NFHS Heart of the Arts Award | Awards & Recognition | Resources | IHSA

NFHS Heart of the Arts Award

The National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS) developed the Heart of the Arts Award in 2013 as a way to recognize individuals who exemplify the positive ideals of performing arts that are the core mission of education-based participation in arts & activities. Students, coaches, administrators and other individuals associated with a school’s performing arts programs are all eligible for the honor, which generally recognizes individuals who have overcome adversity or gone above and beyond their peers. The IHSA receives one nominee to represent the state of Illinois each school year. The individuals below are the IHSA’s nominees from each year and are champions regardless of their standing in the awards program.


IHSA Nominees for NFHS Heart of the Arts Award


Jordan Brewer faced adversity head-on and several performing arts programs at her high school were the beneficiary. There was a general reaction of surprise when Jordan decided to take a Journalism class her junior year that provides content for the Meridian High School newspaper. Jordan’s learning disabilities in reading, writing and math didn’t seem to make her a natural candidate for the class, but she recognized she needed to improve in those areas to succeed in the future and achieve her goal of becoming a teacher. Jordan put in additional work and as she thrived in the class, her confidence and desire to get involved also increased. During her senior year, she continued in journalism, testing herself again as a part of broadcast news program, while also joining yearbook, drama and continuing to sing in the school choir. Click this link for more on Jordan’s story.

Jordan Brewer on being named a Heart of the Arts nominee:

“I was really excited about being a nominee for the award. I've worked really hard, and it shows that hard work really pays off. ”

Meridian Special Education Teacher Jody Clayton on Jordan:

“She learned her limitations and what helps her overcome her limitations. She always fought to go further than where she ‘should be’. Jordan built confidence outside of the classroom (in performing arts) that carried over into the classroom.”


A debilitating disease forced Ethan Gray to be home-schooled through eighth grade, so when he became healthy enough to attend high school at St. Rita, he took advantage by getting involved in everything he could. A natural musician, Ethan joined the St. Rita marching and jazz bands, eventually upping the total number of instruments he has taught himself to play to 11. The stage was new endeavor for Ethan. He worked in the school theatre program on the lighting and stage crew initially, but then found his calling as an actor. Ethan didn’t allow his Sickle Cell Thalassemia to hold him, even after he suffered a stroke at school during his junior year. He undergoes monthly blood transfusions to help treat his condition, often going directly from the hospital to play in a school event. Click this link for more on Ethan’s story.

Ethan Gray on winning National Heart of the Arts award:

“This award means a lot to me. When I found out that I won I was shocked (and still am). I'm really happy that I got the chance to go to St. Rita because without all of the things I've done there, I wouldn't be the person I am today.”

St. Rita Band Director Cindy Gradek on Ethan:

“Once in a while you get a kid who inspires you and Ethan is that type of kid.”


Gabe has dealt with cataracts, glaucoma and the extremely rare condition of aniridia, where neither eye has an iris, throughout his life. His eye problems resulted in several surgeries, one of which ended his grade school wrestling career. Gabe began playing piano when he was three-years old and also started playing percussion when he began the middle school band program. A highly skilled musician, he helped the Rockridge High School music program win an IHSA team state championship in 2015, while Gabe has earned multiple individual Division I instrument ratings. Refusing to be slowed down by his disability, he is also a two-sport high school athlete (cross country, track & field) and worked twice as hard as his peers to learn the music and steps as a member of the high school marching band. Ranked in the Top 3 in his class, Gabe is actively involved in the community and found a way to combine his passion of music and Boy Scouts, as he earned his Eagle Scout badge by building mobile instrument cubbies for the high school. Click this link for more on Gabe's story.

Rockridge Band Director Jessica Zabransky on Gabe:

"Gabe doesn’t want any special treatment, he wants to be treated like any other kid. He has worked his tail off to the point that people like me forget he even has a disability. I know he will be successful in the future, I look forward to seeing him continue to do great things.”


