VALDOSTA -- A university department, a volunteer organization and a foster grandparent were honored Thursday night during the 2002 Community Partners in Education annual awards banquet.

The 2002 CPIE of the Year award went to Valdosta State University's Department of Special Education and Communication Disorders.

Dr. Philip Gunter, department head, said, "I am really honored to accept this award."

Gunter said he was very appreciative of the partnership, which has proven to be beneficial to both parties.

Nominated by Gail Eldridge, community resource coordinator for the Valdosta City School System's Department of Special Education, the university department has maintained a 24-year partnership with the school system, touching the lives of more than 800 city students each year. Eldridge said these university students spent more than 4,000 hours this past year providing one-to-one educational support to special education students as they gained valuable training in the identification and implementation of educational programming in special education classrooms.

"This partnership is a win-win for everyone involved," Eldridge said.

Since the partnership's conception in March 1979, more than 3,300 university students have gained valuable in-service training and have provided approximately 52,000 hours of educational support to special education teachers and students in each of the city school system's nine schools.

"This partnership has been continuous because it has been so successful in meeting the goals and objectives of the Valdosta City School System and Valdosta State University as encompassed in the overall objectives of Georgia's CPIE," Eldridge said. "(This partnership is) a true representation of CPIE in action."

Big Brothers Big Sisters of South Georgia Inc. took home the 2002 PAL (Partners At-Large Award) of the Year award.

Becky Mayfield, organization coordinator, was excited to be an overall winner, having already accepted five individual school awards.

"Thank you very much," she said.

Julie Hiers, CPIE chair for S.L. Mason Elementary School, nominated the local volunteer-driven organization. The team from Big Brothers Big Sisters has been working with students and teachers at the city elementary school since 1999, Hiers said.

During the past school year, Hiers said 27 students and 67 teachers were impacted by this partnership, which provided S.L. Mason Elementary School with 300 hours of volunteer labor.

Through this partnership, children needing an adult mentor were paired with a big brother or big sister, an adult in whom these young students could confide and with whom to spend quality time.

"The greatest accomplishment of this partnership was the bonding that took place between the students and their big brother or big sister," Hiers said. "These children were able to have a mentor and someone to look up to, whereas they might not have had that opportunity elsewhere. These mentors impacted our students in so many ways that we'll never know."

Hiers said this partnership provided something money can't buy -- friendship.

"They say it takes a village to raise a child," Hiers said. "Well, our village at S.L. Mason Elementary School has been the Big Brother Big Sister program."

The 2002 Volunteer of the Year award went to Eddie Wilson from the Foster Grandparent Program.

A huge smile on his face, Wilson said he continues his efforts to make a difference because he loves being with the children.

"This amazing 87-year-old gentleman has contributed more than an estimated 9,360 hours of volunteer services over a time frame of 12 years," said Eldridge and Special Education teacher for the city school system Katina Allen, who nominated Wilson for the award. "This should absolutely qualify him as Volunteer of the Year. Who could have done more?"

Since 1989, Wilson has spent approximately five hours a day, five days a week, working with children who have special and exceptional needs in health, education and welfare. Each day he helped students who needed assistance i

n their eating skills at breakfast and lunch. He was involved in implementing the classroom lesson plans for several students daily. He provided training and reinforcement of verbal and physical prompts that were necessary for their educational growth. And the list goes on and on.

"He did not treat the students as if they were disabled," Eldridge and Allen said. "He focused on their strengths and accomplishments by encouraging their positive contributions to society. He promoted great expectations for each of the students. He provided an avenue for the students to expand their relationships and to develop their citizenship within the community. Perhaps his greatest accomplishment can be summed up in the following statement -- He taught that being less able does not mean one is less worthy."

Based on nominations received from each school within both systems, these overall winners were officially selected by a panel of nine judges scattered throughout Georgia.

Hosted by the faculty, staff, students, and administrators at Lowndes High School, the banquet was an evening dedicated to highlighting CPIEs, PALs and volunteers who were actively involved in making a difference in the lives of students in the Valdosta City School System, Lowndes County School System, and Head Start for the past 2001-02 academic year.

The event was sponsored by Commercial Banking Company, The Valdosta Daily Times, Griffin LLC, and the Valdosta City and Lowndes County school systems and principals.

To contact reporter Jessica Pope, please call 244-3400, ext. 255.

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