He works with students who struggle to overcome a variety of learning challenges, yet he manages to create a spark that motivates them.

That allows them to to reach their goal of obtaining a high school diploma.

The Haverhill YMCA has chosen Neil Wilkins of Greenleaf Academy as this year's Educator of the Year.

Wilkins was one of 24 nominees from 14 schools. Each nominee receives 10, three-month club memberships for students of their choosing, and the winner receives 25, six-month memberships.

Wilkins teaches science and art at the former Greenleaf School in Bradford, which this year was renamed the Greenleaf Academy and houses what for nearly 20 years was known as the Haverhill Alternative School.

The school's principal, John DePolo, nominated Wilkins as Educator of the Year saying, "Some of the greatest teachers are the ones who show the most generosity for their students. Neil Wilkins shows this through the constant effort that he puts into his teaching, both in science and art."

Wilkins received the honor at an event held last Tuesday night in the Hartleb Technology Center on the Haverhill campus of Northern Essex Community College. The event also recognized World War II veteran John Katsaros of Haverhill and Fantini Bakery of Haverhill with the YMCA's Commitment to Community award.

Katsaros enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Force in 1942 and served as an assistant engineer, photographer and aerial gunner on a B-17 Flying Fortress, which in March of 1944 was shot down over France. He was able to parachute from his plane and landed on a farm, breaking his ankles and six ribs.

Captured by the Germans, he was eventually freed by the French underground and, with the help of the French Resistance, nursed back to health. He was aided in avoiding the relentless German military as he embarked on a perilous quest for freedom through France and Spain. The tale is told in his book "Code Burgundy — The Long Escape."

In commending Fantini Bakery, YMCA officials noted that throughout the years, this Haverhill company has continued to grow, passing the business on from generation to generation. Year after year, decade after decade, the same traditions are followed for excellence, and that commitment translates into products that customers know and enjoy. Fantini's commitment to the families of Haverhill is commendable, YMCA officials said.

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