Sabrina Kenoun embodies all that it is good in the arts. She is a writer, a musician, and above all, a staunch advocate for the arts and pursuing your dreams. Sabrina was born with Spastic Diplegia, a form of Cerebral Palsy, but it hasn’t slowed her down in her pursuit of becoming a writer. “Sure I walk funny because of it (Spastic Diplegia),” Sabrina said. “But it’s really only ever prevented me from playing sports. I am aware of it, but I don’t let it affect me.” Sabrina is a four-year member of the Buffalo Grove High School newspaper, The Charger, where she has taken on a leadership role. In addition to writing news, opinion and features stories, she also has a recurring book review column in the newspaper entitled “Sabrina’s Book Nook.” She has also played the violin in the school orchestra for the past four years, but there is no doubt that writing holds a special place in her heart. She posts original fan fiction stories, often Harry Potter, on the website under a pen name and her work has garnered her over 800,000 followers on the website. Sabrina is also a defender of the arts, as she penned an opinion piece in The Charger entitled “Why no one should judge you for following your dreams”, about why she wants to pursue a career in writing. Click here for more on Sabrina's story

Buffalo Grove Teacher Stefanie McCleish on Sabrina:

"Sabrina has always been true to her passion. She has known from a young age that music, art and writing were what she wanted to pursue and chose classes that helped foster that passion. She is comfortable with herself and draws good people in, which makes her the kind of student you love to have in class."


Legally blind from Juvenile Macular Degeneration, Kevin Ferry showed no limitations in enjoying an amazing high school experience where he participated in both the arts (band, choir, musicals, plays, scholastic bowl) and athletics (football, basketball, track & field). Inspired by his high school choir teacher and band director, he decided to follow in their footsteps as music teacher. His impact has been felt at each of three stops at Bloomington Central Catholic High School, Avon High School and Monmouth-Roseville High School. At each school, Ferry drastically increased participation in the music programs, while also a setting a standard excellence, which resulted in each school winning a trophy in the IHSA’s Music Sweepstakes or Solo & Ensemble State Finals. All told, Ferry’s squads have won three state championships, four runner-up finishes and two third-place finishes. Click here for more on Kevin's story.

Former student Cecilia Fasano on Kevin:

"Mr. Ferry is one of those teachers who teaches you so many lessons without you even realizing it. He genuinely cares about his students and who they are as people. His ability to get students to recognize things in themselves and to work to improve left a lasting impression on me and has helped me to be a better communicator. By graduation, Mr. Ferry wasn’t just a teacher, but a friend."


Johnathon Giesecke has enjoyed a decorated high school debate career at Belvidere North High School, compiling a resume that includes 30 different accolades representing qualifications or Top 10 or better finishes at local, state and national debate competitions. Johnathon faced a very real obstacle in his path toward simply participating in debate, let alone excelling at it. He was diagnosed with Tourette Syndrome, a nervous system disorder that often causes repetitive movements or unwanted sounds, in second grade. As a result of Tourette Syndrome, Johnathon’s main symptoms included tics where he would often involuntarily add words to sentences. Debate would seem to be the last thing he would want to take on, as Johnathon acknowledges that he isn’t a natural speaker, and that pressure and stress tend to make his Tourette symptoms worse. However, his love, passion and dedication for debate led him to persevere and excel. Click here for more on Johnathon's story.

Debate Advisor Nicole Kroepel on Johnathon:

“He is not the most naturally gifted speaker I have coached, nor was he a natural for debate. He set himself apart in his desire to get better and willingness to work at it. He always wants to be better…better than the last round…better than the last tournament…better than the last season…better than the last year. He has an indominable spirit.”


Carter Schott has never known life without Spinal Muscular Atrophy, a form of Muscular Dystrophy that prevents his body from producing a protein that allows his muscles to communicate, and as a result, confines him to a wheelchair. Thanks to his passion and perseverance, he also doesn’t know a high school experience where Spinal Muscular Atrophy has prevented him from doing what he loves. Despite the complications that his ailment creates, he remains incredibly involved in the activities at his high school, including participating in Jazz Band, Pep Band, competitive Marching Band, along with being on the Robotics and Bass Fishing teams. Click here for more on Carter's story.

Carter on his high school experience:

Being involved is what I feel high school is all about.  It gives me a chance to apply what I am learning in school to real life situations. I was raised as ‘differently abled’ not ‘disabled’.  I would tell people not to look at their limitations as a stop sign, but rather a speed bump.

Sandburg Activities Director Greg Gardner on Carter:

“He is truly one of the most joyful students I have ever met and always brings a 'can do' attitude to what he is doing. He is continuously striving to do things that others might not think he is capable of and pushing himself past his physical limitations."


