York Innovation Academy Principal Missy Lennard (right) and VE educator Christina Turner celebrate the award granted to, and held by, paraprofessional Dawn York. (Photo credit: Linda Chion.)

Forty-four educators in Southeastern Hillsborough County were among the 155 professionals and groups recognized at the 24th annual Excellence in Action awards ceremony at The Regent in Riverview on May 8, produced by Florida Diagnostic and Learning Resources System (FDLRS).

The ceremony for award nominees devoted to exceptional student education (ESE) opened with the Bloomingdale High School Air Force JROTC color guard and included entertainment from the Kingswood Elementary School pre-K ESE class under the direction of Rebecca Oakeson. The Newsome High Buddies Club, under Donna Hart, performed as well, with the club described as “a life-changing experience that results in lasting friendships and awareness about students with intellectual disabilities.”

Under the guidance of Michael Farley, nominees received handcrafted buttons created by Raider Nation Enterprise, the business run by transition students at Plant City High School.

“These students learn how to run and operate all aspects of the business, from creative arts, production, budgeting and selling the product,” said FDLRS ESE parent liaison Christine Poe.

Among the 11 award recipients in nine categories were Carole Fernandez of Eisenhower Exceptional Center for administration; paraprofessional Dawn Tabor of York Innovation Academy for support staff; and Allen Ross of Lennard High School for ESE secondary teachers.

“I was not expecting it at all, I really wasn’t,” Ross said. “It’s a great honor. Every day, I look forward to coming to work because of how the students are and how much they love you. They just appreciate everything that you do for them.”

As for the abilities of students with special needs, “They can do anything,” Ross said. “You just have to give them a chance. That’s what I do in my classroom. I give them that chance.”

In a letter of recommendation, Tabor was recognized for helping a child who said she was “locked away in anxiety, frustration and loneliness,” as she was “acting out from pure frustration brought on by missing out on two years of school.” She said her parents would put her to bed every night “in tears because they didn’t know how to get the ‘old Sammy’ back.” The letter notes that Tabor “may never know how much I needed her, but my parents do, and they thank her with all their hearts as they sit and write this paragraph with joyful tears of relief.”

As for Fernandez, her letter of recommendation notes that she is “outgoing, nice and a really special person” who “cares about all the kids no matter what they do.”

In a special presentation, attorney T. Edmund Spinks received the Millie Bucy Positive Parent Involvement Award, named in honor of the founding FDLRS parent services manager. The award “celebrates the success that can be achieved when parents work in a positive and collaborative effort,” Poe said.

Special thanks were given to the students and teachers at Caminiti Exceptional Center for the handcrafted awards created by Caminiti Sparkles. Also noted were Blake High School for event photography and Durant High culinary arts students for preparing and serving event refreshments.

As for Bloomingdale JRTOC cadets, they “take great pride and dedication to present the cloth of our nation,” said FDLRS ESE parent liaison Jennifer Belinc-DeGregori. She noted that the group has performed more than 40 color guard presentations statewide and has accumulated more than 2,000 hours of community service. Moreover, Belinc-DeGregori said the cadets raised $3,200 for the American Cancer Society and $500 for A Kid’s Place, and in nine competitions they earned 25 trophies for drill, color guard, fitness and marksmanship.

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