Antonio Izzo said it wasn’t easy keeping a secret from his longtime friend and mentor Michael Alessandri.
About a month ago, he and his mother, Giovanna, had to speak quietly and hide as they were taped for a video about Alessandri in the next room.
“I hid it with a chuckle,” said the 18-year-old, who was diagnosed with autism at a young age and has worked with Alessandri for 16 years. When Alessandri asked what was going on, the teen laughed it off.
In the video, Antonio said he didn’t know where he would be without his mentor.
But on Friday, Antonio’s secret was revealed as Alessandri, 49, was recognized as the David Lawrence Jr. Champion for Children at the Children’s Trust’s eighth annual awards ceremony.
“It was a great surprise,” said Alessandri, of seeing his “kids,” on the short film that recognizes Alessandri’s nearly 30-year career of helping individuals with autism. “This is the best feeling.”
Alessandri, executive director for the University of Miami-Nova Southeastern University Center for Autism & Related Disabilities, was one of several individuals and groups recognized at the awards event at Jungle Island in Miami.
The Children’s Trust, approved by Miami-Dade voters in 2002 as a funding source for children’s programs across Miami-Dade, began the awards ceremony eight years ago as a way to recognize people who work with children every day. On Friday, nearly 700 people filled a ballroom as the awards were handed out and local teens who have benefited from programs supported by The Children’s Trust performed.
David Lawrence Jr., the founding board chair of the trust, a nationally known early-childhood education advocate and the former publisher of The Miami Herald, said the awards were a way to recognize the people that often don’t take the spotlight.
“I think it is hugely important to celebrate people while they are still on this earth,” Lawrence said. “These are extraordinary role models.”
Other award recipients:
• Emily Gunter from Urgent Inc. received the Excellence in Direct Service to Children and Families award. Gunter, a retired engineer, math professor and speaker, uses her world experiences and knowledge of different languages to teach children respect for different cultures.
• S.T.E.P.S. in the Right Direction earned the Excellence in School Readiness Programming award. The organization works with grandparents who are raising children so that the children do not fall behind. The program mainly works in Hialeah and Liberty City.
• Kidworks USA, a pre-school and afterschool program, received the award for Excellence in Youth Programming for School and Life Success. The program, which has received funding by The Children’s Trust since 2006, gives children a chance to exercise, socialize and learn.
• The Excellence in Health, Family or Community Services went to Catholic Charities. The Catholic Charities’ Strengthening Families program works with parents to help them develop a strong relationship with their children. The program, which started receiving funding from The Children’s Trust in 2004, works mainly with Haitian families.