Northern Suburban Special Recreation Association Celebrates Its “Shining Stars” at the Awards & Recognition Banquet

After a two-year hiatus, it was a triumphant night of celebration and dancing on Friday, April 29, when approximately 350 participants, family members, staff, board members, supporters, and partners came together at Pinstripes Northbrook for NSSRA’s Shining Stars Awards & Recognition Banquet.

This year’s gathering allowed NSSRA to recognize outstanding participants, families, staff, advocates, partners, community members, and friends who truly made a difference in 2021 and in previous years.

“After a few years of uncertainty surrounding this event, it is great to have a full house and celebrate safely together again,” said NSSRA’s Executive Director Craig Culp. “When we last had a Shining Stars Banquet, we announced that we were pursuing a facility opportunity…Fast Forward three years, and we are proud owners of the premier facility for the recreational needs of individuals with disabilities in the country: The Mitchell L. Slotnick Center. It is an amazing facility worth celebrating.”

Nine individual awards were given to fourteen recipients.

The Shapiro Family of Highland Park was honored as the 2021 Mitchell L. Slotnick Friend of the Year. Long-time supporters of NSSRA, the Shapiros became one of the most generous contributors to NSSRA’s recent capital campaign by naming the Ali Cat Lounge in honor of their daughter Ali. Throughout her many years with NSSRA, Ali has tried just about every program NSSRA offers at least once. Executive Director Craig Cup noted, “[The Shapiros] are generous supporters of NSSRA and our participants. Their long-term vision of their daughter and this agency impacts everyone who interacts with NSSRA today and future generations.”

As the recipient of the 2019/2020 Mitchell L. Slotnick Friend of the Year award, D & R Autoworks was recognized for supporting NSSRA through their fundraising efforts.

The 2021 Family of the Year award went to the Schuman Family of Highland Park. Adult participant Jamie is a part of NSSRA’s adult day program, Enriched Lifestyles for Adults (ELA), and traditional programs. “No matter the situation, Jamie greets everyone with enthusiasm, and her smile and hello are enough to make everyone’s day,” said Recreation Manager Rebecca Luecke. “She gets this from her family, as they are all very welcoming and kind.” The Schumans have also provided significant financial support for participant scholarships, transportation services, and the creation of the Schuman Family Library at the Michell L. Slotnick Center.

The Sennott Family of Wilmette was recognized with the 2019/2020 Family of the Year award. Cillian has participated in many programs while his mom Meghanne helped NSSRA staff create Camp Campyardigans and train summer camp staff by providing her unique parent perspective.

This year’s Adult Participant of the Year award went to Bobby Teel of Glenview. Teel, a talented artist, has participated in various NSSRA programs for almost 15 years, beginning in elementary school. Teel recently showed tremendous growth while participating in new NSSRA opportunities. He displayed great independence, consistency, and dedication to his NSSRA schedule throughout the many virtual programs he participated in. “It is wonderful to witness participants grow throughout their NSSRA experiences, and Bobby exemplifies this in every way,” said Recreation Manager Dani Czarnik.

Ed Walsh of Highland Park was recognized with the 2021 Gator Athlete of the Year award for his dedication and commitment to Gator Athletics and extraordinary sportsmanship. After many years as an athlete, Walsh recently transitioned from player to team manager of the Gator basketball team. Recreation Specialist Dylan Sams shared, “Ed encouraged the athletes, cheered them on, gave them pointers, and kept up the team’s morale, helping to take Gator Black to the Special Olympics State Basketball Tournament this year.”

Randy Huffmaster of Fox Lake was also acknowledged as the recipient of the 2019/2020 Gator Athlete of the Year award. Huffmaster, who participates in six of the ten sports offered in Gator Athletics, is a great teammate and shows tremendous Gator pride and commitment through everything he does.

2021 Youth Participant of the Year Tia Velkme of Deerfield was recognized for her incredible growth while participating in NSSRA programs. In particular, Velkme made great strides in her independence and social skills during the past couple of years. She became involved with NSSRA programs ten years ago and continues to thrive in various programs.

The 2019/2022 Youth Participant of the Year award was given to Jack Pirrie Villalobos of Glenview. Since 2011, Villalobos has participated in various programs and went on his first overnight trip in 2019, demonstrating tremendous growth.

Tom Thurnblad of Glenview, named 2021 Program Staff of the Year, has worked in NSSRA programs since 2007. Not only does Thurnblad do an excellent job of adapting to meet the needs of the participants during programs, but he is also a strong advocate for them by conveying observations and communicating with the program leader, teammates, and families.

