ensure every child had meals, proper learning tools and support.

"The district openly collaborates on everything, and each person's voice is heard," she said. "This school district is the embodiment of everything a rural school district should be — supportive, community involved, dedicated and compassionate."

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