After Sunnyvale Mayor Larry Klein gave his Sept. 14 State of the City address on Murphy Avenue in downtown Sunnyvale, the City’s Community Award winners came onstage.
“Recognizing and honoring the people who make our community a special place has been a Sunnyvale tradition for almost 40 years,” Klein said. “It is truly an honor to be able to give these awards to the winners.”
Klein named Animal Assisted Happiness (AAH), run by founders Vicki Amon-Higa and Peter Higa, the recipient of the Mayor’s Award of Excellence. This non-profit organization enhances the lives of youth with needs through barnyard animal interactions at its Animal Assisted Happiness Smile Farm.
Sunnyvale’s City Council Members introduced the other honorees.
Zara Vakath of The Harker School and Kaushik Tota of St. Francis High School were named High School Students of the Year. Vakath, a senior, mentors and tutors her peers and has interned with American Red Cross. Tota appeared in “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” and founded Science&Robotics, a non-profit organization that allows students to learn more about STEM.
Mark Bowers, who has retired from the City of Sunnyvale as the Solid Waste Program’s Division Manager, received the Environmental Achievement Award. For 40 years, Bowers has worked to achieve waste reduction, including supporting a food scraps recycling program in the City.
Ray Piontek, Executive Director of Bay Area Furniture Bank, received the Business of the Year Award. Through his organization, Piontek has so far provided furniture to over 650 families in need of assistance.
Lawrence Stone, Santa Clara County Assessor and former Sunnyvale Mayor, won the Contribution to the Arts Award. Stone advocated for Sunnyvale’s annual Hands on the Arts Festival, developed the master plan for public art in Sunnyvale, and is a former board member of Sunnyvale Community Players.
Dr. Benjamin Picard, Superintendent of the Sunnyvale School District, was named the Distinguished Resident of the Year. Picard has nearly 47 years of experience working in the education sector. Among his accomplishments, Picard has advocated for measures to support LGBTQ youth and to make the school district a sanctuary district. He also helped launch the Sunnyale Wellness Program.
“We have a program directly targeted toward wellness called 5210 — each day, you should eat five fruits and vegetables, have no more than two hours of screen time, have one hour of physical activity and have zero sugary drinks,” Picard said. “We have a curriculum that supports the 5210 program. We partner with the Palo Alto Medical Foundation on this initiative and I asked them to bring this program into our school district. This program is targeted toward K to 5 students. We’ve had this in the district for so long that our middle schoolers all know about it.”
Mary Grace Votran, an English teacher at Columbia Middle School, was named Educator of the Year.
Votran has worked in education for 16 years and has been with the Sunnyvale School District for eight years.
“I’d like to think I’m very transparent in my care for the children,” Votran said.
“I express to them that they’re safe with me, that we’re in it together,” she continued. “I want them to feel comfortable to take risks. Literacy in the 21st century is necessary and very challenging. With me, we’re going to try and work hard and celebrate our successes and we’re going to take time to reflect on the challenges. For me, learning is not about writing a perfect essay or reading at the 12th grade level. It’s more about building resiliency in our children. That’s how you build creativity.”