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Sweetheart Awards honor special needs allies

The Palo Alto Community Advisory Committee for Special Education (CAC) Steering Committee will host the tenth annual Sweetheart Awards on Wednesday, Feb. 26 at 7:30 p.m. The awards honor those in Palo Alto who have positively affected a special needs child. CAC member and former Steer- ing Committee member Tina Underwood started the awards after she learned that a friend ran a program similar to Palo Alto’s Sweet- heart Awards through a special education parent group in Massachusetts.

The awards honor those who go above and beyond, even with the smallest actions, to help a special needs child. “It’s really the most wonderful, heartwarming night of the year,” Underwood said. “It’s meaningful because there are all sorts of people [whose] small kindnesses make a big difference.”

Anyone can nominate someone for this award by submitting a paragraph discussing why the nominee should receive the award to Rachel Paley, a CAC volunteer and parent of a special needs child. “We hear so much about what’s wrong with this school district, and we read about the investigation by the Office of Civil Rights, and this event is what is right and what is good and what is special about this school district,” Paley said. “It’s my favorite day of the year.”

The CAC notifies people of their nominations but does not reveal who nominated them until the night of the event. Their nominations, or an edited version, are read aloud to attendees. The nominees receive a certificate and a flower. Many teachers, speech therapists and classroom aides are nominated, but bus drivers, neighbors, crossing guards and friends have also received awards.

Barron Park Elementary School teacher Nicholas Foote has been nominated five times for the Sweetheart Awards, with 2014 being the third consecutive year that his entire third grade class has been nominated. “It is very humbling to attend a celebration where families have expressed such joy and appreciation and happiness for the entire class,” Foote said.

Foote began his career as a special education teacher and developed a high-esteemed reputa- tion for his work with special needs kids in his regular education class. “I have always said that this [the classroom] has to be a place where inclusion works for all 22 of us, and all 22 of us can be successful, can achieve, can learn and can help each other,” Foote said. “What we try to do is to celebrate those moments where all of us do something together.”

Both nominees and CAC members find the Sweetheart Awards to be extremely meaningful to the community. “We all have things that we struggle with, but I think if you have a special need, no one can imagine how hard that is,” Paley said. “I can’t describe how wonderful it is to have someone who steps up and does something that is either helpful or inclusive.” The awards motivate honorees to continue to support those in the special needs community.

Students can involve themselves by interacting with special needs kids they know, and by observing and matching their behavior so they can develop friendships with them. In addition, students can nominate people for the awards.

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