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SULLY, Iowa — For 35 years, Denise Brillhart has taught in the Lynnville-Sully School District. She has watched her former students grow into adults who have their own kids, who she now has the privilege of teaching. Her students say she’s hung around the district long enough to be the school’s grandmother.

“She’s everyone’s grandma,” smiles sophomore Denali Conover. “Anyone can talk to her and she’ll always tell you it’s going to get better.”

Brillhart openly accepts the title of grandma, viewing it as a word of endearment.

“They know I’ve been here 35 years, so they are probably looking at me as that person they can go to when they have problems,” she says.

Sixth grader Sophia Squires ran into one of those problems this school year when her dad was diagnosed with stage four stomach cancer. She walked into school with a new hairdo, a shaved head, hoping that would help her grapple with the devastating news.

“She was trying to hide it,” Brillhart said. “She would have a hat on throughout the day, and I thought to myself, she is not embracing this. So I just decided I was going to go to my hairdresser, and I was going to shave my head.”

Brillhart and Squires held each other’s hand as the teacher shaved off her long locks. For Squires, she said it was nice knowing others cared for her family during this difficult time.

“She makes me feel really comforted. I love it,” Squires smiles.

The need to comfort others comes from a familiar place for the teacher. She watched her husband battle cancer. He died a decade ago.

“I said to myself,  ‘what have you done with your life to make a difference for other people?’ So even though I’ve taught all these years, the last 10 I have really wanted to make sure that kids realize how important they are and to be there for them,” says Brillhart.

She is a teacher willing to go the extra mile to show her students that they matter.

“It made me feel very loved by her. It was so awesome for her to do that,” says Squires.

Brillhart was awarded the Golden Apple on Dec. 12.