When Stacey Smallwood, a personal assistant at Battle Monument School, recently won the employee award given by the Baltimore County Commission on Disabilities, she joined a small circle of award recipients that included Dundalk Councilman John Olszewski, Sr.
The 38-year-old Smallwood won the award based on the patience, care and professionalism she displays when working with the special-needs students at the school, according to Jason Gaynor, a teacher at Battle Monument, who nominated her for the award.
"I nominated Stacey for the award also because she works harder than anyone I know," Gaynor said. "And I think it's important that people get the respect they deserve."
For Smallwood, the award has special significance because she got it for working with special-needs children at Battle Monument, the same school she graduated from in 1993.
"This is where I started out," she says.
Need for special-need education growing
As someone who experienced what it like to be a special-needs student first hand, Smallwood says she feels honored in being able to help feed, change and take care of the some of the 70 students who attend the school. She's been doing so every day for the last 10 years.
The children's disabilities range from being wheel-chair bound to having brain injuries or such maladies as autism with severe behavioral problems, according to the school's Principal D. Jerry Easterly Jr.
In fact, diagnosed cases of autism has tripled in Maryland over the last eight years, according to the latest figures from the Centers for Disease Control. In 2000, the diagnosed autism cases in the state among the age group of six to 22 year olds were 1,933 compared with 6,775 diagnosed cases in 2008.
While there is controversy surrounding the subject, with some saying the uptick in autism is a result of certain chemicals and others saying it's a result of broader diagnosis criteria, schools nevertheless are responsible for educating all students.
With 11 classrooms staffed with special-education teachers and special assistants like Smallwood, Battle Monument has been doing its best to provide the education and training for a growing number of special-needs children for 40 years, says Easterly. He adds that's why it's so important to have employees like Smallwood doing her job and showing up for work every day – on time.
Now I can help, too
It takes Smallwood over an hour to catch two buses to get to Battle Mount each day. And for the last two years, Smallwood has gotten to work and performed her duties with grace despite personal other challenges.
"She did this while taking care of her mother for two years, who was terminally ill with cancer," Easterly says.
In October, when the awards were being presented by former Baltimore County Executive Jim Smith and Sen. Barbara Mikulski, Councilman Olszewski talked about how important it was to promote the "full integration of the disabled in community life," when he accepted his award.
Smallwood doesn't have much to say about that, but she does explain what motivates her to get out of bed every morning.
"I love working here, because I got help here," she says, "and now I can help too."