April 14, 2022 by HCDE-Texas
When colleagues paint of picture of Nora Contreras, a Harris County Department of Education physical therapist assistant (PTA) assigned to Cypress-Fairbanks Independent School District, they describe a woman who embodies kindness in action, a teammate who inspires trust, and a fair leader who commands respect by example.
“She’s my co-worker, but she is my friend because we both know we’re here for the kids. We trust each other to make the right decisions,” said CFISD life skills teacher Karla Willis. “You have to be friends and work together to do what we need to do for our students.”
Contreras, who is HCDE’s April Employee of the Month, has helped students who receive physical therapy services across 13 campuses in CFISD access their school environment by ensuring teachers and staff have the support, knowledge, and equipment they need. As the physical therapy (PT) team lead, she supports her fellow PTs and PTAs with expertise, plans PT-related meetings, and oversees the equipment database she created, optimizing therapists’ time spent serving students.
Contreras goes the extra mile to support her students by working closely with CFISD’s carpentry department to design and build custom equipment for students who need support specific to their classroom or campus needs. Their collaboration has given many students independence and control over their school day they did not have previously.
“My main goal is to help a student have a good experience at school and not worry how they’re going to get to one spot or how they’re going to sit without support and be able to participate in class and school activities,” she said. “I don’t look at their disability. I look at their ability. My job is to make sure that I provide whatever [they] need to be able to do what they would like to do like the other kids.”
HCDE’s therapy services manager for CFISD, Leah Alba, describes Contreras as the go-to person in their department for creative ideas.
“She has those MacGyver thinking skills,” said Alba. “She has a keen eye for what is needed to design a piece of adaptive equipment. How wonderful it is to have that gift.”
Contreras, a mother of two Aggies, introduces herself outside of work as “Gogi,” a nickname bestowed by her father when she was a girl. She spends her free time dancing, fishing on her and her husband’s property in east Texas, and serving on the advisory council of the Houston Community College Therapy Assistant Program.
Therapy Services Senior Director Carie Crabb says Contreras has taken many students under her wing.
“I don’t know how many students she has nurtured and taught how to be a school-based physical therapist assistant,” said Crabb. “She’s a top-notch person. We’re very fortunate to have her.”
When someone works closely with children and families as a school-based therapist and spends more than two decades in the same school district, she watches students grow up.
“The students I support are my kids,” said Contreras. “I’ve been in this school district for 21 years. I’ve seen kids I’ve known from the age of three graduate. I’ve lived their school lifespan with them.”
The nature of her work creates close relationships with families, she says, and she regularly receives invitations to graduations, Christmas cards, and hugs from parents. She feels like “an extension of their family,” However, her favorite part of the job is seeing a student happy and taking on life with confidence.
“The impact that is made in supporting these students and their families—I’m the one who has gained the most,” she said.
For more information on how to nominate a colleague for an employee of the month recognition, click here.