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Byline: Jane Burek For The Register-Guard

Was it a joke? Was a Eugene businessman really going to throw a party - no strings attached - for all 471 special education teachers and staff in the Springfield School District? On April Fool's Day?

"We all got a sheet of paper and invitation in our box," remembers Teri Sue Dragoo, a special education resource teacher at Moffitt Elementary. "We've never had this kind of event and the date was April 1. So I thought it was a joke."

It isn't. Next Wednesday, alternative education staff workers from throughout the district will be served a catered dinner in the multipurpose room at Agnes Stewart Middle School. The recognition event is organized by Peter Fritsch, a Springfield resident and Eugene life insurance salesman.

"Anyone who touches the life of a special education kid in the district is invited," explains Fritsch, who is hearing impaired. That includes special education teachers, aides, case managers, case manager assistants, Title 9 coordinators, school psychologists, speech and language therapists, physical and occupational therapists, bus drivers and bus aides.

The event, billed as "April Jewels Day: Shaping Tomorrow's Diamonds," will include a keynote speaker, Register-Guard columnist Bob Welch, and a chance to win a range of gifts, from original art to massage therapy to one night's stay at a floating bed-and-breakfast on a boat in Bandon Harbor. The shiniest gem of all the gifts: a one-third-carat diamond donated by White Cloud Jewelers in Springfield.

Dragoo says her student's parents already express a good deal of appreciation, but it's still nice to be recognized. "We all enjoy what we do and that is self-rewarding. Still, this is amazing."

Fritsch, 56, moved from Yachats to Eugene in 2003. He says his motivation for organizing the event is simple: "My goal was to meet people and do something for the community. It made sense to connect business leaders and educators."

A former middle school teacher, Fritsch did his research before planning the party. Last August, he interviewed several public school educators and asked which staff worked the hardest with the least appreciation.

"They all said the same thing: special education," Fritsch remembers. He contacted Springfield schools Superintendent Nancy Golden, who put him in touch with Keith Hollenbeck, the district's director of programs.

Hollenbeck was taken aback.

"I've been with the district since the mid-1980s, and I've never attended or heard about an event like this," Hollenbeck says. "This isn't put on by the Springfield Special Programs department. It's someone in the community saying thank you - a private individual who has gathered people and businesses in the community to say, `We value these kids and the work you do.'"

Fritsch is so enamored with the idea that, if successful, he hopes to organize similar events next year for special education staff in the Eugene and Bethel school districts.

Fritsch himself was born deaf. Growing up in the 1950s and 1960s, Fritsch was unable to hear vowels. Adults didn't pick up on that, but they did notice that he had a different pattern of speech. From age 6 through 14, he was paired with a public school speech therapist.

"They didn't call it special education, but that's what it was," he says.

Limited special education resources did not necessarily hold Fritsch back. After a robust early career in business that supported his wife and children, he became an Episcopal priest. One of his many achievements as a clergyman was building a church and congregation that served youth in Arcata, Calif.

After some soul-searching, he left the priesthood to travel the country as an in-demand professional speaker.

Then, in 2000, Fritsch and his wife, Brenda, found a quiet life on the Oregon Coast, where he played guitar and sang folk music at a restaurant once a month.

As he developed roots in his new community, Fristsch says he has been amazed and touched by the hearty response to the April Jewels Day event. Selco Credit Union, Umpqua Bank, Bell Real Estate, McCallum's Catering and dozens other of businesses, plus more than 40 Oregon artisans, have provided contributions. Many had personal stories to share.

"One glass artist included a note with her donation. She described her autistic son and her heartfelt appreciation for the energy and care his special resource teachers have provided," Fritsch says.

One shocking piece of information for Fritsch was learning that the only time the special programs staff got together was in August - and not for a picnic. Instead, they meet to review the new state mandates on serving special education students.

To perk up staff morale, Hollenbeck recommended that Fritsch hold his event the week following spring break. But the only day avaiilable that week was Wednesday - April 1.

"I worried that, being on April 1, it might be taken wrong," Fritsch confesses. "But (then I) had the idea: Call it `April Jewels Day: Shaping Tomorrow's Diamonds.' Special resource teachers are always the first on the chopping block with budget cuts. It made sense to have an event where they are told they are precious and valuable in our community."
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Title Annotation:Springfield Extra
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Date:Mar 26, 2009
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