Annual Guiding Stars Awards

Guiding Stars 2016


Each year we take time to recognize those in the autism community who go the extra mile for individuals and families challenged by autism spectrum disorders. From teachers to bus drivers , ABA professionals to recreational providers, those who work to improve access to the community  and acceptance of autism deserve to be commended for their efforts .


Our 2016 Guiding Stars


Outstanding Educators

Deb Hackett Nominated by Mia & Patrick McDonald

Deb is tireless in her devotion to the children in her care. As an educator and an ABA therapist she presses forward with a big smile and a lot of determination. At a time when Liam’s challenges were growing she helped us navigate those difficulties and she did so with grace and strength of character. Even though it has been almost two years since Deb was Liam’s ABA therapist, she still works in the school that my four other children attend, and she still greets each of them with a big smile or a hug. She is someone who truly cares, has a big heart, and is willing to work tirelessly for these kids.

Cathy Cranston Nominated by Lisa Thompson

Cathy Cranston is a Special Education Teacher in West Boylston, but to Erica and I she is so much more! Cathy has been working with Erica since the summer of 2012. She immediately took a shine to Erica. Over the years Cathy has been instrumental in helping Erica feel like a member of the school community, and to gradually increase her inclusion into the regular education classroom. Erica had a tough year in Kindergarten, and Cathy became Erica’s sub separate classroom teacher in grade 1. She made her classroom a place where Erica felt appreciated and loved. Cathy used structure and consistency as well as positive feedback and true understanding of Erica’s anxiety to guide Erica in her learning, and to gradually get Erica back into the regular education classroom. Erica is now in Grade 3, and is spending most of her time in the regular education classroom. I credit this to Cathy and her hand in everything. She has worked hard to ensure Erica had the best fitting classroom teacher and aide support. She worked toward developing the best possible peer make up of the class for Erica’s success. She has kept open and honest communication with my husband, and me and loves to share photos, stories and experiences from Erica’s day with us. She always looks out for Erica’s best interest. She has attended Erica’s fundraisers for the Autism walk each year, and I have seen her at other students’ recitals, plays and important moments. She gives me encouragement when things are tough, always focuses on the good in my child, and has compassion for the struggles. There was a week this year when Cathy was at training and was not at school. Erica had a tough week. One of the days she was out Erica said, “I know it’s just one person, but not having Mrs. Cranston at school makes a big difference.” That says it all for me. Cathy Cranston makes a big difference for the children and families she works with. I am grateful for her every day.

Lauren Carchidi Nominated by Stephanie Madrigal

Lauren has impacted so many children with autism and deserves a little recognition herself. She goes above and beyond what is required of her in order to make certain her students and their parents are getting the support they need.
She is an active member of the community outside of school as well. She recently organized a CrossFit open gym for kids with different abilities She donated her time to bring this wonderful opportunity to the community and it was well attended.

Pat Siimes Nominated by Amy Smith

Pat Siimes is a Guiding Star. Pat has become a trusted friend, someone my boys know they can go to if they need help or if they are having trouble. Pat is excellent at her job and has helped me with all of my boys. Pat helped me to get my son Jacob back onto an IEP in 4th grade after he had come off in 2nd. He struggled with the transition to a new school with the change up to Shaw school. Pat has helped Jacob to come out of his shell, has improved his verbal skills and helped him to be able improve his social skills. He even has a best friend now, which would not have happened if we had not had Pat helping us for the last 3 years. As if that is not enough, she also works with my son Brandon, who is not on the spectrum but is deaf and uses a cochlear implant and hearing aid. he uses an FM system at school to allow him to access sound and his curriculum. Pat has been the lead person for Brandon’s 504 plan since 4th grade and has been there to calm him down through several occasion of full equipment failure. School can be scary enough, never mind doing it unable to hear anything. The first time it occurred, he panicked a bit but she calmed him, kept him with her in her office for an hour until I could get to the school. After that experience, whenever he has had a problem, he does not panic, he simply goes to Mrs. Siimes’ office and she calls me. Pat is a wonderful woman who helps so many children and is definitely a Guiding Star to everyone. Thank you Pat!

