Not long ago, the fifth-grade class at Delaware Ridge Elementary School in the Bonner Springs School District was asked to write a paper about a person who had made a difference in their lives and who had inspired them. Nearly half the class chose to write about DRE teacher Kristi Rivera.

Funny thing was, Rivera didn’t teach fifth grade. She teaches third. But the kind of impact she’s making on students is being felt throughout the entire school.

“Kristi is an amazing teacher and an amazing person,” said Kenny Mayer, Rivera’s brother and the one who nominated her to be recognized as the Blue KC Sporting Samaritan at Children’s Mercy Park on August 6. “She is kind, caring, compassionate, honest, patient and a role model for her kids.”

Rivera always knew she wanted to be a teacher. After growing up in Lenexa, Kan., as the daughter of 19-year pro soccer veteran Alan Mayer, she attended the University of Kansas to get her bachelor’s degree, which was followed by a master’s degree in curriculum immediately after. It was while pursuing her master’s in 2009, that she began working at DRE. Two years later, she was accepted into the Leading Educators program, which partners with schools and districts to help highly effective teachers develop the leadership skills they need to successfully transition from leading students to leading their peers. Rivera did a two-year fellowship with Leading Educators, becoming a stronger leader and learning to maximize the use of best practices in her school.

So far, the education and training has paid off, as Rivera has received a number of recognitions for her work at DRE, including the USD 204 Teacher of Excellence Award in 2015. But while awards are nice, Rivera says that the ultimate honor comes through her students.

“My proudest moments are when I bump into former students or their families in the community and they tell me how I made a difference in their lives and set them up for success,” said Rivera. “I love seeing pictures and hearing success stories about how they are positively contributing to our community.”

When it comes to investing in the students at DRE, Rivera is all in. She considers the school to be more of a family than an educational institution, and she relates to her students that way.

Every morning, she greets students at her classroom door with a “good morning” and a high five, handshake or hug, and does the same when they leave in the afternoon. She knows that some kids can’t afford tutoring, so she uses her free periods to offer help at no charge. In the winter, she purchases coats with her own money for students to use during recess if they don’t have one of their own, and she never asks for the coats back. She’d rather buy more coats than have a child be cold.

“The most important thing to me as a teacher is for my kids to know that they’re loved, that I care about them and that I believe in them,” said Rivera. “Kids will look back and will not always remember what you said to them but they will always remember how you made them feel.”

Rivera takes great pride in incorporating life lessons and character-building into academic lessons. She conducts creative anti-bullying lessons that help kids learn the importance of words and actions, and she places a high value on self-awareness, perseverance, innovation, collaboration and empathy. And when it comes to parent/teacher conferences, she enjoys DRE’s practice of flipping the script on the traditional method and involving the students in a productive way.

“Our students sit down with their teacher and their family and present their learning to them through a portfolio presentation,” said Rivera. “They are able to talk about their successes, their struggles, what they’re most proud of, share goal-setting and draft work. I absolutely love seeing students taking charge of their learning and sharing it with their family. You can feel the sense of pride in the child as well as in the parents.”

Three years ago, Rivera took a summer nanny position with a family from Delaware Ridge and to her surprise both she and her husband fell in love with the Kansas City, Kan., neighborhood. They weren’t looking to move from where they lived in Lenexa but couldn’t help but feel at home in the welcoming community. When a house went on the market near the school, they made an offer and have “loved every second” of living there ever since. For Rivera, being in the community is part of being a member of the DRE family.

“The students and teachers here build each other up, celebrate one another’s success and support one another through their failures,” said Rivera. “And we have fun while we’re doing it.”

At Delaware Ridge Elementary, Rivera has truly found a home.