South Broward High School’s special education teacher, Abel A. Garza Jr., goes above and beyond the call of duty in making his students feel, well, special.
When, 15 years ago, in his early days of teaching at South Broward, he found that the special needs students were not included in the annual student award banquets, Garza got upset.
So he started what is now the Annual SVE End of the Year Awards Banquet, which has taken place on the first or second Friday of May, every year since.
SVE stands for Specialized Varying Exceptionalities, in regards to school programs for students with cognitive disabilities. This includes students with a variety of intellectual and physical conditions.
The Hollywood Gazette sat down with this very special Special Ed teacher to talk about the event that lights him up.
Hollywood Gazette: Abel, you’re a special ed teacher. Isn’t that enough? What made you start all this, um, “extra-curricular” work?
Garza: “Some would say that” laughed the Indiana native. “And I think it’s time to pass the torch. This will be my 15th year…
“It started 14 years ago. It was I think my third year at South Broward and I found out that they had honors and awards for all the other seniors and underclassmen, and I asked if my students could participate. My principal at that time thought that it would prolong the program and that we should have something in our classroom. But all the other students got to cross the stage, and that just lit a fire in me and I said no, that’s not acceptable. So we had a car wash and the first year, we made enough to buy pizza and frames from the dollar store…
“The following year, we were having the same car wash and someone asked why, and I explained about the class and the banquet, and she said, have you ever thought about having trophies, and I said sure, I thought about it, but we don’t have enough money, and she said, you’re not understanding me, I want to buy you the trophies! Then, another lady came to the car wash, she was an older woman, and she asked me if I had ever thought about having the event in a banquet hall, and I said, of course, but our car wash only really give us enough for pizza and some certificates. And she said, you’re not understanding me, I own a banquet hall and I’d like to donate it! Well, little did I know, her grandson was one of my students! She owned a place called Bavarian Village. They helped me dream big.
“After about four or five years there, the restaurant was closing and the kid was graduating, so I started to reach out to other people and I started forming new partnerships. We brought the banquet to the Hollywood Moose Lodge, then Exquisite Catering by Robert started catering for us and giving us a really big discount, then we got a DJ company, they’re called Pure Energy, they’ve been working with me over 10 years now for a very small fee, so then we’re able to raise enough money to pay for trophies, plaques and pay for all the above. The administration at the high school have been unbelievably supportive, although I raise all the funds, we don’t take any from the school. There have been many companies that have been very generous with their donations for over ten years or so.
“And then the Moose Lodge closed, then I was ‘Oh my goodness, what am I going to do now?’ so now I’ve worked out a partnership with the Anne Kolb Nature Center for the last six years, so now we have a really nice banquet hall, and we have the trophies and we have the DJ and we have the catering and we have the families come in and enjoying themselves because you need to experience this once in a lifetime because it is an experience that lasts a lifetime.
Hollywood Gazette: You’ve touched so many people through the years.
Garza: It’s been very good for the kids. It’s been a great experience and a great ride. There are more than 40 kids each year, over 14 years, and their families… plus for most of those years, I also ran special after-school programs at other centers. Now I teach GED programs at night school. I’m always busy, always doing something, always giving back.
“It’s been a life-changing experience for me, and for my family, who come from all over the country, and they donate. But after 15 years, it’s time for someone else to pick up the torch.
Hollywood Gazette: Got anyone in mind?
Garza: Not really. I do hope someone will step up and continue. I haven’t really got anyone in mind, but I’m sure that someone will, because once you see the smiles on these kids, it will change your life.
“I know that wherever the next journey leads me, it won’t be far away from our special needs community. These people have inspired me, helped me to understand what others might go through, appreciate them, and know how special and amazing they truly are. Of all the populations, I believe in my heart that the disabled are the least respected and I think that people like myself must continue to fight for them, for their acceptance, and to appreciate them just for who they are.”