Excitement was in the air last month at Maryville Academy in Des Plaines, as officials held their annual awards banquet. The gym was decked out with balloons and sparklers, and the more than 100 students came dressed in their special clothes for the occasion.
But this was no ordinary reception. Many of these students -- assembled from Maryville's campuses in Bartlett, Des Plaines and Chicago -- had never received awards before, administrators said, let alone basked in the limelight of recognition.
"We strive to recognize the achievements of our children -- and celebrate their strengths," said Sister Catherine Ryan, executive director of Maryville.
"Whether it's academic awards, sports or social skills," she added, "we make sure that each student receives an award."
All three of Maryville's campuses offer residential programs, with behavioral and mental health services, family support, as well as secondary and special education.
Its students have a variety of emotional impairments and mental illness, and most have suffered some type of abuse before coming to Maryville.
At the awards banquet, however, they shined, and they eagerly awaited hearing their name being called.
Take Shannon. The 20-year-old woman has lived in several foster placements and most recently was in a group home, but she also has spent time in juvenile detention and received mental health care for her bipolar disorder.
However, for the last two years, she has lived at Maryville's Eisenburg Campus in Bartlett, where she attends therapeutic high school classes at the Innovations Academy in Streamwood and volunteers with a pair of young autistic teens who are at the same school.
In recognition of her work with the autistic students, Shannon won the "School Mentor and Tutor Award."
"Their parents tell me that I'm the only one they'll listen to," Shannon said. "I like working with them. It makes me think about what I do, because I know they're watching me."
Likewise, Matthew, a 17-year-old student in the St. George Program at Maryville's Des Plaines campus, was recognized for his hard work and excellence in creative expression and reading, and for making the "B" honor roll.
"I like history," Matthew said, "and learning about things like the Egyptian mummies."
The St. George Program provides a residential setting for boys with intellectual disabilities and mental illness. Its students attend Maryville's Jen School, and participate in recreational and vocational activities, while they receive treatment for their emotional stability.
One of Matthew's favorite activities is working with the Maryville Golf Academy, and traveling to the nearby Golf Center in Des Plaines, where participants practice and play. "We just played in a tournament," he said.
The academy aims to teach life lessons through golf by providing basic golf skills and golf-related vocational training.
The banquet began with the more traditional awards, including recognizing students who had graduated from eighth grade and high school. The program also recognized staff members who had earned recent degrees, including their undergraduate and master's degrees.
After dinner, came the more nontraditional awards, each one designed around the strength of the individual student.
The awards matter, Ryan said, and are treasured as these students go forward.
"These awards are genuine and not frivolous. We know how much they mean to them by how they are displayed in their rooms."