MILTON — May 8, 33 Santa Rosa County teachers nominated by their schools gathered at Bennett C. Russell Elementary School with their families to see who would be chosen as the Rookie of the Year.

The contest began, Cathy Purdon, Executive Director of Santa Rosa Education Foundation said, when the county noticed new teachers were leaving education careers around the two- to three-year mark.

The Santa Rosa Education Foundation and the Gulf Breeze Area Chamber of Commerce Foundation got together and created the Rookie of the Year contest. It is targeted at those teachers up to three years in their education careers.

"We want them know that we care about them, and want to encourage the good teachers to stay in our school system. We hope that you stay in Santa Rosa County for many years to come because we love you here and we want to support you," Purdon said as she started her announcement of the teacher of the year.

Purdon went on to describe the winning teacher as "an example of someone strong to look up to," someone who teaches life lessons like being sincere, polite and respectful all the time.

The award went to ROTC Air Force Master Sergeant (RET) Rafael Garcia of Gulf Breeze High School.

As Garcia he made his way through the congratulatory crowd, someone stopped him and said, "Different job but you are still serving your country."

Garcia spent over 20 years in the military.

"It's all about the cadets," Garcia said after the ceremony. There would always be those, he said, who need to find a leader to follow so why not be a leader?

"You have to teach as if your own kids are in the classroom," Garcia said.

Garcia received a $500 prize for winning the contest from the Santa Rosa Education Foundation and the Gulf Breeze Area Chamber of Commerce Foundation.

County Superintendent Tim Wyrosdick told the crowd of teachers to start showing the "art" of teaching and closed his comments by thanking all teachers.

"Thank you for changing lives on a daily basis and thank you for changing the world in a career," Wyrosdick said.