2019 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.
Construction Careers Development Initiative
The Construction Careers Development Initiative (CCDI) began as a partnership between North Technical High School and Clayco Construction Company. In an effort to develop more skilled laborers, this partnership focuses on preparing students for careers in the construction industry.
Tom Sieckhaus and Dan Lester serve as guest speakers about employment opportunities in addition to being mentors for students who are beginning their careers in the construction industry.
Mentors help prepare students for the employment selection process by conducting mock interviews and assisting with resumes. Because of this partnership, North Tech has been able to hold a job fair for several years in order to connect student applicants to potential jobs.
CCDI has brought as many as 14 different companies to the school to work with students and offer job opportunities. More than 40 North Tech graduates have gained employment with the support of this program.
“It is truly a highly collaborative partnership focused on getting high school graduates into the field of construction,” said Jim Hieger, North Tech principal and Special Ambassador nominator.
Ladue Horton Watkins High School
A partnership between Ladue Horton Watkins High School and the SSD Special Olympics program began 29 years ago. Since then, the school has provided an outstanding and well-organized annual volleyball event for athletes and teacher coaches.
Students and staff from Ladue High have made a commitment to the SSD Special Olympics program that shares SSD’s mission and vision. They partner with us for each student’s success.
“They believe that all students can be successful, and therefore, continue to work with us to improve programming each year so that we can meet the changing needs of our athletes,” said Kerrie Townsend, SSD Special Olympics facilitator and Special Ambassador nominator.
“The Special Olympics program allows for students who receive services from SSD to connect with their peers without disabilities,” said Townsend. “It allows the buddies from Ladue to interact with a student with a disability and understand they are more similar than they may have originally thought. It is a win-win situation for everyone involved.”
The staff and administration at Ladue wanted to grow the partnership, and for the past three years, Ladue students have also been partnering with Special Olympics athletes at a bowling tournament.
Additionally, Ladue recently completed some major renovations, and a track and field event has been added. This will allow Ladue freshmen to lead the volleyball event, sophomores and juniors to organize and run the unified bowling event, and juniors and seniors to lead the track and field event.
Pattonville High School Leadership Team
The school administrator leadership team at Pattonville High School models inclusion and acceptance. The team believes in all students and works hard every day to make sure that students who receive services from SSD feel supported and accepted.
For example, Pattonville High School hosts an annual MVP (Most Valuable Pirate) awards event. In May, three students who receive services from SSD received the award.
“All three students have built relationships with administrators that are not only positive for the student, but also for the administrator,” said Jessica Winterowd, SSD area coordinator and Special Ambassador nominator.
Winterowd said the leadership team at Pattonville is unique. “They are always looking for ways to get students involved, especially those who receive services from SSD,” she said. “Administrators make a point to be seen and be present in parallel classrooms.”
She added that special education knowledge is considered a job requirement and is an expectation of the leadership team. “They are constantly asking questions and trying to learn the processes,” Winterowd said. “Their curiosity about specific disabilities, strategies to support students who receive SSD services, and the desire to better understand the special education process is rare.”
Productive Living Board for St. Louis County Citizens with Developmental Disabilities
The Productive Living Board (PLB) for St. Louis County Citizens with Developmental Disabilities and the many agencies and programs it funds has been an invaluable resource for SSD families, past and present.
The PLB provides funding for many of the community providers that support students served by SSD while they are in school and beyond into adulthood.
According to Debra Fiasco, administrator for SSD’s Parent Education and Diversity Awareness Program and Special Ambassador nominator, the dedicated staff and board of directors at PLB provide exemplary service and demonstrate a true commitment to success for all students.
PLB staff collaboration includes both regular attendance and presentations at the SSD Agency Collaboration meetings, as well as full participation in all SSD transition program collaboration opportunities.
The PLB has been an ongoing support for SSD’s Transition Department and Vocational Skills Program for years. PLB representatives support professional development opportunities for teachers by giving of their time to present on agency supports and the role of PLB.
They have been highly involved and supportive of SSD’s Vocational Skills Program by serving on the planning team and committing funds to hospital partners to support employment training programs with the hospitals that partner with SSD.
A group of local women have worked to supply more than 500 weighted blankets to help children who receive services from SSD cope with conditions like anxiety and autism. The women design, construct and sew the weighted blankets, which are given free of charge to SSD teachers to provide comfort and security to students with sensory issues.
