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.

Annual 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."