Red and pink streamers, clusters of balloons and a large hand-painted banner reading "SWEETHEARTS" adorned the multipurpose room at Jordan Middle School on Wednesday night, when close to 200 community members gathered for the 11th annual Sweetheart Awards.
The ceremony, organized by the Palo Alto Sub-Committee of SELPA 1 Community Advisory Committee (CAC) and the Palo Alto Council of PTAs, honors nominated members of the city's educational community for their commitment to serving special-needs students.
This year's ceremony had the most awards to date, with close to 160 nominations collected over the last couple months from all over the school district. All nominees were honored at the ceremony.
The room was full of teachers, staff, paraprofessionals, students, parents, bus drivers, crossing guards, secretaries, counselors and at least one little girl running around in a ball gown. The ceremony was opened by Superintendent Max McGee, who ended his introduction by highlighting the example the nominees set in the community.
"I talk about leadership, I talk about the importance of service and giving back, and so it's so nice to be able to give, to recognize people that have made a difference ... where it's all about making an enduring difference," McGee said. "I can't think of a better place to be than right here, right now."
Tina Underwood, who started the Sweethearts tradition in 2004, and Rachel Paley, the primary organizer for this year's ceremony, hosted the event together. They spoke from a shared podium decorated with a heart lit by LEDs.
The hosts called all the nominees up grouped by their school or organization. Then those nominees, individually, received an award certificate and roses while each nomination letter -- praising their work and character -- was read aloud.
Kathleen Vargha, a speech therapist from Walter Hays Elementary School, was recognized at the event for taking the time to look out for a particular student throughout the day and for cultivating a safe space.
"We thank Kathleen for all her extra efforts on our behalf and appreciate that she is one of the few people in this world who truly gets Daniel," her nominators wrote in the letter read at the ceremony.
Teacher Nick Foote's entire third-grade class from Barron Park Elementary School, around 20 students, took the stage to receive their nomination with Foote good-naturedly shushing them. Foote's classroom integrates students with special needs, and their nomination letter described their bond as a class, expressed through trips to the Special Olympics, working on projects together and spontaneous "buddy activities" on the playground.
"The Room 9 students and Nick continue to teach us about patience, kindness, and open hearts and minds," gushed their anonymous nominator.
Other group nominations were the Stanford University volunteer organization Kids With Dreams and the inclusive student theater group Youth Drama For All.
Other individuals praised at the event included a crossing guard who tries to get to know as many students as possible, a teacher who works outside of school to help students with serious health conditions keep up with schoolwork, and an aspiring computer programmer and student from Escondido Elementary who wants to create an application to help her friend with Autism build relationships.
As all 160 nominees were recognized for their efforts throughout the more than two-hour event, the room was filled with applause, hugs and laughter.