Ann DiFranco developed a blanket prototype, continually improving it, to come up with a streamlined pattern. She has marked, measured, cut and sewn more than 500 blankets herself.
Mary Ann Raghebi cuts, glues and fills small paper bags with plastic pellets, which serve as the weights for the blankets. Each blanket requires between 12 and 18 pellet bags. This means that Raghebi has bagged, lifted and stored nearly one ton of heavy plastic pellets.
Lorie Heilig designed and created the original batch of blankets. Her design includes a series of Velcro pockets, which enables the teacher to increase or reduce the weight of the blanket to accommodate the size and weight of each student.
Tammy Grueninger worked with Heilig, her mother, on the original pocket design.
“It’s important that the overall blanket weight be about 10 percent of the user’s body weight, plus one extra pound,” said Patty Benner, SSD audiology assistant and Special Ambassador nominator. “It’s a lap cover, which allows the user to feel confined and secure. It’s like a hug.”
St. Louis Metro Police Department
The St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department (SLMPD) began partnering with North Technical High School six years ago when it became involved with the North Tech advisory board by offering insight as to how to make the program more robust so that it is aligned with what is taught at the police academy.
Each year, SLMPD sends several guest speakers to the school to discuss a variety of topics such as SWAT, bomb and arson unit, patrol division, and dispatching. North Tech’s Law Enforcement students take a trip to the police academy each year to learn about constitutional law, the use of force continuum, and the physical requirements for joining the academy.
Last year, Police Chief John Hayden visited the school to share the details of a Cadet Program for students leaving high school who were interested in law enforcement. Since it is a state requirement to be 21 years old to be a police officer, this program allows students to get experience in law enforcement from the ages of 18 to 20.
Five North Tech graduates from the class of 2018 are now employed in the Cadet Program as they work toward their futures in law enforcement. Two students are also working as 911 dispatchers.
“It is because of their partnership that North Tech is able to bridge graduates’ training in law enforcement to jobs in the community,” said Jim Hieger, North Technical High School principal and Special Ambassador nominator.
Matt Bailey – Principal, Valley Park High School
Matt Bailey is dedicated to making sure each student succeeds. As the SSD area coordinator at Valley Park School District, he was very involved in programming for kindergarten through 12th grade. He quickly became an expert in everything from MAP-A to Extended School Year, to programming for students with challenging behaviors, and helping students with medical needs.
“This is tricky in a small district,” said Julie Schroeder, lead area coordinator for Valley Park School District and Special Ambassador nominator. ”You are your team. During his time as an area coordinator, he changed the way the district viewed SSD. He built trust with his general education administrative team, which trickled down to all levels of staff.”
His role included supervising a handful of SSD Vocational Skills Program sites, which furthered his passion for the focus on students’ post-secondary needs.
Six years ago, Bailey was hired as the principal at Valley Park High School. “This was a perfect position for him as he was able to merge his love and passion for all things associated with secondary programming, but also keeping special education close to his heart,” said Schroeder.
“Having someone with such a strong special education background in a principal role is amazing, and in this case, transformational,” said Schroeder. “This has been proven time and time again – from everything with working through student discipline to scheduling to staffing. While he no longer works for SSD, he is SSD at heart and embodies our core values.”
Two years ago, Valley Park began plans for a major renovation. Bailey ensured that a functional cooking lab would be included.
Students have embraced the new space and have access to things they didn’t have before. “Not only are they learning technical skills needed for living independently, but there is an undeniable sense of community,” said Schroeder. “Without his example as an inclusive and innovative leader, the change in rooms and equipment would not have happened. His inclusive practices are truly changing the post-secondary outcomes for our students.”
Molly Benson – Physical Education Teacher, Parkway West Middle School
Molly Benson, a physical education (PE) teacher at Parkway West Middle School, enthusiastically shares her love of recreation and fitness with every student she works with.
Last year, Benson went to the building administrators and requested support in initiating a PE mentor class at the middle school level. She wanted to follow a model originated at Parkway Central High School.
She told administrators the course would give students the opportunity to improve their skills in mentoring others as they serve as assistants for students with physical and developmental disabilities enrolled in PE. Students took on the role as buddies to provide leadership in a variety of physical fitness games and activities. Currently, 14 mentors serve 13 students.
