2020 Special Ambassador Award Winners
The Special Ambassador Award is the highest recognition given by SSD. The award is presented to organizations and community members who demonstrate an extraordinary commitment to the District’s students and staff.
Express Scripts Human Resources Team
Express Scripts has shifted its focus away from holiday parties and onto giving back to the community. Employees are encouraged to participate in projects and activities that provide assistance and enhance the holidays of those who are in need.
Employees use work time to volunteer for activities, and teams are able to choose their own projects. For the past five years, a team from Express Scripts Human Resources has chosen to participate with Ackerman School’s holiday shop event.
The event provides students with an opportunity to experience the joy of giving. When it began, staff collected small, new and gently used items to stock the holiday shop. On a day in December, students shop for their families.
The Express Scripts team assists students with shopping, and wraps all the gifts so each student can take them home ready to put under the tree. They now provide gifts and supplies so the Ackerman team is no longer responsible for all that is needed.
The volunteers allow school staff to focus on helping the students practice social skills, interact with new people, and continue their school day routine.
The Express Scripts volunteers offer enthusiasm and compassion, and they support the students in making choices. Because of this event, the students are able to experience the joy of giving, something that can only be learned by experiencing it.
Gaslight Studio STL
Gaslight Studio STL is a recording studio in which patrons witness the art of music while eating and drinking. Owner JB Anderson opened the studio after his parents passed away to pay homage to their legacy of being music lovers, as well as their history of giving back to those in need.
Gaslight Studio STL isn’t just any music studio. It provides a space for music lovers to go behind the scenes and have access to the creative process of audio and visual documentation. What sets it apart is the focus on providing the local music scene with a relevant path to recording and video production, and it gives a chance to those who might not otherwise have such an opportunity.
Anderson and Gaslight Studio STL partnered with SSD’s staff who provide academic instruction to students at the Juvenile Detention Center (JDC) to work with students and help them learn how to produce music. The students create music from scratch, then submit it back to the professionals at the studio for real-world feedback.
The program is incentive-based. Students must complete their other academic work in order to have the opportunity to make beats and create lyrics. It was designed to help motivate them to improve in their academic classes.
Anderson coordinated getting the proper equipment and software to the JDC. Students were interested in the program immediately. One teacher credits the program with helping a student improve his writing and reading skills.
“JB has gone far and above and beyond with his dedication to these students who might not otherwise get any sort of chance like this in their life,” said SSD principal at JDC and Special Ambassador nominator John Miller.
Home Builders Association of St. Louis and Eastern Missouri
The Home Builders Association (HBA) of St. Louis and Eastern Missouri began a partnership with North Technical and South Technical high schools three years ago. The partnership began with a meet-and-greet event to introduce the HBA student chapter to parents and students. The cafeteria was filled to the point of standing room only.
Each year, the HBA continues to look for ways to grow and make its partnership with SSD’s technical education schools stronger.
Kelly Pfiffer is the liaison between the HBA and North Tech and South Tech. She accommodates the schedules of the two schools as well as the schedules of the contractors in order to create interaction between the students and owners of construction companies. Every two weeks, both schools host owners to provide engagement for students, all with the hope of employment at the end of the year.
Last year, the HBA helped the student chapter grow by participating in the Home Show at America’s Center. While students worked the event, they made connections with contractors that turned into internships, job shadowing and employment.
Additionally, for the past three years, the HBA hosted a job fair that welcomed different kinds of contractors including carpentry, electrical, plumbing, drywall and heating, ventilation, and air conditioning companies. In addition to employment opportunities, the HBA teaches classes on establishing and maintaining good credit, how to write a resume and how to interview.
Parkway South High School Varsity Basketball Coaches
The Parkway South High School varsity basketball coaches model inclusion in all that they do.
Student Jack Foshee and his SSD teacher, Vanessa Hill, set a goal to find activities and groups for Jack to get involved in. Finding the right fit is important and can take some time for many students.
