"Can clouds fall down if you land on them?" first-grader Naki'ya Armstead, 6, asked with sincere curiosity.
Armstead, along with Alondra Woodard's entire first-grade class at the Dr. Martin Luther King School in Atlanic City, sat engrossed recently, eyes and ears on Lt. Andrew Zuckerman - a Coast Guard Air Station Atlantic City helicopter pilot and recently named Partnership in Education Coordinator of the Year.
"He really has a deep personal commitment to serving others. He works as a leader on base and still accomplishes his goal of bringing consistency to (the program)," Petty Officer Nick Ameen said. "He really exemplifies what a Coast Guard member can be at work and beyond."
Zuckerman, 30, a native of Branchville who has been a Brigantine resident for the past three years, visits the Atlantic City school each month as part of his duty as program coordinator, a responsibility he took on in 2011.
The PIE Program, authorized under the National and Community Service Act of 1990, encourages members of the Coast Guard to create partnerships within their local schools and communities to promote excellence in education, their website says.
The ultimate goal is to heighten students' awareness of traditional Coast Guard values - drug-free lifestyles, emphasis on scholarship, personal initiative, responsibility and individual self-worth.
"It's humbling to be picked amongst a large group of people that has done really great things. It's also really validating, too," Zuckerman said. "A lot of time you pour yourself into something, and you don't always get recognized for it. But to be recognized for something, it's a really good feeling. … I am definitely going to work even harder now that I got it."
Zuckerman was the only local winner recognized for his efforts.
On his recent trip to the school, Zuckerman brought three volunteers with him to aid students, but typically aims to bring 10 to 15. During his time as coordinator, he has tripled the number of PIE Program volunteers, he confirmed.
"It's a little bit of persistence and a little bit of just making it a good program," Zuckerman said. Once people volunteer, they tend to come back, he added.
As coordinator, the pilot works to move beyond simple tutoring. Last visit included landing a helicopter on the school's grounds for Career Day. "They seemed to like it a bit," he laughed.
Zuckerman expressed his plans to continue coordinating public affairs events such as the landing, as well as attempt to bring a larger cross-section of volunteers to the school to show students the countless occupations the Coast Guard requires.
His main objective: become role models to these children who may not necessarily consider the uniform a positive at first.
"(Many students) have never seen the Coast Guard before at all, and for them to be able to associate the helicopter that flies around with an actual human being in a uniform, that's really cool," Zuckerman said. "We show that if you study math or science … you can do really cool stuff."
School Principal Jodi Burroughs, who defines Zuckerman's commitment as thoughtful and sincere, believed him strongly deserving of the recognition.
"He recognizes the impact is much greater than his own individual commitment. His impact will affect many others along the way," she said.
Zuckerman, who recently completed his three-year pilot syllabi and directed a successful ground safety inspection that aided 300 personnel on base, wants to keep the PIE program a priority: "I love PIE - It's a great program. I am glad that a lot of people from here do it, and I hope to bring it with me to the next unit."
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