Outstanding ABA Providers

Nassim Aoude—ABS Nominated by Stacy Lavely

You came into our lives, When all hell had broken loos,e Our spirits shattered everywhere, Around our necks a noose.
The road ahead looked bleak, Days and nights stretched on, I barely dared to speak or peek, Not knowing if I’d see dawn.
You showed up at this time, Assessing our whole life, Love brewing under the surface, Along with all the strife.
You put a plan in place, You checked in quite often, You helped restore peace, The blows began to soften.
We felt so blessed you took time, To match Jagger so well, With our talented techs, In love we both fell.
These angels you sent to us, Brought my son back to me, All because you took the time, To learn our family.
With those days left behind, Now there are hugs and high fives, You will never fully understand, Just how you saved our lives.

Ann Gawle– HMEA Nominated by Shakira Gonzalez

Anne has been a part of my life since I first found out my son had a diagnosis of ASD. She is excellent at what she does. She’s always made sure I had the right supports and always did her best when it comes to helping achieve the goals I have set for my son. I feel Anne has always gone above and beyond to do her job.
When Anne first came into our lives my son was completely nonverbal. He was a shy little boy with so much personality. Anne seen his potential and his will to learn from the start. There where days when I thought he would never talk and she always reassured me he would. She’s always taken her time and listened when I had concerns and never made me feel as though any of my concerns where not valid. My son has progressed and regressed but Anne has never gave up and never stopped pushing him. Now he is talking and I finally heard him say “I love you mommy” for the first time not long ago. Thanks to all the hard work and dedication she has put into my family I heard my son’s voice. Now he can read at the age of 4 years old. I feel like the sky is the limit for my son now. With all the tools Anne has given me I am able to not only help my son but I also see a brighter future for him as well.

Tony Palacios—BCI Nominated by Kristen Saad

My son Trevor’s BCI therapist is a Guiding Star. He has been with my family for some time now. He has helped in so many ways. When Trevor needed some help with clippers for getting his hair cut, Tony would use clipper pieces in his hair and make pretend clipper sounds to help make hair cutting easier. Finger nail and toe nail clipping has always been a challenge, again tony worked with Trevor and cliping has gotten so much better. He is truly a caring dedicated person. He is always willing to work through any challenge Trevor puts in front of him. As well as being understanding and helpful with my other son Bradyn. Hes even tried singing which isn’t his strong point, sorry Tony. He really has become a team member that is always a positive thinker and has more patience than me even on my best day.

Outstanding Care Giver

Denise Messier Nominated by Heidi Robbins

My son Ben is 14 and severely impacted with autism. I was in search of a caregiver AGAIN for Ben for afterschool hours as the turnover for this position occurred mainly due to college students moving on with their life! Denise was recommended to me from Colleen Munson a fellow mom affiliated with the center – my sister was helping me spread the word and happened to mention to Colleen at the UU church –and led us to today. I am extremely grateful! Denise is a caring, accepting and loving woman. She has embraced both my sons as her own and has let me cry on her shoulder many times as well. She deals with bathing, changing pull ups, meals, safety, behaviors…and also with the ABA techs who come in a few days a week. She stayed overnight at my house while I was in Germany on business and last minute when I needed to go to Austin to be with my sister when her husband passed away. She herself is a breast cancer survivor and a mom of twin teenage boys. I celebrate Denise because she is a life line for me every day while I struggle along this journey of autism. She is a true guiding star to both Jake and Ben.

Outstanding Adult Service Providers

Sandra Flowers Nominated by Vicki Freilich

I have nominated Sandra Flowers, Jason’s van driver. As a special needs parent also transitioning with their young adult, I was quite anxious about transportation to and from the Aspire! Program. When we finally got transportation, we found out that Sandra would be Jason’s van driver. We were so relieved because Sandra and her son, Darryl were on the Shrewsbury Special Olympics Track team together for many years. What a small world! I knew that Sandra would take care of Jason like her own and she would “get it” from a Mom’s perspective. We felt like we won the lottery!
From Jason’s perspective, he says that Sandra is a very patient driver, knows what she is doing and doesn’t switch the routes. Jason says that he can talk to her about anything because she’s easy going and she “gets him”- his punny sense of humor, his logical brain, his spirit and his needs. I like that she talks with her young adult passengers as young adults. She lets them know of any changes and what to expect as well as letting their parents know too. As we all know, this is the exception and not the norm.
We thank Sandra for making a difference in our lives and touching our hearts forever.
Sebastian Nimo Nominated by Rudolph Williams

Sebastian Nimo deserves recognition as an excellent Direct Service Provider for adults. Sebastian has displayed consistent willingness to provide care and supervision for Adrian Williams in a residential Setting . Sebastian is compassionate and patient when it comes to giving service at home and in the community while working with Adrian over the past five years. The communication provided to family and all support systems put in place for Adrian helps to strengthen other service providers care throughout the state by being a shining example of how to do the job.

