Tonia Groff was nominated by Sean Adams, a parent of a student.
Mrs. Groff has been creating a better world for thousands of people with various cognitive deficits who she has had the distinct pleasure of working with over the course of 30 years, with the last eight being in the Brevard Public School System. She started helping others back in elementary school, when her teachers would ask her to be friends with new students coming to the school for the first time. They always told her that if she was friends with them, everyone else would want to be friends with them, too.
From there, Mrs. Groff became a peer counselor in junior high and high school, helping other kids her age in their time of need. She gave them a helping hand, a listening ear, and someone they could count on to just talk to when they needed it. One day, Mrs. Groff had the opportunity to help a young man in her school who came to her making statements that he might not be there tomorrow. When she approached the subject of why he wasn't going to be at school, he stated that he wasn't going to be on Earth. When she brought that information to the guidance counselor and the situation was investigated, the young man was ready to take his own life.
Because of her training as a peer counselor, Mrs. Groff knew enough and cared enough to bring the information to the people who needed to know to get him the help he needed. Mrs. Groff risked her friendship and trust with this young man to help save his life. It took three months for this young man to realize that what she did was the right thing, and that she only did it because she cared. He finally forgave her for breaking his confidence and thanked her for caring. The young man let Mrs. Groff know that he had a plan, and that the plan would have been successful without her intervention. That's when Mrs. Groff decided that she wanted to find a profession that included helping others.
After college, she went on to work in group homes with people with special needs. In one of those homes, there was a young man who had been there for a couple of years and had never earned the opportunity to have a special meal for dinner, which was considered an earned privilege at the time. He couldn't control or didn't feel that he had a reason to control his challenging behaviors enough to earn that meal. Mrs. Groff worked with him day in and day out to try to get him to earn that meal he wanted so badly. In their conversations, this young man told Mrs. Groff that he really loved pumpkin pie, and that he missed having his grandma's pumpkin pie. While her coworkers scoffed and told her she couldn't do it, Mrs. Groff brought in the ingredients to make a pumpkin pie with the young man. She enlisted his help in making the pumpkin pie, put it in the fridge, and told him that when he earned his special meal by making better choices during the day, she would cut that pumpkin pie, and he could have some of it. This young man, who had gone two years without earning his special meal, had his special meal the next day and ate the pumpkin pie for dessert. He was so proud of himself that he told everybody about "Tonia's Pumpkin Pie," and how she helped him have a reason to make better choices. Mrs. Groff helped these young men and women be the best they could be by listening, learning about their world, and taking time to get to know them. This is not just a job for her. It is her "why."
Mrs. Groff went on to be a mental health crisis worker, where she helped numerous people move through their problems and issues. She also helped them learn to make better choices in their lives to make their lives the best that they could be. Mrs. Groff worked with people to make better choices for themselves, their families, and their children. She made a difference in those people's lives by being a listening ear, a person who cared, and a person they could talk to without fear of judgment.
Mrs. Groff also ran a Day Program for people with special needs. She provided them a safe, non-judgmental place that they could come to during the day to learn how to make better choices, make a business out of the things they enjoyed doing, be a good friend, have fun, and most importantly, be the best "them" that they could be. Mrs. Groff worked with people who asked for help learning how to get and keep a job, be the best employee they could be, and have their best life.
Currently, Mrs. Groff is a teacher for Bayside High School’s Brevard Learners Achieving Successful Transition (B.L.A.S.T) program. The program's mission statement is "supporting students as they transition to adult life with high expectations resulting in excellence for all." Mrs. Groff and her team take this statement to heart and strive to have their students become the best possible versions of themselves.
Mrs. Groff has been instrumental in building the Bayside B.L.A.S.T. program from the ground up as the standard bearer for sustained excellence that similar programs strive to attain. One such way that she has demonstrated her leadership is by working with her co-teacher and student team to create a business that all students have a hand in building, sustaining, and growing. This endeavor is making and selling handmade soaps, lotions, bath bombs, etc. These products are sold at local craft fairs on the weekends, and the income's used to help fund various activities that benefit the entire class, as well as making the B.L.A.S.T. program financially self-sufficient.
In addition to establishing a student-driven business, the B.L.A.S.T. program offers community-based instruction (CBI) for special education students who need instruction in functional and life skills. CBI provides natural opportunities for students to practice independent living skills. Mrs. Groff has been instrumental in forging partnerships with a variety of local businesses that give her students an opportunity to acquire job skills that will empower them to join the workforce. Many of those businesses have hired the students based on the time they spent with Mrs. Groff. In this position, Mrs. Groff has helped students see their potential in many ways.
One particular student came to the B.L.A.S.T program not wanting to be there. He stated that he knew everything he needed to know and didn’t need any help. After weeks of Mrs. Groff working with him to see the ways the class could help him, he decided to stay. He successfully finished B.L.A.S.T and was hired by Publix. Today, he has become a mentor for the current B.L.A.S.T students, and he keeps in touch weekly with Mrs. Groff for help and advice in his life.
The indelible mark that Mrs. Groff has made with all the people who she has had a working relationship with over the years is best showcased by the many former students who still routinely seek out her advice and provide her with updates of their current projects. This can be attributed to the positive, nurturing environment that Mrs. Groff has cultivated over the years. Mrs. Groff’s greatest character trait is that she cares, which results in a relationship characterized by mutual trust and respect. Her moral and ethical standards are beyond reproach. Whether known or unknowingly, Mrs. Groff has positively shaped the lives of so many people, with society as a main beneficiary. The world is a better place because of the path that she took in becoming a teacher.
Mrs. Groff has worked with people with special needs and mental health issues for 30 years. She has helped them make better choices and understand there are people out there who are listening and won't judge you for having issues or making poor decisions. Mrs. Groff always says everyone makes mistakes, and it's important to learn from them and move on. She has been making a difference in people's lives for a very long time and has enjoyed every minute of it. She looks back fondly on the times that she has had with the people that she has worked with and helped. Mrs. Groff looks back fondly on those people, who may have been shunned or looked down on by others. She has always been non-judgmental, worked with them, helped them be the best they could be, and made a difference in their lives.
"Mrs. Groff is always looking at people’s unique abilities, not their disabilities that most see. It's obvious to me that this is what Mrs. Groff was meant to do: help others. She helps them to see what they can be and what their abilities are, not their disabilities. She always looks for something that they can be successful at. 'No matter what, there's something that everybody can be successful at,' is her motto. You just need to find what they're good at and make that their success. Don't look at the bad, look at the good. Don't look at the challenges that they have, look at the successes that they have," said Adams.