YONKERS — Fresh out of high school and taking a job as a teacher aide in the Yonkers Public Schools, Raena Krokos hadn’t heard of autism.
Fast forward 16 years and not only is Krokos a seasoned teacher aide whose career has been spent helping children with special needs, she’s also become a passionate advocate for autism awareness.
“I was super nervous when I was first hired,” said Krokos. “Now, I wouldn’t give it up for the world. I love my students. I love seeing their growth and adore just being around them.”
With her students in mind, Krokos approached her principal 10 years ago for permission to fundraise for autism-related charities.
A decade later, she is the force behind an annual school event at Westchester Hills School 29 held during April, Autism Awareness Month, that raises money for enrichment activities and other extras that enhance the school experience for students with special needs.
In April, Krokos and her team of volunteers held their 10th annual fundraising spaghetti dinner, an event that has grown each year. Among those supporting the event were State Sen. Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, whose district includes Yonkers; the superintendent of schools; members of the district’s Board of Trustees and several CSEA Yonkers School District Unit officers.
“We are able to bring the community together,” said Krokos. “Every year, I reach out to local businesses for support, and they’ve been wonderful making sure we have what we need. The past few years, our Yonkers firefighters have been cooking a bunch of food for the fundraiser.”
Not only is the fundraiser a chance to fund enrichment for students with autism, it is a place to raise awareness.
“Raising awareness shines a light on the fact that this isn’t easy,” Krokos said, speaking of both students and their families. “Please be patient if you witness a meltdown in public or a child trying to pay at a register who is trying to be taught a life skill. If I can teach a few people to see people with autism differently and just be more aware, then I’ve done my job.”
CSEA Yonkers School District Unit President Lionel Turner said the growth in this grassroots fundraising over the past decade reflects the dedication teacher aides such as Krokos and her co-workers bring to the job.
“There’s a connection between the kids and staff that goes beyond the job,” Turner said. “They have a ton of compassion and go beyond the call of duty. This fundraiser pay for and reminds us how kindness and patience in our community can benefit both individuals with autism and their families.”
— Jessica Ladlee