David Aroujo Nominated by Jason Freilich

Hi! My name is Jason Freilich. I’m 22 years old and I go to the Aspire Day Program at Seven Hills. Turning 22 and going to a different program, I didn’t know what to expect or who I was going to meet. I started taking some classes and met this teacher who teaches the Employment Class. His name is David Aroujo. He just “gets me” and my learning style. He is nice, friendly and easy to talk to. Some things that make him a good teacher is that he is very professional and takes his job seriously. He is always prepared and organized. I like that a lot. He teaches me life lessons and his goal for the class is to get a job. He teaches his class safety skills and how to behave in class and on the job. We are also working on my resume together. One day he came into class with a suit on to show us how to dress for an interview. How many teachers would really do that? David talks about how he loves his job and likes to help people forever. He’s a really good guy who makes a difference in my life. I just wanted to tell him that.

Outstanding Therapist

Mary Minalga LICSW Nominated by Kelly & Wayne Carey

Mary Minalga, is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker, and a Guiding Star. We have known Mary for at least 13 years. Mary has been a therapist to 2 of our 3 sons with Autism. Wayne 16 and Joel 12. Mary has always been a staunch supporter of our boys. I cannot count the times that I have called Mary in an absolute panic over an Autism crisis (which is quite frequent for us). She has always been there for us, no matter what time of the day it is. There has never been a time that I have not received a return call from Mary. I often speak with her outside of what other people would consider “normal business hours.” She will give her best suggestions as to a course of action and will then follow-up with additional discussion at the next therapy session. Mary has always been available to help us with our crisis, lend support and give her expertise on dealing with complex Autism issues with many moving parts. Mary is an integral part of our Autism village. We work as a team to resolve situations. She is a great listener along with having a mountain of patience and a heart full of compassion and understanding. She does not just treat our boys she treats us as a family to work through this unique life together. We depend on Mary’s support to help us on our Autism journey. By definition a “Guiding Star is a luminous point in the sky to lead the way for us,” Mary is truly a luminous light that guides the way for us, the Carey Family’s “Guiding Star.” Thank you Mary for your enduring support.

Outstanding Teacher in a Recreational Setting

Sensi Michael Agbay, MJA Martial Arts Nominated by Thadius & Diane Dubsky

Thadius and Zachary Dubsky found their Guiding Star in Sensei Michael Agbay of MJA Martial Arts. Sensei Mike treats each student as an individual, allowing them to advance at his own pace. All students are taught in harmony with their learning style and needs. Thadius and Zachary have made personal gains in focus, concentration, self-control, discipline, respect, and self-confidence, while learning self-defense, gaining physical strength and flexibility, as well as coordination and balance. What began as an extra-curricular activity to aid with socialization, has become an integral part of their lives. Under the guidance of Sensei Mike, Thadius and Zachary have been encouraged to focus on what they can do regardless of disabilities. He teaches them to set goals, plan ways of achieving these goals, and most . Sensei Sensei not only teaches these values, he leads by example.

Outstanding Volunteers

Kristen Saad & Stelios Athanassiades Nominated by Wanja Kiraguri

There is nothing as challenging as reporting to work on your first day and being told you are in charge of the events and Oh Yes! The major event is in two months. So here is your desk, familiarize yourself with the organization, learn how to use this software called Firstgiving and learn about the event. Good luck!

Well, I wanted to wish the event away and I did try a few times especially when Sue Loring told me she knew more about the walk than the run. Then she introduced me to Stelios the Run Chair. He was very welcoming and gave me a detailed synopsis of the event. I remember Stelios telling me, “I have done this event for several years, we have a very good committee and we will work with you to make sure the event is a success.” He was right, he had a well oiled machine for the 5K from logistics to timing the runners. As he showed me the ropes, I learned to rely on his wisdom and guidance on things that needed attention. Any email from Stelios was opened ASAP as I knew I needed to learn what he know and learn it fast. As the Run Chair, he worked very well with other committee members. On the day of the event, Stelios did everything that needed to be done for a successful 5K and yes, the event was a success. Thank you Stelios for the years you have volunteered and the successful 5Ks.