Hill referred Jack to Matt Roach, head basketball coach at Parkway South, and his nervousness quickly turned into ease when Jack met Coach Roach. He introduced Jack as a manager of the team and made it clear that Jack was a part of the team.
According to his mom, Jack’s self-worth and confidence have increased greatly and she credits much of that to the coaches. She said each coach got to know Jack, helped build his self-esteem, and made him feel like he belongs.
Jack’s mom added that the coaches are accepting of students with challenges, but use the strengths they have and lead by example by including everyone.
Veterans Health Administration Prosthetics Service
With the leadership of Bruce Nolan, Joseph Lopez and Terr Torralba, the Prosthetics Service Department staff have been instrumental in expanding the Vocational Skills Program (VSP) at Veterans Affairs (VA) Hospital at Jefferson Barracks.
Their efforts have led to the placement and training of students in the VSP program, and the doorway has been opened for placement of students in additional areas including environmental management services, facility food service and the employee cafeteria.
Training opportunities were developed for students and positions were created, which include wheelchair assemblers, administrative assistant and prosthetic supply room stocker.
Nolan works diligently to ensure each student has a positive experience at the VA and learns skills required to get competitive employment. Torralba has helped guide three students to work in a competitive employment setting. Lopez provides training feedback, and supports each student.
The collaboration between the Prosthetics Service at the Veterans Health Administration and SSD’s VSP program helps students succeed.
Sportsman’s Supply Inc.
By partnering with SSD, Sportsman’s Supply offers students an opportunity to make and achieve goals that ideally will lead to gainful employment, either at Sportsman’s Supply or another warehouse, when students complete their Vocational Skills Program.
Leaders Kit Roedemeier, Shelley Sullivan, Ed Parrott and Tara Thomas have put a lot of time in perfecting the training process, which shows through student success. The warehouse is well organized with natural accommodations. For example, a color-coded chart tells employees where products need to be placed in the packing line; numbered aisles with arrows help employees determine if they should turn right or left; and reminders are posted on the main desk so employees know each time to get their next order to pull.
The staff at Sportsman’s Supply play an active role in making sure each student’s time at work is meaningful and true to being an employee for any business. Students are included in all meetings and social activities.
The team has a good rapport with each of the students. Staff at Sportsman’s Supply make sure to understand each student, and his or her communication and learning style. They are advocates for students and make sure other employees know the program goals.
Starkloff Disability Institute
The Starkloff Disability Institute works on changing societal attitudes and perceptions about people with disabilities through activities that send a positive message in order to create a world that welcomes people with disabilities.
The Starkloff Career Academy prepares candidates for competitive employment, and the Starkloff Workplace Advisors prepare companies to welcome them. Max Starkloff and Colleen Kelly Starkloff co-founded the institute, which plays an instrumental role in supporting not only the acceptance, but also the importance, of all abilities in the workplace.
The Dream Big Program allows college- and technical school- bound students to dream big about their future. The program aims to show students they can do many things their non-disabled peers can do, and they should not limit their career goals.
The Dream Big Career Camp allows students to engage in educational activities aimed specifically at inclusion and independent living.
The Mentoring Program connects students with potential employers, provides job shadowing and career exploration opportunities to students, and creates lasting connections between mentors and mentees.
And last but not least, the Workplace Consulting Program works with companies of all sizes in St. Louis to ensure they have the appropriate policies and practices in place to successfully hire, train and retain professionals with disabilities.
Dana Abell – LifeBridge Partnership
LifeBridge Partnership is an organization which empowers people with disabilities to develop skills for independence and to actively participate in the community.
Dana Abell began as a volunteer with the after-school program, summer camps and out-and-about programs. She was quickly hired by LifeBridge in 2013 on a part-time basis. Since 2016, she has worked full time supervising the after-school enrichment program and co-directing the youth camps.
