Velma Hill, a founder of the UFT’s Paraprofessionals Chapter and its first chapter leader, had never crossed paths with James Geigel or his family members before the 38th annual Paraprofessionals Festival and Awards Luncheon on March 23 at the New York Hilton.
But Geigel and his family are beneficiaries of Hill’s longtime union activism.
James, his grandparents Angelina and Modesto Hernandez and his mother Nitza Hernandez — all paras or paras who became teachers — were among the more than 1,000 UFT members and guests who packed the Hilton’s Grand Ballroom to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the chapter.
“We now have 29,000 dues-paying members, and we are proud because you left a legacy,” Chapter Leader Shelvy Young-Abrams told Hill, who delivered the keynote address. “It took us 50 years to get where we are today, 50 years to get due process, but we stood together.”
The day featured eight workshops (seven of which offered CTLE credit), a health and wellness fair, carnival games and hair, nail and massage services performed by career and technical education students from William H. Maxwell and Queens Vocational and Technical high schools.
At the gala luncheon, two paraprofessionals from each borough, the High Schools Division and District 75 were honored as Paraprofessionals of the Year. Jamir Dickens from PS 329 in Brooklyn received the Humanitarian Award for helping victims of Hurricane Maria.
UFT President Michael Mulgrew noted that the UFT was the first in the country to organize paraprofessionals into a union. “We started and others followed,” he said. “We have Velma Hill, who was there and did that work 50 years ago. We have Shelvy, who continues to fight, and we have all of you in this room.”
Mulgrew extolled the contribution that paras make. “The value you bring, the tenderness, the empathy,” he said. “It’s what’s making a difference in our schools.”
Hill, a Harvard-educated civil rights and workers’ rights advocate, became a paraprofessional at the urging of former UFT President Albert Shanker. “It feels like yesterday,” said Hill as she asked founding members of the chapter to stand and be recognized. “The journey to today was a long, hard journey.”
She recalled a time when paras made $50 a week, had no vacation or health care and had to collect unemployment during the summer and hope they still had jobs in the fall.
Hill was 29 years old when the chapter was formed, the same age James Geigel is now.
Geigel applauded Hill for joining the para ranks. “You can’t say you understand the people if you don’t understand their struggles, if you don’t understand their hard work, their determination and their passion,” he said.
Geigel’s grandparents came to New York from Puerto Rico and by 1973, Angelina was working in city public schools. “My mother’s vision was always to teach,” said daughter Nitza Hernandez.
Angelina became a school aide, then a UFT para, and then — thanks to the Paraprofessionals Chapter’s career ladder program — a special education teacher in District 75. Her husband Modesto followed, first becoming a para and then a special education teacher at sites including Bellevue Hospital.
Nitza was next. A para turned special education teacher, she returned to the Paraprofessionals Chapter while raising three children and remains a para at P 75 in Queens.
Geigel followed seven years ago, inspired by his family and by two District 75 students, a boy he cared for as a home health care aide; and his brother Jacob, the valedictorian at his graduation from P 721 in Coney Island, who also attended the festival. A graduate of Boricua College in Manhattan like his grandparents and his mom, Geigel works at P 141 @ PS 380 in Brooklyn.
While some people may see disabilities in special needs students, Geigel said he sees “a smile, a laugh, a child being mischievous.” If you give special needs students “the basics and the opportunity, the possibilities are endless,” he said.
Geigel and his family attended the pension and Teachers’ Retirement System workshop. “The moment I became a full-time para, we called TRS and signed up for everything,” he said.
Nitza said her son “is blessed,” lauding the increased union-provided benefits available to this generation of paras “if they take advantage.” She mentioned, in particular, the new paid parental leave.
The Paraprofessionals Festival and Awards Luncheon, Nitza said, was an opportunity to be informed and encouraged and to share the day as a family.
“Maybe our story will inspire another family,” she said.