Educator honored for a lifetime of volunteering

FRANKFORT — Rebecca Wente had volunteered before she met Bill Burch when she was an eighth-grader.

But it was under Burch's tutelage as coordinator of the Boyd County branch of the Kentucky Youth Council for Volunteer Service that Wente's level of commitment to her community changed.

And so did she, said her mother, Janet Wente.

"It was a life-changer for her," Wente said of Burch's influence on her daughter, now a junior at the University of Kentucky. "He was a mentor to her. ... He had such an impact on my daughter."

On Thursday, first lady Jane Beshear presented Burch with a lifetime achievement award for volunteer service as part of an annual awards ceremony at the governor's mansion. Burch was one of 16 individuals or groups recognized.

This is not the first time Burch's efforts have been honored. He recently received a national Presidential Volunteer Service Award for logging more than 4,000 volunteer hours.

There isn't much volunteer work in the greater-Ashland and Boyd County area that Burch, 69, a semi-retired educator, is not involved in.

He started First Book-Boyd County, which provides books to poor families. He has spent the last 10 years as a coordinator for the Kentucky Youth Council for Volunteer Service, where he mentors teens like Rebecca Wente. Three years ago, Burch started the Bringing Up Grades or BUG program through his Kiwanis chapter. The program, which is in three Boyd County elementary schools, encourages and rewards students for improving and maintaining good grades. In addition, he serves on a half-dozen other community boards dealing with education.

Wente, 19, said it was Burch who inspired her to start a First Book-Carter County branch when she was in high school. Not only did he encourage her, he was there to advise the group.

"I was just a sophomore in high school," Wente said. "I'm not very articulate. Mr. Burch would come to our meetings and reassure us."

Janet Wente, who nominated Burch for the lifetime achievement award, said many people in Boyd County are not aware that Burch is behind a host of education-based initiatives.

"One of the reasons that I wanted to nominate him is that he has had such an impact on our area, but he is such a quiet and humble man," Janet Wente said.

"Nobody has any idea of how much he does," Rebecca Wente said. "We would go as a group to an event, and Mr. Burch would be talking to someone about the next board meeting (for some other group) and we would be like, 'Wait, Mr. Burch, you're on this board too?' "

As an educator, Burch knew the importance of reading and that many poor families have no books in their homes. He heard about the national First Book program, based in Washington D.C., became interested, and started the program in Boyd County seven years ago. The group has given away 50,000 books to 900 children in Boyd County. Through Kiwanis International, Burch heard about BUG. The program, through awards and pep rallies, encourages children to improve their grades from the previous grading period.

Janet Wente, a counselor at Catlettsburg Elementary School, knows how well the program has worked in her school.

"It's just a tremendous program," she said. "I really see the difference in our kids."

Burch, a Barbourville native who moved to Ashland in 1967, said he has seen how education can change someone's life. Burch has been a teacher, coach, principal and administrator. He now serves as director of community education for Boyd County.

One of the beneficiaries of the First Book-Boyd County program told Burch how it had helped her entire family.

"One girl told me that she read to her siblings and to her mom," he said.

Burch said he plans to continue with BUG, First Book-Boyd County and the nearly half-dozen other boards and programs in which he is involved.

"I have been blessed with good health, and as long as my health holds up, I will continue to volunteer," he said.

Rebecca Wente's ability to start a First-Book Carter County branch has meant more than just books for children there. It was through Burch that she learned of a host of scholarships that reward volunteer work. Those scholarships will pay for her entire four years at UK.

"I would not have been able to go to UK if it wasn't for him," Wente said.