NISD announces 2017 Pillars of Character

Kristina Riffle Semukete, a former Northside ISD teacher and NEF grant recipient, founded the Obwaagazi Children’s Foundation in Uganda to give special needs children the chance to attend school. And 8,000 miles away in Austin, Michelle Fiedler Mikesh is helping those with permanent nerve damage to feel again.

These two extraordinary women, with four of their fellow NISD graduates, will be honored as the 2017 Pillars of Character at the Northside Education’s Foundation’s annual gala, Sept. 21.

Tickets are still available and there is still time to donate an auction item to the event. To purchase a table or ticket to the event click here and to donate an auction item click here. The event will be held at Vista Room at Venues at Valero. For more information, call (210) 397-8599.

Almost 700 business partners, community members, and educators are expected to attend the event. The gala is NEF’s largest fundraiser of the year and proceeds are used to fund grants to NISD faculty and staff. More than $400,000 was awarded last year in Resource, Innovation, and Team grants.

Each year, Pillars are selected from almost 100,000 Northside ISD alumni who graduated from NISD high schools since 1951. The Pillars represent the six character traits taught to NISD students as part of the Josephson Institute’s Character Counts program. The traits are trustworthiness, respect, responsibility, fairness, caring, and citizenship.

The 2017 Pillars of Character are:

Pillar of Responsibility
Michelle Fiedler Mikesh

As a Taft High School athlete, Michelle Fiedler Mikesh thought she might be a teacher and coach as a career choice. After all, she attended the University of Texas at San Antonio with an athletic scholarship. But with a mother who was a chemist and a father who was an engineer, science became a competing career choice for Mikesh that quickly won out. As a high school student, she spent summers in labs and as an undergraduate at UTSA, she began working as a lab assistant and contributed to two research papers. After graduation, she went on to manage laboratories at the University of Texas at Austin. Today, she is a lab manager and project manager in the Department of Neuroscience at the University of Texas.  She specializes in the communication between nerve and muscle cells. Mikesh likes the idea that she works in a field and an area of specialization that is considered practical science. These are scientific endeavors that will have an immediate impact on people’s lives; in this case, patients who have endured what could be permanent nerve damage that now could be healed.  Mikesh holds a Bachelor of Science degree from the University of Texas at San Antonio. She and her husband Robert are the proud parents of Jacob and William.

Pillar of Trustworthiness
LTC Colette Topfer

Lt. Col. Colette Topfer moved around a lot as the child of a military family. When she entered Taft High School as a freshman, she found an instant group of friends among her women’s soccer teammates. But as a 20-year-old student at Incarnate Word University, she began searching for something more, something bigger than herself. She decided to join the military. More than 20 years later, she says she’s still having a great time. Her pillar trait especially resonates with her as she thinks about the families of all the soldiers under her command, and the level of trust they have that she will keep them safe. Topfer holds a Bachelor of Science degree from Cameron University and an MBA from Strayer University. Today, Topfer is the 58th Expeditionary Military Intelligence Brigade Full-Time Supervisor and the 629th Military Intelligence Battalion Commander. Topfer also mentors women to become lifestyle leaders and live a healthy life. She says she is inspired by helping women reach not only their fitness goals but their lifestyle goals. She is also inspired by her husband Nicholas and her two children Chase and Lily.