Abell trains staff, schedules daily activities for campers, runs program stations at camp, and even serves as camp staff when needed. She works tirelessly to ensure the program is a success. Because the SPARK program has been such a success, the LifeBridge Partnership now also runs a Leaders Club, which is possible because Abell wrote a grant that allowed the program to begin and be funded.
The Leaders Club was designed to help students prepare for the workforce. They clock in and out of the program and learn and expand their life skills including, but not limited to, interview skills, money handling, and appropriate social skills.
Abell also arranges field trips and on-the-job learning opportunities. She is focused on giving students opportunities and working closely with members of the community to ensure the best possible outcomes for students.
Diane Buhr Engelsmann – Former Executive Director, Special Education Foundation
Diane Buhr Engelsmann has been involved with the Special Education Foundation (SEF) since its inception in 1984. SEF was the first public school foundation in the state of Missouri, and provides support and assistance to students who receive services from SSD.
The organization remained small for more than a decade. In 1997, Buhr Engelsmann helped reorganize the board of directors to be more community oriented. She helped build SEF into an effective force supporting students with disabilities.
During her tenure as executive director of SEF, Buhr Engelsmann developed programs to benefit students and raised money to bring them to fruition.
Dana Brown teacher mini grants reach more students than any other SEF program. Teachers design programs and submit requests to fund innovative programs. The Fred Saigh Leadership Program debuted in 2004 and was the only program of its type in the state that fosters leadership among students with disabilities. In addition to designing the program, Buhr Engelsmann procured a grant for SEF to fund it.
SEF’s largest fundraising event, the Dan McLaughlin Golf Tournament, not only raised the profile of the Foundation, but also provided the vehicle for achieving one of Buhr Engelsmann’s objectives: to connect SSD teachers and staff to SEF and its efforts. Staff and retiree involvement on the committee has become essential to the success of the event.
Rebecca Goebel – President, SSD Parent Advisory Council
Rebe Goebel became involved in SSD’s Parent Advisory Council (PAC) when her children began receiving services from the District. She quickly felt like she could make a difference not only in her children’s partner district, but across all of St. Louis County.
She began representing Ladue Schools on the PAC, and participated in the SSD Parent Leadership Institute. While serving as the vice president on the PAC executive committee, she sought to learn as much as she could about the history of the SSD PAC and SSD, along with the challenges and concerns that most parents have. She began connecting with SSD administrators, Board of Education members, Governing Council members, SSD staff, and fellow parents throughout the county.
After serving as vice president, Goebel was nominated and elected to be president of the SSD PAC. According to her Special Ambassador nominator and fellow PC member Christina Blankenship, “Rebe’s energy is contagious. She sets this wonderful tone and example of respect and inclusion, with the emphasis that all voices will be heard.”
Blankenship said Goebel led the SSD PAC through the process of goal setting, process improvement, and establishing communications strategies and tactics. “Rebe has taken the PAC to a whole new level of advocacy and organization that it has never seen before,” said Blankenship. “It is now more than ever a true advisory council. She asks the hard questions, but she also offers sound and reasonable solutions, which she works diligently to bring to fruition through the partnerships and relationships she has built.”
Brandi Herndon-Miller – Attorney
As a trial attorney with more than 100 trials and 15 years of experience, Brandi Herndon-Miller wears many hats including court-appointed attorney in juvenile court, guardian ad litem, and private civil, family and criminal defense attorney. That is in addition to being a city attorney, prosecuting attorney and municipal court judge.
North Technical High School has been participating in the prestigious Missouri Constitution Project since 2014. The competition is sponsored by the Missouri Supreme Court. One part of the competition focuses heavily on trial advocacy.
For the past four years, Herndon-Miller has spent one to two hours a day twice a week helping prepare students for the competition. She was instrumental in helping North Tech win back-to-back regional championship titles in 2018 and 2019.
