Laila Oribello, 15, is a freshman at Marysville’s Early College High School and she has a new hero.

“I really feel like she's my role model. She’s perfect. I feel like can to look up to her,” said Oribello.

Oribello was one of 125 freshmen who heard Ronette Burkes, the warden at the Ohio Reformatory for Women in Marysville, speak March 1 at the ECHS in a presentation about motivation, service to community, innovation and empathy.

ECHS teacher Mary Grose said it was all part of the freshman humanities students' study of a memoir called "The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind," a book about a boy in Malawi, who’s motivated by a desire to help his family and who designs a windmill to bring them electricity.

"(Burkes') professional success is driven by her motivation to serve others,” said Grose. “Her message was a powerful one.”

“I honestly thought it was so captivating. I was interested the entire time,” Oribello said. “She had my attention from the second she started to the second she ended.”

Burkes began her presentation by introducing herself to the students and explaining her No. 1 rule at the ORW: “We’re in the business of saving lives.”

“I’m surrounded by a wonderful staff who believe in what we do, and believe in saving lives,” said Burkes.

She said the many programs at the prison help the prisoners become better people, such as the apprentice programs that allow inmates to learn a skill like horticulture, making jewelry and studying for a cosmetology license.

“We have more programs than any other prison in the state. And I can confidently say that,” said Burkes. “And I was told this summer when I was in Boston, defending our accreditation before the American Correctional Association, that we have more programs than any other prison in this country.”

Once she made the students familiar with her background and work, she moved into what motivated her to keep reaching to achieve new goals.

Oribello said the message about service hit home.

“It's really easy to make big changes in your community. You don't have to be a celebrity or have a lot of money,” said Oribello. “That's what I took from it. She's just done so much for her community.”

Burkes runs a prison with more than 500 employees and 2,652 inmates. In January, she received the award of Ohio’s Warden of the Year.

Hearing from a woman who has achieved such a high measure of success touched Oribello in a way she didn’t expect. 

“I just felt her whole presentation was so inspirational,” said Oribello. “And I think a lot of others did, too. She had everyone tearing up at certain times.”

“My students were a respectful, responsive and engaged audience,” said Grose. “They were impressed by Ms. Burkes as a presenter and as a leader.”

Grose said the book's themes were mirrored in Burkes’ presentation.

“They were able to make strong connections between the book and Ms. Burkes' approach to leadership,” Grose said. “Persistence, creativity, respect, hope, empathy are necessary to create change in the world.”

Burkes' message left an impression on the students. Oribello said Burkes has something to offer that other young people need to see. Something beyond the glitz and glitter that other so-called role models have to offer.

“She's more realistic. Not like other celebrities,” said Oribello. “Better than a celebrity. She's real.”