Ella was diagnosed with Dyslexia at age seven. To help her improve her reading, memorization, and self-esteem, her mom introduced her to the world of theater. From that point forward Ella’s love of the arts flourished. Ella has excelled as a student, mastering honors and AP courses, and has immersed herself in high school music and theater.  Ella’s high school career has included four years of both band and choir.  As a senior in 2020-21, she was a member of our Honors Ancora Choir and the school’s top band, Wind Ensemble. On the stage, she performed in more shows than she can recall. Ella has enjoyed time in community theater, middle school theater, and now high school musicals and drama competitions. One of Ella’s highlights was performing Silent Sky alongside her sister, for which they won third-place in the IHSA State Series competition. Ella was also a member of the Spartan Speech team and marching band. In her high school speech career, she collected 10 finishes of sixth or better in the IHSA State Series and made the All-State cast at the 2019 IHSA State Finals.

Director TJ Kahriman on Ella:

“Ella is fearless. She is bold. She is unstoppable. Her true gift as an actor is the way she infuses each of her characters with so much of her own life and vitality. This permeates the way she carries herself, the way she uses her unique sense of style to introduce herself to you before ever saying a word. As a director and coach, it is such a joy to work with that type of performer and that type of person.”




Vance was born with Rentinitis Pigmentosa, which caused him to become legally blind over the course of this life. That setback has not prevented him from taking advantage of the opportunities offered at Pope County High School. Pope County started a speech program during Vance's freshman year, which he promptly joined. Despite no prior experience in speech, he worked to become an IHSA Regional champion in two events as a junior and then culminated his experience by qualifying for the State Finals as a senior, where he earned All-State accolades after placing sixth in Impromptu Speaking. Vance continued to step outside his comfort zone by joining the the school musical cast, while also running cross country, serving as Senior Class President, and earning Valedictorian honors.  

Pope County Speech Assistant Coach Laura Hosfeldt On Vance:

“Vance uses his story not to garner pity from his classmates, but rather to show them that if he can do this with his impairments, then there is nothing holding them back from achieving their dreams.”

Vance On Winning The Section 4 Award:

“I would have never thought that anyone would be interested, let alone want to give me an award for all the years of struggles I have been through. The amount of honor and gratitude I have is practically endless. My hopes would be to show people that literally everyone has the ability to overcome anything that comes their way.”



Charlie is afflicted with arthrogyrposis amyoplasia, a very rare disorder that confined him to a motorized wheelchair with very limited use of his arms and virtually no use of his legs. His disability has not set Charlie back one iota in in terms of being an exemplary student or participating in the activities he loves. He is the co-President of Glenbard West’s Choir Club and Treasurer of the Theater Club. He has acted in four musicals in his high school career and directed two shows, in addition to performing in a variety of other choir and theater events. He is also a member of the National Honor Society and National Spanish Honor Society, in addition to making the school Honor Roll all four years and volunteering at Glen Ellyn Children’s Resource Center.

Glenbard West Choir Director Andy Jeffrey On Charlie:

“Where many would see a disability that hinders participation, Charlie sees opportunity.  Whether it is a trip to Disney with airline flights or singing in an honor choir and representing his school, Charlie meets obstacles to access with fierce determination and grace.”

Charlie On Why The Arts Are Important To Him:

“I have been involved in the arts for as long as I can remember and they have always served as an escape. When I sing or act, I never think about any of my limitations and just feel free and like no one is thinking of me any differently from other people. This award gives me validation that I am not just ‘the kid in the wheelchair.’ I am a valued member of the performing arts community that I have dedicated the majority of my life to.”


Ciera has used her love for the arts to help overcome a difficult upbringing that has included homelessness. She has taken advantage of her full high school experience by finding her home away from home within the arts programs at Hamilton County High School, where she participates in choir, band, color guard, theater, and scholastic bowl.

Hamilton County Music Director Lynette Staley On Ciera:

“Ciera is fiercely loyal to all of her arts groups and is the first to volunteer for any project that we have in the music or theater department. She volunteered to play clarinet in the school band during the second semester of 2024, even though she is not enrolled in the class."

Ciera On How The Arts Have Impacted Her:

“Each arts program I have participated in has contributed to my personal growth, including providing important friendships and mentors. These activities ha