Mom organizes a special thank you to Estrella

Flanking young Alex Berninger are Estrella nurse Patricia Kuluris and family friend Curtis Huntzinger, who made the book case, shaped like a skiff, that will house pirtate books in the school library as a thank you from Alex’s mom, Jennifer Berniger, for the school’s support of her son. (Pablo Robles/AFN staff Photographer)

For 14 of his 34 years with KEZ FM 99.9 radio, Marty Manning has been honoring a teacher or a staffer at a Valley school in nine monthly visits a year to present Excellence in Education awards.

His visit last week to Kyrene de la Estrella Elementary School in Ahwatukee was particularly special — not only for Manning and the school but for one Ahwatukee mother as well.

It was Manning’s final school visit because he is retiring next month after 50 years in radio.

And it was Jennifer Berniger’s chance to thank Estrella’s teachers and staff in a special way.

In a heartfelt letter, Berniger had asked Manning to help her express her appreciation to Estrella’s staff for the great job it did with three of her four kids, particularly her third youngest, Alex. Her youngest attends Colina because of a boundary change.

Alex, 11, who is heading to middle school in August, was diagnosed autistic when he was starting pre-K at Estrella at age 3.

“I have so much love for all of the staff at Estrella,” Berniger wrote. “No one person could be recognized without everyone knowing how truly grateful we are for their time and efforts for our entire family.”

She told Manning she wanted to celebrate the Estrella staff because they “changed not only Alex’s life, but our entire family’s.”

Manning’s visit put the bow on a Teachers Appreciation Week surprise that Berniger had been working on for a while.

Alex’s fascination with pirates since was 2 was the lynchpin of that surprise.

With the help of the radio station, Manning’s producer and Excellence in Education award sponsors Taylor Morrison and the Arizona State Fair, Berniger raised hundreds of dollars to buy pirate books.

“These weren’t just ordinary books,” Manning said. “They had to have a special binding. She really worked hard to find them, even found some that had been out of print.”

Berniger asked family friend Curtis Huntzinger if he would make a bookcase shaped like a skiff for the books. When he agreed, she went to a nearby Lowes, which donated the materials.

“I was impressed by the bookcase. It’s beautiful wood,” said Manning.

All that preparation reached a joyous crescendo in an assembly May 9 in Estrella’s multipurpose room, where hundreds of kids packed the place to hear Manning, his head wrapped in a pirate bandana, and Alex, who wore red, knee-length pirate coat and a white shirt with ruffled cuffs.

Manning announced that Estrella nurse Patricia Kuluris was the recipient of his second-to-last award to a teacher — a special plaque and $99.

The last award will come at the end of the month, when Manning will bring together the eight other monthly award winners this school year for a lunch at the Hyatt Regency in Scottsdale and give one of them the grand prize of $999.

“Ms. Patti is Alex’s ‘best friend,’” Berniger wrote Manning. “She is Alex’s North Star!”

Kaluris was nearly speechless.

“I’m overwhelmed,” she said. “I’m stunned. I’m still in shock. I do this because I love it.”

Berniger had told Manning that Kuluris was representative of the entire Eestrella staff.

She recalled how school aides helped Alex, explained how he “would often put himself to sleep during his time in the classroom because it was just more than he could handle.”

Over time, she said, her son “has continued to grow and stretch. He truly has become a different young man.”

“With each passing year, many therapists, teachers and family members have tried to expand his horizons,” she wrote. “Alex however, has held strong to his love of pirates. The staff at Estrella has not only supported his love, but they have found ways to teach him (using pirates), include other classmates and environments for him to be celebrated.”

On Talk like a Pirate Day in September, teachers would invite Alex into their classrooms to teach other students about pirates. Teachers and staff have dressed up like pirates with him.

Even the school bus driver, along with other aides, helped after they noticed that Alex likes to draw.

“They have given him art books, art supplies and countless minutes of praise,” she said, noting that Alex threw out the first pitch at the Diamondbacks Autism Awareness game in 2016 as many Estrella teachers and staff looked on.

“The amazing teachers and school staff have done so much more than just provide Alex an education,” Berniger wrote. “They gave him acceptance, love and nurturing peers and classmates. As you can see, there truly is no way to just nominate one person.” She signed the letter, “Captain Alex’s First Mate.”

Manning, who brought 30 pizzas, said he was impressed by Berniger’s orchestration of the entire event.

“It was absolutely perfect,” said Manning, who has made 126 visits to schools over the last 14 years to give out the Excellence in education awards, something he calls “my pet project.”

Berniger said, “I think it was well-received.”

She is apprehensive about the “big challenge” awaiting Alex as he leaves the familiar surroundings of Estrella for a new school, telling Manning “my nerves of the months to come are overwhelming me.”

Manning said hopes Alex’s new school will be just as supportive as Estrella was.

“He showed a lot of poise in front of all those kids,” he said. “That school really did such a great job. They embraced just not Alex but his whole family.”

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