Pillar of Caring
Kristina Riffle Semukete

Kristina Riffle Semukete is the Founder and Executive Director of Obwaagazi Children’s Foundation in Jinja, Uganda. Semukete has had obwaagazi (passion) for children with disabilities since she was a young girl. Her passion for special needs students brought her right back to Northside ISD, where she taught at Hoffmann Elementary School. During a summer break, she volunteered in Uganda and was offered a teaching position. So she packed up her life and moved 8,000 miles away from home. Once she began teaching, she discovered there were more than seven million children enrolled in public elementary schools in Uganda, but children with disabilities were not allowed to enroll. After three months, she founded Obwaagazi Children’s Foundation, an organization for children with disabilities in the local community. After focusing on community outreach for nine months, Semukete opened Obwaagazi Academy, a school for children with disabilities. The school now has more than 30 students with a variety of needs. Obwaagazi Academy provides love, education, medical assistance, food, clothing, parent education, and therapies to students with disabilities. Semukete is a true product of Northside. She attended Northwest Crossing Elementary School, Stevenson Middle School, and Marshall High School. Semukete volunteered in special education classrooms while she was in high school, obtained a Bachelor of Arts in Special Education from the University of Texas at San Antonio, and a Master of Science in Developmental and Cognitive Disabilities from the University of North Dakota. She has taught in Wyoming, New York, Texas, China, Thailand, and Uganda.

Pillar of Citizenship
Michael Dominguez 

Michael Dominguez is the first to tell you that the leadership skills he honed as the president of the Jay High School Student Council and in other extracurricular activities helped him become the successful person he is today. During his time at Jay High School, he planned a bi-annual blood drive, ran school concessions, and organized the annual John Jay Shoe Drive helping elementary students purchase much-needed shoes and toys at Christmas. During his junior and senior years, he would report to work at 5 a.m. at the Hyatt Regency San Antonio Riverwalk, where he began bussing tables. What Dominguez didn’t know at the time was that his stint as a busboy would lead to a lifelong career in the hospitality industry. Today, he is Senior Vice President, Chief Sales Officer for MGM Resorts International. Dominguez sits on various industry board and speaks across the country about leadership. In fact, he often comes back to Jay High School to speak to students about his time at the school and all he learned. His career has taken him to places he never knew he would experience, but Dominguez says that his days at Northside were some of the best of his life. If he had to give advice to his younger self, it would be to get over disappointments faster. What seems so important are just speed bumps in the road of life. His philosophy is “failure is part of the process.” He believes that it is part of his job to learn from an experience, take it to heart, and then teach others. Dominguez attended the University of Texas at San Antonio and fulfilled a dream of continuing his education at the University of Texas at Austin. Dominguez and his wife Marcie have been married for 28 years are the proud parents of Gabriela, Michael Jr., and Breana Dominguez as well as proud grandparents to Veda and Baby Pauly.

Pillar of Fairness
Frank Hakspiel

Frank Hakspiel knows a thing or two about obstacles. At 18, he left his native country of Colombia and, with no school records to show he had graduated already and with no command of the English language, entered Clark High School as a freshman. In two years, he mastered the language and earned all the credits necessary to graduate. During his short time at Clark High School, he developed lifelong friendships and further strengthened the grit and perseverance he would need later in life. At 20, he promptly joined the United States Navy and served until he suffered a life threatening neck injury.  Following recovery, he worked as a government contractor for Lockheed Martin but was laid off after 9/11.  After two misfires in business, he found the recipe to success and is now the very successful co-owner of Fralo's, a Leon Springs pizza restaurant known for its great food, live music, and daily crowds.  Fralo's is a combination of both his name and his wife’s name, Lori, his partner in life and business. They are the proud parents of their six-year-old son Grant. The two will soon open a full-service piano bar next door to Fralo’s, named Bar 301, and hope to start two additional projects in Boerne. 

Pillar of Respect
Mark Langford

As a Marshall High School student, Mark Langford sort of had a life plan: he was either going to be a doctor or a radio DJ. Then, he joined the Marshall High School newspaper, caught the photography bug and the rest is history. The famed newspaper and commercial photographer has worked professionally for 37 years. He’s produced six coffee table books filled with photos of his beloved San Antonio and its residents. Langford credits his success to his Marshall High School teachers and having the opportunity to work for a local paper during his years at the high school. But Langford has another passion -- storm chasing. He says he loves watching a storm come in and photographing it. Langford is a true Northside product who attended Oak Hill Terrace and Glenoaks elementary schools and Pat Neff Middle School. He holds a Bachelor of Arts from Brooks Photography Institute. He and his wife, Jennifer, are the proud parents of Aubrey and Kathleen.