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Posted on: August 28, 2023

2023 Citizen of the Year award winners announced: Aubrey Barnes wins Individual Category

Aubrey Barnes

Rock Island announces the 2023 Citizen of the Year award winners

Rock Island announces the 2023 Citizen of the Year award winners


The City of Rock Island has chosen the winners for the 36th Annual Citizen of the Year awards. Each year, people in the community have an opportunity to submit a nomination for those who have made selfless contributions of service to the City of Rock Island and its residents. 


Eight categories have been recognized: Individual; Youth; Education; Professional; City Employee; Veteran; Organization, Church or Non-Profit; and Business. The awards were founded in 1987 as a way to recognize those individuals and organizations that make a positive difference in the Rock Island community. 


Winners will be will recognized with an awards presentation during the city council meeting on Monday, Aug. 28. at 6:45 p.m.


Winners were chosen by the Citizen of the Year Committee. The committee is composed of last year’s winners, Mayor Mike Thoms, Ald. Jenni Swanson, Ald. Bill Healy, Community Engagement Manager Sarah Hayden, City Clerk Samantha Gange and Labor Day Parade Committee Chairwoman Mary Chappell. 


“After receiving nearly 50 nominations, the Citizen of the Year Committee is proud to announce the eight winners and hand out awards Monday night,” said Sarah Hayden, community engagement manager for the City of Rock Island. “This year’s group is an example of the generous volunteers in the community who contribute their time, creativity and leadership to make Rock Island a better place to live, work and play.”


Winners also will be honored in the 2023 Rock Island Labor Day Parade, on Monday, Sept. 4.


Individual: Aubrey Barnes, founder of Roaring Rhetoric and the non-profit group Young Lions Roar. Barnes is a poet, rapper and educator who inspires students to develop self confidence through poetry, writing and self-expression by performing in front of others. He has authored several books on poetry and is the co-founder and host of the Black Thoughts Podcast.  


Youth: Nicolina Pappas, environmentalist and founder of Nicolina's Turtle Co. Just 12-years-old, Nicolina is already a conservation leader in the Quad Cities. She founded Nicolina’s Turtle Co. when she was 8 with the goal of reducing single-use plastic. Through her company, she sews straw pouches and sells them with reusable metal straws. She donates 100% of her profits to conservation groups and has raised more than $6,500.


Professional: Rev. Donald Johnson, founder of Destiny Baptist Church. Rev. Johnson also has served as Chaplain for the Rock Island Police Department for more than 20 years. He serves the community through faith and fellowship and volunteers his time working with at-risk youth. 


Education: Mike and Katie Mertel of Rock Island High School. An individual is typically chosen for this award, but Mike and Katie Mertel are truly a dynamic duo who work together to make Rocky a more inclusive, spirited and accepting community through their work in classrooms and extracurricular activities. 


Mike Mertel teaches World Studies and founded the RIHS Education Internship Program and leads the Cultural Appreciation Club. Katie Mertel teaches English and serves as an advisor to the student council, organizes Homecoming Week, the Dance Marathon, the Student Hunger Drive, and more. 


Veteran: Don Mewes, a former Marine who served during Operation Desert Storm. Mewes has volunteered for 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: Dan Gleason, special events and fundraising manager for the Parks and Recreation Department. Gleason has worked for the City for more than six years organizing events and bringing the community together. He also volunteers his time for several boards and foundations throughout the Quad Cities. 


Business: Handy True Value Hardware, 1435 30th St., owners Bob and Pam Votroubek. Handy True Value is recognized for its helpful and knowledgeable employees, donations to Habitat for Humanity, and for being a cornerstone small business in the community for more than 30 years.  


Handy True Value owners Bob and Pam Votroubek have been chosen as the Labor Day Parade Grand Marshals. 


Organization, Church or Non-Profit: Second Baptist Church, 919 6th Ave. Founded in 1873, Second Baptist Church celebrates its 150th anniversary this year and continues to grow. Second Baptist serves the community through youth outreach, a food pantry, monthly meal site, van ministry, vacation bible school, a tutoring program, and the SBC Outreach Music and Arts Academy. 

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