"That was really unexpected," Sarah Nelson said after receiving a district elementary-level Teacher of the Year award from Belfast Veterans of Foreign Wars Commander Anthony Kimble. "I had no idea."

The surprise award came during an Ames Elementary School assembly at which students presented to the VFW 375 pounds of Halloween candy they had collected in this year's Great Candy Challenge.

Nelson, a second grade teacher at Ames, was recognized for her outstanding commitment to teaching Americanism and patriotism to her students. She will now compete with other district winners at the state level, with winners advancing to the national competition.

At the national event, the top three teachers in the nation are named VFW national teacher of the year at three levels, elementary, middle school and high school, with each one receiving $1,000 for professional development and $1,000 for their school, plus an all-expense-paid trip to the convention in July.

VFW members, along with Senator-elect Erin Herbig, were on hand to present Nelson with a plaque and a $250 check.

Teachers are recognized for promoting civic responsibility, national pride and striving to help students develop a better understanding of democratic values.

"This is nice, but look at what you have all done," Nelson said to the student audience, referring to the boxes of Halloween candy they had collected for the VFW.

Kimble explained that the Great Candy Challenge, now in its seventh year, collects treats for troops. The VFW delivers the candy to Bangor International Airport, where it is given to active duty soldiers as they pass through the facility.

"They will get a big surprise," Kimble said. "To the students who care to give so much, we appreciate everything you do. Thank you," he said.

Nelson noted that besides collecting candy, students have been busy building graphs, estimating, weighing and predicting who will have the most among all the classes and grades.

"We did huge math problems, adding double-digit numbers," she said.

Nelson said candy collection totals were tight. She announced the third-place winner was Team Brennick (third grade) with 47 pounds, Team Fitzgerald (third grade) came in second with 52 pounds, and Team Campbell (second grade) placed first with 60 pounds of candy collected.

"I feel incredibly fortunate," Nelson said. "The VFW Randall-Collins Post 3108 of Belfast has provided students with outside opportunities and a chance for them to learn respect. These guys are phenomenal, the way they go out of their way to build community."