According to North Tech law enforcement program teacher Clarence Hines, some students are now moving beyond policing and dispatching because of Herndon-Miller’s involvement, and many are entering college with an eye toward law school.
“In large part, thanks to Brandi, we have two students who were selected as best overall attorney in 2017 and 2018 in the Constitution Project,” said Hines. “In addition, two students won the Fifth Amendment Award for Trial Advocacy in 2016 and 2018. Brandi has been enormously faithful to our students and our program.”
Peggy Keith – Capital Senior Living
Peggy Keith is the executive director at Capital Senior Living and partners with the SSD Vocational Skills Program (VSP). Keith provides students with job experience and helps them transition into adulthood while holding them to high standards.
According to her Special Ambassador nominator, VSP teacher Anna Bergamini, Keith models a productive and inclusive environment that accepts people of all abilities.
“When I met Peggy, she had just hired three students from the program,” said Bergamini. “As we began to work together, we had all new students. She has since hired two current students to work part time, and she has carved out jobs that play to the students’ strengths and adapted supports as necessary.”
Bergamini added that Keith accepts all students into the program. “She holds students to the same standard as she does any of her employees, but she is willing to accommodate their needs and utilize their different strengths. What sets Peggy apart is that she sees student potential and gives them a safe place to work every day.”
Emily McIlvoy – St. Louis County Library
Emily McIlvoy is the Teen Services coordinator for the St. Louis County Library. She provides outreach programming to SSD’s court programs and Riverview Gardens High School.
According to her Special Ambassador nominator, SSD reading specialist Leslie McEntire, McIlvoy promotes reading and makes sure to bring books for students so they can build their own libraries.
“Emily makes sure to do activities that will incorporate the St. Louis County Library’s science, technology, engineering, art and mathematics curriculum,“ said McEntire. “The students are exposed to a large variety of activities, and they all enjoy the visits. She always asks for feedback and makes changes when needed.”
McIlvoy’s presence has ignited an interest in the library for students who didn’t have an interest before. “We partner up to make sure each and every one of our students have a library card,” said McEntire. “The students all participate in the summer reading as well as winter reading clubs. Emily is a great role model for our students. Her kindness is catching and she is well-respected by all staff and students.”
Sarah Richmond – VAT19/Jumby Bay Productions
Sarah Richmond is the warehouse manager at VAT19, an SSD Vocational Skills Program (VSP) site. She provides support services to VSP interns as their direct report manager. Prior to serving students, she was active in the planning process of opening the site.
Special Ambassador nominator and SSD teacher Deanna Heuring said Richmond is constantly thinking of ways to help interns find their hidden talents. “She displays genuine care for each of them,” she said. “She treats them as individuals with significant potential and unique talents. She understands the value of interns learning natural supports in addition to SSD staff.”
Richmond provides work stations that can be set up in a variety of ways to allow students to choose the work flow that fits them best.
Richmond works diligently to ensure interns can be independent and are set up for the next, larger step. “She keeps an open mind about how to create learning situations so they can be successful,” said Heuring. “Her approach to building relationships while keeping a safe working environment supports the District goals of equity and workforce excellence.”
Sharon Spurlock – St. Louis Arc
Sharon Spurlock’s passion is helping people with disabilities and their families find the supports they need in their communities.
According to Michelle Levi Perez, Special Ambassador nominator and SSD administrator for the Parent Education and Diversity Awareness Program, Spurlock’s commitment is unparalleled. “Her enthusiasm, passion and joy for her work is infectious. She is a true champion who has touched hundreds, if not thousands, of families, students and adults served by SSD over the years.”
Spurlock advocates for and models innovative tools like Charting the LifeCourse and supports a post-secondary program for students with intellectual and developmental disabilities.
“She is an expert in person-centered planning and empowering individuals with developmental disabilities to live a life of autonomy,” said Levi Perez. “She is eager to share her expertise with anyone who will listen. She is a tremendous asset to SSD and the broader community, and an invaluable community partner.”