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8 Rock Island residents awarded Citizen of the Year

From poets to teachers, church leaders and veterans, this year's awardees represent the very best of Rock Island.

ROCK ISLAND, Ill. — The city of Rock Island has been holding their annual Citizen of the Year awards since 1987, and are meant to highlight residents making selfless contributions to their community. This year the committee was tasked with checking the nearly 50 entries to find the right candidate.

"I've been working for the last 10 years as a creative educator. We just always focus on the work we do, the awards I'm definitely grateful for, its just an indicator that we're in the right direction," the 2023 Individual recipient Aubrey Barnes said.

A total of eight awards were distributed at the Rock Island City Council meeting Monday night. These eight recipients will also be recognized during the Rock Island Labor Day Parade on Sept. 4.

Individual Winner: Roaring Rhetoric founder Aubrey Barnes took home this year's individual award. The rapper, author, educator and poet founded the non-profit group Young Lions Roar and is the co-founder and host of the Black Thoughts Podcast

Youth Winner: At just 12 years old, Nicolina Pappas is already an inspiring environmentalist. When she was just 8 years old, she founded Nicolina's Turtle Co., to reduce single-use plastic. She sells reusable metal straws along with hand-sewn straw pouches, then donates 100% of her profits to conservation groups. To-date, Nicolina has raised more than $6,500. 

Professional Winner: Rev. Donald Johnson founded Destiny Baptist Church and has served as Chaplain for the Rock Island Police Department for more than two decades. Through faith and fellowship he has dedicated himself to the community and to local at-risk youth. 

Education Winners: Rock Island High School's Mike and Katie Mertel share this year's education award. According to the council, they act as such a dynamic duo, it was only right to honor both of them. When Katie is not teaching English, she's a student council advisor and a spirited organizer of Homecoming Week, the student hunger drive, the dance marathon and more. Mike is a World Studies teacher, founded the RIHS Education Internship Program and also leads the Cultural Appreciation Program. 

Veteran Winner: Former Marine Don Mewes served during Operation Desert Storm. Since returning home, he's volunteered with Big Brothers Big Sisters, served as a disaster relief responder with the American Red Cross and serves on the city's Liquor Commission and Zoning Board of Appeals. 

City Employee Winner: Dan Gleason is the special events and fundraising manager for the Parks Department. For more than six years, he's organized community events focused on bringing Rock Island together. Gleason also volunteers on several boards and foundations. 

Organization, Church or Non-Profit Winner: This year's award was handed to Second Baptist Church of Rock Island. 2023 marks the church's 150th anniversary. Throughout its long history, Second Baptist has been involved in youth outreach, traveling ministries, vacation bible school, food pantries, monthly meal sites and the SBC Outreach Music and Arts Academy

Business Winner: Bob and Pam Votroubek own Handy True Value at 1435 30th St. They were awarded for helpful and knowledgeable employees, donations to Habitat for Humanity and for being a cornerstone small business in the community for more than 30 years. The Votroubek's have also been chosen as the Labor Day Parade Grand Marshals. 

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