Kristen Saad is the Walk Chair and the most cool, calm and collected Walk Chair I have ever met. My first meeting with Kristen, she assured me that she knew all aspects of the walk and as she then continued to give me details of the event. By the time our meeting was over, I knew I liked her and I knew I could rely on her to guide me and the event would be a success. Did I mention that she is such a calm person? Whenever I seemed in doubt and asked her a question, she has always guided me and told me many times, ”Relax, the event will be a success.” On the day of the event, Kristen shows up with an army of volunteers, needless to say they are related to her and they give their all to make sure that the event is a success. Thank you Kristen for your wisdom, your guidance and your kindhearted nature to be of help and recruit others to help the center succeed.

Outstanding Parent Leaders

Lisa Thompson Nominated by Michelle Kaelin

When my son was diagnosed on the autism spectrum ,Lisa was one of the first people I turned to. She is always ready to listen and offer advice, understanding, and support. She truly has traveled alongside me as a Mom on this journey. In her roles as parent, CFCE Grant Coordinator and SEPAC President , Lisa works so hard every day to give her best and continually pushes herself to learn more, do more and grow . Whether it is attending conferences, arranging for speakers , or developing a creative new program, Lisa gives with her whole heart. Spend even a short amount of time in Lisa’s presence and you will see and hear her enthusiasm and energy for her work . She is a fighter and holds herself to high standards to do right by her children and her community.

Linda Cournoyer nominated by Brenda Waleski

Linda is the quintessential parent leader. She has helped me become a better advocate for my children and others and makes sure that I am taking care of myself, because sometimes I forget to. She is the only one who understood when Austin could no longer live at home because she has been there, even though I was devastated. When Jacob was struggling in school she was the one who came to his aide even though he doesn’t have disabilities, he was a sibling that needed help. She’s an asset not only to me and my family but to the entire community.
Brenda Waleski nominated by Anonymous Parent

Brenda saw my son playing in her backyard in his underwear. Instead of being shocked or horrified she engaged him until I could find her and she walked us back home. That’s not where it ended. She saw bruises on my arm that I was trying to keep covered. She didn’t pry, she just said she’d been in my shoes and she knows. Over the next few months she babysat for me gave me resources, emergency numbers and became a good friend. I was torn between as abusive marriage or being alone with two children with autism. One night after my spouse got drunk and the abuse escalated I called Brenda and she picked us up and brought us to a battered women’s shelter. Thanks to her my children and I have a future.

Outstanding Autism Professional

Kristen Finne-Gregoire nominated by Mary Johnson & Sue Loring

A few weeks back Mary Johnson, the Autism Waiver Clinical Manager approached me to ask if I knew what a jewel I had in Kris Finne-Gregoire. My response was , oh yes I am a lucky woman to have her on my staff. AS we chatted and Mary shared more about her experiences working with Kris, I asked if she would work with me to nominate this amazing woman.  Mary was more than happy to oblige to give Kris the recognition she so richly deserves

I initially met Kris when I was a Children’s Service Coordinator at the Worcester Area Office,  but really came to appreciate her strong work ethic, professionalism and creativity when I began working on the children’s waiver team about 2 years ago when I quickly came to realize that Kris knew the waiver program rules and guidelines as well if not better than some of us at DDS. During the first few months on the job my waiver colleagues at DDS would often tell me to run things by Kris when I had a question. There have been many times, when a conclusion to some challenging situation isn’t presenting itself, even though Kris may not be involved with the case, she is always willing to listen and provide thoughtful suggestions.
More importantly Kris extends this collaborative style of getting the job done with the families we work with. She has a way of getting right down to the business of helping; through normal conversations with parents and guardians she acknowledges their concerns and fears by quickly identifying needs and opportunities for solutions. She gets right to work by making connections to providers, or attending an IEP meeting with a parent or assisting a family with a complicated referral process for a new pediatrician. Kris is not afraid to ask questions and pursue all possible options to address the area of concern.
She is a strong advocate for the families we serve and we are lucky to have her as part of the waiver team. Thank you Kris for all the hard work you do – on behalf of the DDS waiver team please know we appreciate you.