Hank Molinengo is congratulated by his daughter, Jessi Sievak, after being named Volunteer of the Year by Springfield Public Schools for 2024. (Photo by Joe Hadsall)

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It’s a good day at Walt Disney Elementary when “Grandpa Hank” shows up. And judging by how many times he has shown up, Disney has had a lot of good days.

He helps out with whatever is needed that day, said Principal Lori Elliott, and does a wide variety of jobs with a smile on his face, whether he’s helping corral kids between classes or cleaning tables at lunch.

“He knows all the staff members by name, and is like, ‘Where do you need me today?’” Elliott said. “Point him in the right direction, and he does it. It’s about the smile, and the warmth, and excitement he gives to whatever position we’ve got him in.”

Hank Molinengo, 68, was honored May 2 as “Volunteer of the Year” by Springfield Public Schools during its Volunteer and Community Partner Celebration. He and 14 other volunteers were recognized for their service and efforts. 

In 2023, Springfield Public Schools held its first program for honoring volunteers. This time, the school district included businesses and nonprofits who helped support students in SPS schools in the event. It recognized Care to Learn as its Community Partner of the Year.

“I’ve seen the impact volunteers and partners have on students, staff and the district as a whole,” said Board Member Judy Brunner during the event. “We couldn’t do this work without you. I hope you know we value your time, talent and partnership to serve SPS.”

Volunteers appreciated for service

Hundreds of volunteers spent about 8,600 hours helping schools in various ways, said Jessica Blake, coordinator for Springfield Public Schools' community partnerships and volunteers. 

For Thursday’s honors, nominations were taken from other coordinators and building principals.

Alongside Molinengo, 14 others were recognized for their time and efforts:

  • Deamber Brand
  • Debra Burrows
  • Melissa Gallian
  • Penny Goodwin
  • Robert Hoaglin
  • Janet Lashmet
  • Judy Lewis
  • Julie Macdonald
  • Brian Miller
  • Noma Montgomery
  • Renee Ofenham
  • Ern Peck
  • Nancy Smith
  • Vicki Newport

Grandpa Hank describes ‘feeling of paying back'

Molinengo was caught by surprise to earn the evening’s top award. He has volunteered at Disney Elementary since 2021. A retired Navy rear admiral who was an assistant judge advocate, he also was a senior associate dean at George Washington University.  Molinengo and his family moved to Springfield about three years ago, and Disney is the closest school to his home. It's aslo the school his grandchildren attend. 

He said he wanted to volunteer inside an elementary school because of its importance in a person’s future success.

“There was one common thread,” Molinengo said. “All of the young people I worked with who did well in both of these settings had a great beginning in elementary school.”

Hank Molinengo speaks with Springfield Public Schools Superintendent Grenita Lathan after being named SPS Volunteer of the Year for 2024. (Photo by Joe Hadsall)

Elliott said Molinengo is willing to talk to any child, and communicates in a way that she hopes her students remember. 

“When you think about what we want to see in kids when we put them out there in the world, what do we want our kids to model? It would be Grandpa Hank,” Elliott said. “His willingness and excitement to work and socialize, visit and communicate with anybody and everybody. And he does it with such charisma, and that’s really what we want our kids to model.”

Molinengo said he has done everything from cleaning tables to working the book fair. He’ll pull shifts in the library or help either kindergarten or special needs classes — anything to help teachers teach, he said. 

His willingness to serve makes him valuable to Disney Elementary's teachers, Elliott said. Molinengo can help out when things are stressful or if the school is short-handed. She has called Molinengo for help on stretched days, and he has come through. Working a shift in the cafeteria can free up two teachers to take a break, he said. 

Days can get hectic, Molinengo said. A few weeks ago, two kindergarten students were over-excited and ran out of the library. He said he was able to corral the both of them in the hall, and was able to lead them back to the library, where they burned up their excess energy coloring. 

Molinengo said his time at Disney Elementary gives him a newfound purpose.

“It gives me a feeling of paying back taxpayers, who spent a whole lot of money on Hank, educating me and training me in the United States Navy,” Molinengo said. “This is one way I can pay for it, just going to the local elementary school and providing basic support.”

Community partners honored

The program also honored agencies, non-profits and businesses who devoted considerable resources and time to Springfield schools.

Top honors went to Care to Learn, an agency that uses business and community connections to offer food, supplies, clothes and more. It will be honored by the Hauxeda later this month with a Catalyst for Good Award.

Superintendent Grenita Lathan (left to right) poses with CEO Krystal Simon, Melissa Rae and Erica Harris of Care to Learn after the group was named Community Partner of the Year. (Photo by Joe Hadsall)

The group started the 2023-24 school year celebrating 3 million met needs. Over the last year alone, the agency invested more than $500,000 into Springfield Public Schools, and met 71,000 needs for food, health and hygiene items. 

The agency also sponsored the SPS Back to School Kickoff, Unity Girls Empowerment Tea, Shop with a Hero program and the new project Secret Hero for middle and high school students. 

SPS also honored the following businesses and groups during the event:

  • ACE Mentor Program
  • Bass Pro Shops
  • Community Partnership of the Ozarks
  • Council of Churches of the Ozarks
  • CoxHealth
  • Ozarks Food Harvest
  • Premier Flight Center
  • SAAB
  • Springfield Art Museum
  • Springfield Cardinals
  • Springfield Council of PTAs
  • Springfield Fire Department
  • Springfield Police Department
  • YMCA Camp Wakonda

Joe Hadsall

Joe Hadsall is the education reporter for the Hauxeda. Hadsall has more than two decades of experience reporting in the Ozarks with the Joplin Globe, Christian County Headliner News and 417 Magazine. Contact him at (417) 837-3671 or jhadsall@hauxeda.com. More by Joe Hadsall