“We make a difference” was the theme at this year’s UFT Paraprofessionals Festival and Awards Luncheon, which celebrated paraprofessionals for rising to the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I work with autistic kids,” said attendee Jacqueline Sanabria, a paraprofessional who makes a difference in District 75. “These kids need people who care about them and want the best for them. They need love and care.”
Sanabria, the latest of three generations of paraprofessionals, has followed in the footsteps of her mother and grandmother.
“My mother’s always been very giving,” she said. “I looked up to her and wanted to be like her. I’m proud to follow her in being a paraprofessional.”
Two hundred thirty people attended the gala luncheon on March 5 in Shanker Hall at UFT headquarters in Manhattan, while another 100 participated remotely via a livestream. In-person attendance was kept limited for safety reasons.
The awards luncheon for paras was last held in person in 2019, when the chapter celebrated the 50th anniversary of its founding with more than 1,000 members and guests. The pandemic forced the event’s cancellation in 2020 only four days before it was to be held.
“It’s been a long time: 702 days ago, our school system closed,” UFT President Michael Mulgrew told the participants. “We thought we’d have to deal with it for a little while, and then we went into some of the darkest times we’d see in our lives.”
Mulgrew said the Paraprofessionals Chapter was “pivotal” in keeping education going and keeping children safe.
“This entire city should be thanking the paraprofessionals of the New York City public school system for everything they did and everything they continue to do throughout this pandemic,” said Mulgrew.
Paraprofessionals Chapter Leader Shelvy Young-Abrams said that, in these uncertain times, “we are certain we are proud members of the United Federation of Teachers.”
She said, “We understand and don’t take for granted the importance of our work and the union that provides dignity and security so we can get the job done.”
Mulgrew and Young-Abrams presented awards to 17 paraprofessionals, representing all five boroughs, for their outstanding work.
Carline Adkins-Sharif of PS 150 in Brooklyn received the prestigious Humanitarian Award for her efforts in both the classroom and the community.
Adkins-Sharif tailors lessons to her students’ individual interests to help them understand, and she took the lead in educating students and colleagues about Black history. She has organized events at homeless shelters, where she cooks and serves meals, and she planned a holiday toy drive for children in need.
James Taylor IV, a paraprofessional at Hostos-Lincoln Academy of Science in the Bronx, was another honoree.
“Teachers are like houses, and we are the foundation that holds up the house,” said Taylor. “The kids are closer to us because we’re with them all day, not one period.”
The sentiment was echoed by the luncheon’s keynote speaker, Assembly Member Stacey Pheffer Amato, a former paraprofessional at the Waterside Children’s Studio School in Queens.
“Paraprofessionals are there for our kids,” said Pheffer Amato, who represents south Queens. “We know who’s home with them, we know if they’re hungry, we know if they didn’t get their homework done. We have that relationship with them.”
Taylor said children inspire him to excel. He gave the example of one recent student who helped make him a better para. “He doesn’t let anything stop him from reaching his goal,” Taylor said of the boy. “He helped me to be patient and to work hard.”