National Child Labor Committee press release
Retired kindergarten teacher Bobbye Burke, 77, is not the type of person to sit around. Sporting an infectious smile and ample energy, Burke volunteers weekly at a school for autistic and emotionally disturbed students at Harris County Department of Education’s Academic Behavior Center West. Since 2000, she has logged in over 6,000 volunteer hours.
On Jan. 30, Burke travels to New York City with her family to accept the prestigious “Lewis Hine Award for Service to Children and Youth” bestowed by the National Child Labor Committee. Her nomination stood out amidst several hundred nominees. Burke will be honored for her decade as a volunteer to autistic and emotionally disturbed children and youth within HCDE.
The Lewis Hine Awards honor individuals who as professionals or volunteers give of themselves and go the “extra mile” for the well-being of young people. Hine was an acclaimed National Child Labor Committee photographer who documented early 20th Century exploitation of children.
Burke, a former Houston independent school district teacher, says she volunteers at ABC West and works with the lower-level students because she gets satisfaction from helping making a difference in a child’s life alongside the teachers and aides.
“You feel like you are doing something positive,” she said. “I’m a great believer that older people should not sit around.”
Many of the students ages 5-21 at the special school are autistic. A low student-to-teacher ratio allows for one-on-one time, and aides and volunteers assist with that process.
ABC West is a special education alternative school operated by HCDE which provides academic and behavioral opportunities for students ages 5-21.
The school serves school districts located in Harris County which contract with HCDE for educational services. The ultimate goal for students who acquire both academic and behavioral enrichment is successful reintegration into their home districts. State-aligned curriculum ranges from academic enrichment to life skills to behavior management.
Students learn to adapt to an academic setting behaviorally with tasks suitable to their abilities. Routine and repetition is important, Burke explained, much like they were to her kindergarten students. Students acquire skills like matching, contrasting and comparing. They learn hygiene skills and organizational habits like folding and putting away their possessions.
“They are small accomplishments, but big to them,” the Southwest Houston resident said of the students with special needs. One-on-one time is important.
One student kept habitually raising his hand to hit. Repetitively, Burke explained to him that friends don’t hit friends. Eventually the hand went down into his lap and the behavior ceased.
Sometimes there are bigger moments, she related. Another autistic student whom no one thought could read was intently watching Burke read one day. He followed her finger along the page. She put her finger on the words and he did too, scanning the words with his eyes.
“I said, I think that Julius can read,” Burke said. “Maybe he had a good kindergarten teacher like me,” she said teasingly. “Maybe he learned from the TV, but he could read.”
Celes Harris, assistant superintendent at HCDE, said Burke has been a most dedicated volunteer at ABC West.
“Not only have our teachers come to value her assistance, our students look forward to seeing her each week and receiving assistance from a warm, caring teacher,” Harris said. “Ms. Burke deserves all the recognition that is available as there are so few people who are truly committed to serving others, especially students who are autistic or intellectually and developmentally disabled. “
Several years ago, Burke was injured by an emotional student in a life skills class who was acting out. Staff members were surprised to see her show up the very next day, as determined as ever to be there for her students. One of the students with developmental disabilities called Burke a “tough ole bird,” an endearing term which has stuck throughout the years during trying hours of the day.
Burke uses the spotlight put upon her by the award to urge other seniors to serve within the communities where they live. She also volunteers for M.D. Anderson Hospital for the Leukemia/Lymphoma Society and serves as an advisory board member. She supports finding a cure for Leukemia, a disease which killed her beloved husband.
“I am flabbergasted by this honor,” she said of the Lewis Hine Award. “But I feel like I am a representative of thousands of others who work with young people to make a difference in other’s lives.
“I represent those people who do it without any thought about rewards.”
Harris County Department of Education provides education services to the general public and 26 school districts throughout Harris County and beyond. Services include adult education, programs to promote safe schools, after-school programs, therapy services, professional development for educators, special schools, alternative certification for principals and teachers, and Head Start programs. We offer purchasing procurement, grant development, program research and evaluation, records management, and school finance support. Since 1889, our services continue to evolve to meet the needs of our education public. We’re HCDE: your education connection! Visit us at www.hcde-texas.org
Left: The National Child Labor Committee 2012 Lewis Hine Award is presented to Bobby R. Burke by Maria R. Morris, Executive Vice President, MetLife, Inc. & Chair, 2012 Lewis Hine Awards. Photo Credit: Lisa Berg