Ellie Britton of Glenview was also honored as the 2019/2020 Program Staff of the Year. Britton has held various roles – Program Assistant, Gator Coach, Site Coordinator, Driver, and Leader – in NSSRA programs since 2013.

Sam Cotton of Glenview, recipient of the 2021 Volunteer of the Year award, could not attend the evening’s festivities. NSSRA staff surprised Cotton with the award during the previous week, and banquet attendees were treated to a video of him accepting his award.

Glenview Park District received the 2021 Partner Agency of the Year award for their extraordinary support of NSSRA programs and generous hospitality. During the pandemic, Glenview Park District’s Willow Park Fieldhouse became the primary home as NSSRA eased back into in-person programming. Last year, the Summer Bash, the inaugural Run for All 5K, the SWING golf outing, and many other programs were held at Glenview Park District facilities. Glenview Park District Executive Director Michael McCarty also served as NSSRA Facility Committee Chair, who was instrumental in everything from the purchase to the grand opening of the Mitchell L. Slotnick Center.

Natalie Liang of Highland Park was awarded the 2019/2020 Advocate of the Year Award for her long-standing partnership with NSSRA. She previously served as an Inclusion contact with the Park District of Highland Park and a member of the NSSRA Associate Board. She continues to advocate for NSSRA participants and families through her current position at the Glenview Park District.

“NSSRA Foundation is honored to sponsor this evening’s celebration alongside many sponsors and donors,” remarked NSSRA Foundation President Glenn Binstein. “We sent out a simple yet purposeful request for financial support for the Banquet, and we’re overwhelmed by the generous response. We are truly grateful for your friendship.”

NSSRA Foundation sponsored the 2022 Shining Stars Awards & Recognition Banquet, with additional support from local businesses, families, community supporters, and donors. This year’s Presenting Sponsor was the Gerald & Olivia Shapiro Family Foundation of Highland Park. See a complete list of sponsors below.

Award Winners

2021 Partner Agency of the Year: Glenview Park District

2021 Mitchell L. Slotnick Friend of the Year: Shapiro Family (Highland Park)

2019/2020 Mitchell L. Slotnick Friend of the Year: D & R Autoworks

2019/2020 Advocate of the Year: Natalie Liang (Highland Park)

2021 Family of the Year: Schuman Family (Highland Park)

2019/2020 Family of the Year: Sennott Family (Wilmette)

2021 Volunteer of the Year: Sam Cotton (Glenview)

2021 Program Staff of the Year: Tom Thurnblad (Glenview)

2019/2020 Program Staff of the Year: Ellie Britton (Glenview)

2021 Youth Participant of the Year: Tia Velkme (Deerfield)

2019/2020 Youth Participant of the Year: Jack Pirrie Villalobos (Glenview)

2021 Gator Athlete of the Year: Ed Walsh (Highland Park)

2019/2020 Gator Athlete of the Year: Randy Huffmaster (Fox Lake)

2021 Adult Participant of the Year: Bobby Teel (Glenview)

Sponsors & Donors

Presenting Sponsor

  • Gerald & Olivia Shapiro Family Foundation

Invitation Sponsor

  • Binstein Family

Audio/Visual Sponsors

  • Rosen Family Foundation
  • Slotnick Family

Program Book Sponsors

  • Atlas Employment Services
  • FGMK

Live Music Sponsors

  • D & R Autoworks, Inc.
  • Mercedes-Benz at Autohaus on Edens
  • Wintrust Community Banks

Dessert Sponsors

  • Holly & Jim Jennings
  • Amy & Bob Greenebaum
  • Sue & Gregg Hartemayer
  • Bonnie & Herb Horn
  • Karasik Family
  • Lippai / Gibson Family
  • Odelson, Sterk, Murphey, Frazier & McGrath, Ltd.
  • Schuman Family

Décor Sponsors

  • Kavanaugh Family
  • Medansky Family


  • Dave Dillon
  • Margi, Roger & Greg Baron
  • Mike & Lorena Beltrano
  • Sue & Don Bergsrud
  • Camp Wigwam
  • Cotton Family
  • Christine & Chris Donnelly
  • Peg & Bob Bourke
  • Friends of NSSRA
  • Gator Moms: Greene, Siebert, Coppel & Brandwein
  • Joan Golder
  • Loeb Family
  • Lobert Family
  • Logan Family
  • Daniel Wander & Ruth Freedman
  • Netzer Family
  • Remig Raffanti
  • Diane Thurnblad
  • Dave Tosh
  • Lee & Ralph Volpe
  • Mary & Jerry Weinberg