Natalia Chavez-Brown has spent the last three years dedicating much of her free time and energy to students at Hillcrest Elementary School.

This week, U.S. Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) recognized her efforts.

Chavez-Brown was awarded the 2019 Public Service Award by Van Hollen. The award was started by Van Hollen in 2004 when he served in the U.S. House of Representatives. It is designed to recognize high school seniors across the state of Maryland who show high levels of commitment to community or public service.

“It’s important that we recognize students not only for their academic and athletic successes, but also for their work in the community,” Van Hollen said in a statement.

This year, 125 Maryland seniors received the award. Chavez-Brown is the only student from Frederick County to be recognized.

“I didn’t expect to win something like this, but when I found out, it made my heart so warm and full. I never thought I would get something like this for being so involved,” Chavez-Brown said. “I was so proud that my work at Hillcrest could come with this as an end reward.”

During her time at Hillcrest, Chavez-Brown has organized book fairs and donation drives, held family dinner nights where parents and students learned about different topics such as sensible eating or math literacy. This year, she interned at the school assisting with a bilingual kindergarten class.

Her internship coordinator, Kristen Sutherin, nominated Chavez-Brown for the award.

“I looked through every student [at Oakdale], what they had done ... and the work that she had over in the Hillcrest community was above and beyond,” Sutherin said.

Chavez-Brown accumulated more than 400 hours of community service, Sutherin said.

Chavez-Brown was born in Mexico and lived there until she was 4 years old. She is fluent in Spanish and was excited for the opportunity to spend her last year of high school interning with a bilingual class, especially since it was at Hillcrest.

The Frederick school is one of a few in the county that offer bilingual classes. Students spend half the day learning in English and the other half learning in Spanish.

This is helpful for English Language Learner students, because it places them in a supportive environment and provides the opportunity for them to become strong in both languages, Chavez-Brown said.

At the end of the summer, the recent Oakdale High graduate will leave for Bethany College in West Virginia, where she plans to study education and Spanish. Her goal is to become an ELL teacher and, if possible, return to Hillcrest as a student-teacher.

Follow Katryna Perera on Twitter: @katrynajill.

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