Teaching children with autism and intellectual disabilities would be a challenge enough for most, but Robinson High School teacher Megan Beatty Gaeta doesn't confine her work to the classroom or the hours of the school day. She raises thousands of dollars so her students can take part in a program they call Packaged with Care.
They take field trips to shop for items like toiletries, first aid supplies and snacks. Then Gaeta and her students turn them into care packages for various groups -- homeless and domestic violence shelter residents, kids at Inova Hospital, foster care groups.
"It gives my students jobs skills and life skills they need but also benefits the community," Gaeta explained. This year her students made 609 packages for 18 organizations.
The program is just one reason Gaeta won the Virginia Lottery's Super Teacher award -- one of eight recipients from across the commonwealth.
Under the guise of going for her annual evaluation, Gaeta was pulled from her classroom today and taken into a room full of cheering students, colleagues and relatives. Some in the room have known Gaeta since she was a Robinson student. As a teenager, she founded the Partner's Club, which paired special needs students with other students for Friday night social activities.
"There was no doubt in my mind this young lady was going to be a great teacher someday," said Robinson Principal Dan Meier, who was her principal and is now her boss. "She knew going off to college she wanted to be a special education teacher, and I told her, 'The minute you graduate, you come back here and I'll hire you.'"
Meier kept his promise when Gaeta graduated three years ago, and Gaeta picked up where she left off. She's now the faculty sponsor for the Partner's Club she founded as a student and has added the Packaged with Care program. To raise money last year, she set her sights on winning a $5,000 Pepsi grant. A friend said the two sometimes resorted to Dumpster diving last summer to find bottle caps needed for the grant competition.
"We made friends with people at the dump and the recycling center, whatever it took," Jenna Bailey said.
Gaeta explained the extra hours and effort this way: "I love my students. I love my job. My students have more to give than a lot of people and they are just special."
Gaeta's students beamed as they watched her accept her award.
"I think it was pretty cool," Ellen Johnston said. "I was crying a little bit."
Along with the Super Teacher honor, Gaeta got a $2,000 award and $2,000 in office supplies -- money she'll have no trouble putting to good use.