“Molly genuinely cares about the physical, emotional and social well-being of all students, and her leadership in the PE mentor class is remarkable,” said Ana Luisa Greenlaw, SSD substitute teacher and Special Ambassador nominator. “She’s a pioneer for implementing the program at this grade level, and is organized, patient, respectful of individual needs and strengths, and is 100 percent committed to improving the PE experience for all of the students at West Middle.”
Greenlaw said Benson exemplifies the leadership needed to initiate the class and the endurance required to not only maintain, but also develop a strong program, that builds bodies as well as relationships.
Heather Cowan – Center for Specialized Services
Heather Cowan has more than 14 years of experience working with individuals with disabilities. She has been an advocate and leader in the field of disability services in the St. Louis area.
Heather has partnered with SSD for the past seven years as the coordinator for job services for St. Louis ARC and director of Talent Connect for the Center for Head Injury/Specialized Services. During her tenure with ARC, she collaborated with SSD’s Vocational Skills Program staff and students at various locations. In her new role with the center, she supports staff and students at multiple locations.
“Heather’s degree in organizational leadership and her passion for her work manifest in a non-judgmental approach as she connects with families, students, staff and business partners,” said SSD area coordinator Laura Bedo, who along with SSD facilitator Alice Jensen nominated Cowan for the Special Ambassador Award.
Cowan’s many contributions to students who are served by SSD include collaboration to create innovative programs in new industry areas, lending a hand whether it be in the classroom, job coaching, or having a difficult conversation with a parent, and actively contributing to the new simulated warehouse created at North Technical High School for students.
“Heather goes above and beyond in her partnership with SSD as she walks right along side of us every day in her commitment to students,” said Bedo. “Her passion and love for the work we do is real and can be seen, heard and felt in all that she does.”
Stacey Elster – Lafayette Industries
Stacey Elster is the director of programs for Lafayette Industries in St. Louis County, the largest full-time employer of adults with developmental disabilities in Missouri.
To ensure the future success of Lafayette as an employment option for graduates of SSD, Elster has transferred her SSD experience and learning by instituting a multi-tier approach to employment, especially for individuals with an autism diagnosis that have a wide variety of social and vocational skills needs.
She has instituted professional training including Positive Behavior Intervention Supports training, which gives staff the skills needed to teach and maintain proper work behaviors for employees with special needs.
Additionally, she designed a social and emotional curriculum embedded in transitional periods during the workday that emphasizes continued acceptable work behaviors.
Elster uses evidence-based outcomes to design strategies for training, self-advocacy, self-awareness, and self-esteem for employees that improve the quality and dignity of their lives.
Veronica Leach – Former President, SSD Parent Advisory Council
Veronica Leach has been on the forefront of student advocacy going back to the early 1990s, as she has three children who have had individualized education programs (IEPs).
“Veronica has an enduring spirit and dedication to students served by SSD in addition to the teachers and staff that provide services to them and support them,” said Christina Blankenship, a parent on SSD’s Parent Advisory Council and Special Ambassador nominator.
Leach recently served on the 2018 Public Review Committee and concluded her third and final term as the SSD Parent Advisory Council president. She has served on various committees for many years.
“Veronica has helped shape some of the improvements that we all enjoy today,” said Blankenship. “She freely gives of her time, talent and treasure. She is a straight shooter, but she also has a great ability to build a rapport with administrators, teachers, staff and parents. She asks the hard questions, but she also offers sound and reasonable solutions, which she works diligently to bring to fruition through the partnerships that she has built.”
Rick Wolf – Mednik-Riverbend
Rick Wolf is the president of Mednik-Riverbend, which partners with SSD to support the functional skills students at Hazelwood West and Hazelwood Central high schools in the Hazelwood School District. He takes an active, hands-on role in supporting students.
His own experiences as a father of three children with disabilities led him to believe that small businesses should do more to help individuals with disabilities.
Mednik manufactures a comprehensive line of absorbing products.
Wolf believes in providing students with a wide variety of job training skills, and making them socially conscious as well. He believes how you interact and treat colleagues is as important as your job skills.
“Mr. Wolf makes sure our students are consistently working on new skills each day with the right amount of support to be successful,” said Special Ambassador nominator and SSD area coordinator Matt Moellering. “He utilizes positive reinforcement even when areas of improvement are being discussed. He makes every student feel valued and an important part of his company.”