For Shelly Thomas, the coordinator of Barren County High School’s youth services center, there are plenty of days when she feels like she’s spinning her wheels and wonders whether she’s truly making a difference.

The coronavirus pandemic has weighed on her in recent months as it has impeded her ability to connect regularly with students. Thomas does what she can by making what she calls “porch visits” to students’ homes, but she worries many are slipping through the cracks, their basic needs going unmet.

“To be honest with you, through this whole pandemic, it’s just been a real struggle for me not being able to have eyes on our families and our kids,” Thomas told the Daily News. “It’s kind of just been a sad, sad time.”

Recently, however, she got some uplifting news that her efforts weren’t going unnoticed.

Thomas, who has worked at Barren County Schools for 16 years in various roles, has been selected as one of two candidates to represent Kentucky for the national 2020 Recognizing Inspirational School Employees Award.

The new award recognizes classified school employees who’ve demonstrated excellence in serving their students, according to Kentucky Teacher, a publication of the state’s Department of Education.

Thomas is in the running for the national 2020 RISE award, with the winner expected to be named by the U.S. education secretary next spring.

Lt. Gov. Jacqueline Coleman, who is also an educator, announced the award recipients during Gov. Andy Beshear’s news conference Monday.

Thomas has been coordinating Barren County High School’s youth services center since 2017, and Coleman praised her “unparalleled commitment” to supporting students and their families.

“She conducts regular home visits, and when she sees any kind of need, she acts to meet it,” Coleman said. “She has assisted families in securing vehicles, finding employment and acquiring housing. She has helped clean and paint in the homes of her students, and with everything she does, Shelly makes families feel respected, valued and loved.”

Thomas, who tuned into Monday’s broadcast with no knowledge of the coming announcement, said she was “blown away” by the news. She’s “very honored and humbled” to be recognized, she said.

Thomas insists that she’s not alone in her efforts to support students in Barren County.

“When they say it takes a village, I know that’s a real cliche, but it is so spot-on true,” Thomas said. “You cannot just have one set of eyes on people. You have to have several sets, and then you have to have people that are willing to be the hands and feet, you know, to go out and do the work. … You see the very best in people in a crisis.”

Thomas will also receive the Kentucky 2020-2021 Education Support Staff Professional Award, which was created this year at the state level by Beshear and Coleman to recognize the state’s classified school employees.

Along with regularly tapping local agencies and organizations to help support students and their families, her work has also included developing a free store where the high school’s students can pick up clothing, hygiene essentials and school supplies.

“Shelly Thomas is truly a servant leader,” said Cortni Crews, Barren County Schools assistant superintendent, according to Kentucky Teacher. “Her work is driven by compassion for others, and she is committed to using her skills and talents to elevate our students and their families.”

– Follow education reporter Aaron Mudd on Twitter @BGDN_edbeat or visit

– Follow education reporter Aaron Mudd on Twitter @BGDN_edbeat or visit

Education reporter. Covers education and related issues, focusing primarily on the Bowling Green and Warren County public school districts and Western Kentucky University.

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