The video, part of the school's KidWitness News program, which enables youngsters to learn all the intricacies of producing television news shows, featured the 12-year-old Rodriguez's battle with cancer over the last six years.
A year ago, Rodriguez had to finally decide to have his leg amputated in order to stabilize his health. The students made the poignant and moving video, telling Lenny's incredible and emotional tale, and wanted to show the video to Collins as part of his visit.
The video presentation moved everyone in the room to tears, including the usually stoic quarterback.
In each of the last two prior years, Hochman's class captured the national Panasonic KidWitness News award, once for a Local Hero story about two Weehawken firefighters, one of whom donated his kidney to the other. Last year, the class won for its poignant presentation about immigration.
After people watched the video tribute to their courageous classmate this year, there was little doubt that this emotional biography of young Lenny's life would also be considered for national honors. It was that professional.
"We put a lot of effort into the video and wanted to show it to everyone and tell everyone about Lenny," said sixth grader Ashka Gami. "Although we had a lot of fun making it, we knew that we were doing something special."
Sure enough, the video won an award - and then another. It won one honor for Local Hero video and another for script writing. Hochman's students had pulled off the unthinkable - the Panasonic award "three-peat," winning the national award for the third straight year.
The students will receive their award as part of a weekend celebration May 13-15, culminating with the awards presentation on May 15 at the Newark Museum. The students from Hochman's class will be among several others nationwide who won respective awards from the Panasonic program.
"I'm just totally thrilled," Hochman said. "These children worked so hard on this video, not only producing the video for Lenny's parents, but to receive the acclaim from Panasonic. It's absolutely wonderful. Each and every child worked so hard. Their heart and soul went into it."
The project became a labor of love for all of the students. Under the guidance of teacher Jon Hammer, who originated the KidWitness News program in Weehawken 18 years ago and watched it evolve into a national program featured in nearly 1,000 schools, the students gave of their free time to put together the interviews, the research about bone cancer, the editing of new videotape footage, as well as other footage when Lenny was younger.
"The class was definitely sensitive and concerned, not only about the project, but also their friend and classmate," Hammer said. "They were all dedicated to the task, giving up of their time, coming into school at 7:30 a.m. three days a week to do editing."
Lina Wayman was one of those editors.
"We all had a goal to make it good," Wayman said. "We came up and worked on it during lunch periods and before school, three, maybe four times a week. All of the people had to work hard, especially the people who worked behind the scenes."
The students also had to learn how to speak properly in front of a camera. Jimmy Festa, a former actor who coordinates the school's performing arts program, helped with the proper pronunciation.
Added Hammer, "In a sense, this video meant a lot to the students, because it focused on a fellow student and their friend. It also focused on a disease that has affected every one of us in some way. Between those two aspects, it made the video more significant. The focus was on content more than fancy graphics and design. The message was the most important part of the video. I'm very proud of what they've been able to accomplish." The students all knew that they were facing history, when taking on the task of producing an award-winning video.
"My sister [Jovanna] won two years ago," said Veronica Cedeno. "Because of that, I wanted to win this year." "When we started, we didn't want to be the ones to mess up the streak," said Kyle Morris. "When Mr. Hammer told us we didn't win one, we were upset. But then he told us that we won two and we were all happy." "There would have been a lot of people unhappy if we didn't win again, so there was a little pressure," said Tanvee Trehan. "But we all showed what we could do."
But winning the Panasonic award wasn't the real purpose of making the video.
"We wanted to show everyone how brave of a person Lenny is," Katya Bonilla said.
"We wanted to win for Lenny," Katherine Dantis said.
The video will always be special, because it enabled Collins to come to visit and meet Lenny. Because of the visit and Collins' charity foundation, KC For Kids, Collins extended the courtesy to allow Lenny to attend New York's Rusk Institute to receive medical attention and physical therapy. Lenny will actually be fitted for a new prosthesis at no cost. Lenny attended his first physical therapy session just last week, thanks to Collins' generosity.
Lenny looking forward
"I'm getting a new prosthetic so I can run," Lenny said. "It's going to take about a year or so before that happens, but I'm excited about it. I was happy that they made the video and it's nice to see that people care about me. I'm pretty honored by it and I'm surprised how good it turned out to be. I'm glad they won."
Lenny will accompany the rest of Hochman's class to receive the Panasonic awards next month.
"I think we've all learned to appreciate what we have," said student Eric Eckhardt. "You can't take anything for granted and you have to enjoy life. That's what I learned most."
"These kids put their lives into this project for Lenny," Hochman said. "They went to visit him in his home and spent so much time with him when he was sick. They all learned so much about life and they learned to appreciate what they have. That's more important than winning the award. They all had a vested emotional interest in Lenny and loved him so much. It's so great how this all turned out."
Weehawken Mayor Richard Turner agreed. Turner and the township council just completed honoring last year's winners, along with Hochman and Hammer, with certificates of appreciation, at Wednesday's regularly scheduled council meeting. Now, Turner has to make plans to honor this group.
"It is absolutely outstanding that this group has won for a third year in a row," Turner said. "It shows what a superb program we have in the KidWitness News, a program that can compete with the hundreds of schools throughout the country. And to come out as the winner for three years in a row is truly remarkable. We're very proud. It speaks highly of the faculty, students and entire school system, especially the dedication of Eileen Hochman and Jon Hammer."
Added Turner, "The whole program turned out to be a wonderful thing, a two-fold event. The video brought Kerry Collins to the school, and because he's a leader with his foundation, he was able to open the door to the Rusk Institute for Lenny and make a tremendous improvement to Lenny's quality of life. I think this is all part of a continuation of how a small community can rally to help someone in need. Lenny has endured a tremendous struggle, but the generosity of Kerry Collins has brought it all to another level."
Added Hammer, "He's an amazing tough little guy. Everyone wanted to help, and winning the award is just icing on the cake."