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Golden Heart Award recipients make positive difference to students with special needs

Every child deserves a champion, an adult who will never give up on them, who understands the power of connection, and insists that they become the best that they can possibly be. – Rita Pierson, teacher

Children in the Cherry Creek School District have many champions; teachers, counselors, coaches and even fellow students who connect with them in powerful and meaningful ways. Those champions include 15 people who were honored May 17 as 2017 Golden Heart Award Recipients. They were recognized because of the strong relationships they have forged with students with special needs and the positive differences they have made in those students’ lives. The Golden Heart Awards are presented each year by the Cherry Creek Schools Special Education Advisory Committee (SEAC).

Congratulations to the 2017 Golden Heart Award recipients. (See more photos on the Cherry Creek Schools Facebook page.)

Monica AndersonMonica M. Anderson – P.E. Teacher, Fox Ridge Middle School
Monica brings a certain vibe to P.E. every day. When she walks in the room, the students’ faces brighten, their moods change and they seem more relaxed. The students have a remarkable amount of trust in her. She can get the toughest students to open up and break out of their shells.

Jake BarkerJake Tanner Barker – 2017 graduate, Cherokee Trail High School
Jake has two younger siblings with disabilities and time and time again he puts his own needs aside to help both Reilly and Kinley. He is at every Unified Game and supports all the players with his positive attitude. He has a quality of talking to the kids like any other peer or friend without judgment or special treatment. Jake has shown untiring dedication to the Unified Sports Program as a partner athlete.

Destiny CageDestiny Cage – 2017 graduate, Eaglecrest High School
In addition to being involved in the unified sports programs, Destiny has helped lead our Spread the Word to End the Word campaign every year, volunteers four out of her eight periods within the ILC, is the president of our after school club, Peer Buddies, provides respite care for two of our students and has taken our ILC group to Prom every year so that our students had dates for Prom. The passion that Destiny has for the students in the ILC is seen through everything that she does.

Connie Cheung-SlaughterConnie Cheung-Slaughter – Para-educator, Cherokee Trail High School
Connie goes out of her way to make sure the students in her charge are made to feel welcome and valued. She spends a lot of her time escorting students to and from class, appointments, events, tutoring, and activities and never fails to engage the students in conversation and make every single one feel special and important. Connie makes time to connect with each of the students on a personal level and even went to Dance Showcase, senior awards, and Prom with several of her students to help them through the experience and show her support.

Ella DavisElla Davis – Student, West Middle School
I was lucky enough to have Ella in my fifth grade classroom last year. I also had two autistic students in the room. Ella was amazing. She helped support these students in Integrated Arts. She always made sure they had a partner to work with and that they knew what was being asked of them.

Nick HalaskaNick Halaska – Teacher, Coyote Hills Elementary School
A 10-year-old student who has autism wrote this tribute: Mr. Halaska has been the neatest teacher in my life. He has comforted me, by just being there. He helps me embrace my disabilities to be useful. He hasn’t tried to fix my disabilities so I am like everyone else. He sees my differences as a way to think different. I like Mr. Halaska. He makes me feel safe and that it is okay to be me.

Liz JohnsonLiz Johnson – Para-Educator, Grandview High School
Several times a year, she invites our entire class over to see her horses and play with her dogs. The kids always look forward to this, and their faces light up when Liz takes their hands and helps them brush a horse or throw a toy for a dog. Liz also helps our class to plant their very own garden in her yard each year. She lets the kid’s plant the seeds and then they get to watch them grow. These are experiences that some of our students might not ever have, but Liz makes them possible.

Derek MullnerDerek Mullner – Principal, High Plains Elementary School
Derek has created an environment in which every one of our students, regardless of their unique abilities, and feels welcome and included and cared for. Derek’s compassion and kindness and golden heart has touched each of our children, and in turn, each one of us.

Gabriela MunguiaGabriela Munguia – Para-educator, Polton Elementary School
Gabriela has gone above and beyond in her duties as a Behavior Development Teaching Assistant. She has helped a student whose mother was going through chemotherapy. When this particular mother reached out to Gabriela, she supported this student and family in many ways. On a daily basis, Gabriela exceeds expectations.

Miracle Nuanes 2.jpgMilagro Nuanes - Interpreter
Milagro, or Miracle as we call her, is one of the Spanish interpreters for the district. I have sat in many IEP meetings with Miracle and have seen her interactions with students, parents and teachers. She has become so comfortable in the special education world that I can ask her to call a parent and she can make the call and answer the parents’ questions without assistance from me.

Laura Peterson 1.jpgLaura L. Peterson – Para-educator, Black Forest Hills Elementary
As an educator, Laura Peterson sets the standard. She is dedicated, compassionate, patient and creative. She shows up every day with a positive attitude, ready to face whatever is thrown at her. She is resourceful, both in obtaining and creating materials and as a fantastic fund of knowledge.

Lizzie PetersonLizzie Peterson – Student, Summit Elementary School
Lizzie has a calling to work with special needs children. She volunteers in the ILC classroom during any down time, including her lunch and recess. She is able to balance doing an excellent job in her own class while using any free time to tutor in the ILC.

Dave SchmitDave Schmit – Special Olympics Coach
Dave Schmidt is first and foremost the father of Brad Schmit, a young man who is intellectually impaired. Besides being a life coach for his son, Dave has also coached basketball for the Cherry Creek Schools Special Olympics program for the last 17 plus years, and golf for the past six years. This human being that has one of the biggest hearts I have ever seen.

Jennifer SmockJennifer Smock – Teacher, Fox Hollow Elementary School
This year Mrs. Smock and her students went above and beyond to welcome a new student with special needs to their class. Mrs. Smock truly views each student as a valuable and contributing member of her classroom. The attitude and behaviors of the students in her classroom make it clear that she fosters a positive, highly-motivated inclusive environment.

Erik Van Cleave 1.jpgErik Van Cleave – Aurora Police Officer
A student wrote this about Aurora Police Officer Erik Van Cleave, who helped the student through a difficult situation: I was worried and the officer came in and he told me everything is going to be ok. He said calm down and he just started saying things like hey have you been snowboarding before and have you ever built a bird house before and he tossed a ball with me. He won me over with his calming powers.

In addition to presenting the Golden Heart Awards, the Special Education Advisory Committee (SEAC) works to create and strengthen partnerships between parents, Cherry Creek Schools and community agencies by providing a forum that promotes education, advocacy, networking and collective problem-solving. SEAC is open to parents, staff, community members and anyone interested in working side-by-side with Cherry Creek Schools to make a difference in the lives of students with special needs.  For more information about SEAC, visit

Posted 6/5/2017 2:54 PM
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