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Perry Township teacher shines a light on students with special needs

INDIANAPOLIS (WISH) — This month’s WISH-TV Golden Apple Award winner gives year-round, and during the holidays. 

WISH-TV is Indiana’s education station and News 8 honors outstanding teachers every month with the Golden Apple Award. It comes with a trophy, a $500 school supply shopping spree at Teachers’ Treasures, and a surprise from Hanna Mordoh.

Ms. Ali DeHart lifts the spirits of students in Perry Township, by always putting them first. She is a special education teacher at Abraham Lincoln Elementary School and is known for giving her heart to every student. 

“Ali just embraces everyone and it is almost like they become her own children,” Corrie Callahan, a master teacher in the special education program at Abraham Lincoln Elementary School, said.

DeHart’s love for her students comes first. In fact, she is the heart of special education at the school.

“She just shows them love every day. She celebrates them,” District Behavior Specialist,  Katey Lloyd, said.

Every year, Dehart shares her love for her students, by raising money on social media and buying them holiday gifts.

“She is able to purchase gifts that really work around who that child is, what they value. What they pay attention to. What will bring them joy and entertainment. And so she is able to purchase gifts that are very unique to each child to really bless them for the holiday,” Callahan said.

“Something supporting what they are learning at school and then giving them the materials they need at home to do that,” Lloyd said.

Lloyd has worked with DeHart as her mentor since DeHart was a cadet teacher in high school.

“Just always a positive outlook. Even when days are hard. Teaching is hard and sometimes working with children with different needs is even more challenging because you are always having to problem-solve. But her outlook is always positive and always a child-first mindset,” Lloyd said.

Callahan helps oversee the special education program and said she too learns from the work DeHart does and the person she is.

(WISH Photo)

“What I love about Ali is she is so balanced. So she is this combination of – she brings so much energy but she also brings calm to your storm. She is this beautiful balance of being loving but also knowing where to draw the line and tell you the truth. So everything you need and the opposite, she has. And I think that’s one of her finest qualities,” Callahan said. 

DeHart is invested in every student. She teaches both life skills and academics to kids of all ages. She also engages with parents by providing constant updates, photos and videos to families on a private classroom Facebook page. For DeHart, her students are a lifelong commitment. She teaches some of her students, for years.

“Ali is an advocate. She is just a person who, especially for the more marginalized population and children with special needs, in building awareness in the general population that there are these really incredible people out there that we get to know and we get to have them be a part of our lives. And she wants to highlight them and show off all they have to offer the world and the community,” Callahan said.

DeHart is so committed to this work, she helps people shine with Miss Amazing.

 “Miss Amazing is a pageant for women and girls with special needs. And it is such a cool program. And Ali is the director for the state,” Callahan explained.

As the director of Indiana Miss Amazing, DeHart helps coordinate volunteers, raise money for the program and help people participate in the events. She sees the best in every person, the potential they have in life, even if that means at times her heart will break. Last year, one of her students passed away.

“Ali just embraces everyone and it’s almost like they become her own children in a way and just – I have a lifelong investment to you. And so in the environment, she serves in unfortunately it is a reality that sometimes our students don’t have the same level of life expectancy… So that loss is very acute and felt very deeply because these children become a part of you – a part of your family and Ali takes that very seriously. And she anticipates you are mine forever, we are going to be family forever and so in that loss, it has just been very painful,” Callahan said.

Pain is sadly part of the sacrifice in doing this work. However, healing comes with every student’s progress and their smiling faces. Fellow staff members said DeHart is critical to helping children in the district thrive. That’s why they said she is so deserving of the WISH-TV Golden Apple Award. 

“When I heard I was just really excited,” Callahan said. “Because I know the level of work that Ali puts into her students and I know the level of compassion. It is not just physical work – it is emotional work – mental work that she puts into the needs of her students. So to know that is going to be highlighted beyond just this building is so exciting. Because she deserves that and for people out there to be able to see the way children’s needs are being met specifically is just really exciting.”

In true Santa fashion, News 8 went to surprise DeHart in her classroom. Her grandparents, the Perry Township Superintendent, and the school’s principal all helped with the surprise. 
DeHart said she was blown away and that the students are a special group and make it worth it.

“I am lucky to be their teacher,” DeHart said. “I am surprised, I’m shocked!”

DeHart watched a video message from her students and coworkers, and held back tears while hugging her students.

“I am honored. It was awesome to see all those people and it is nice to get recognized,” DeHart said.

The loss of her student is still something that brings her to tears, but she also said the student’s memory keeps her motivated to keep doing this important work.

“It was awful. We really miss him. But he keeps us coming back too. That is even more reason to show them, love, while we have them,” DeHart said.

DeHart hopes to spread awareness about students with special needs and continue to be their advocate in and out of the classroom. With that, she has some advice for the public.

“Just give everybody the benefit of the doubt. Show everyone love, no matter if they have a disability or not. It is really important to just treat everyone equally and see how much anybody can teach you. That is something I really enjoy, is they teach me more than I can ever teach them,” DeHart said.

What’s clear is the true gift this holiday season and all year round, is having DeHart share her heart with all of us.

DeHart gave out her annual holiday gifts to her students Wednesday.

To watch other Golden Apple Award recipients, click this link.

To nominate a deserving teacher for next month’s Golden Apple Award, submit a detailed nomination here.