Winning an award for volunteerism is commendable for any teen, but for Peter Gaus, it is extra special. Peter has autism, and it is often difficult for him to interact with others.
Peter recently received the Celebration of Caring Award from Northside Common Ministries.
He was recognized for his three years of service to Pleasant Valley Shelter through his work with the youth group at Highland Presbyterian Church.
Peter, 17, of Ross is a junior at North Hills High School.
"Peter was diagnosed with autism when he was 3 years old," his father, Tim, said.
"In his case, he tends to be self-absorbed, often has difficulty in communication and lacks in his social skills."
Peter's mother, Judy, is a member of Highland Church and learned of the youth group's activities at the shelter through Roz Fitzgerald, the coordinator of the program. Since Peter attends St. John Neumann Roman Catholic Church with his father, they were a bit nervous about his comfort level with the other youth.
But with his mother accompanying him, Peter adapted to his new role of helping prepare the food at Highland that would then be transported to the shelter.
"We explained it really well and told him what to expect. We also told him to give it a try and if he didn't like it, he could quit," Mr. Gaus said.
After a few months of preparing the meal at the church, Peter was ready to go to the shelter to help serve the meals to the men.
From there, Peter began conversing with the men and sometimes goes into the common area at the shelter and watches television with them.
"He has really grown in his role," his mother said.
Mrs. Fitzgerald nominated Peter for the award.
"Peter has never missed an opportunity to volunteer since he started. His socialization skills have just sky-rocketed in the past three years.
Now he makes sure he talks to each man as he serves them," she said.
The Gaus family found out about Peter's award in a letter his father read to him.
Since Peter loves to watch videos, he knows about the Academy Awards.
When his dad told him about his own award, he told Peter it was like an Academy Award.
"He started getting all excited about it then," Mr. Gaus said.
Peter wrote an acceptance speech that he practiced at school then delivered at the award dinner.
Mrs. Fitzgerald was also honored for her work and when she was going back to her seat, Peter jumped up and hugged her -- something unheard of for Peter, his father said.
"It was pure, genuine emotion. The joy on his face was so sincere. There were a lot of tears when people saw him do that," Mr. Gaus said.
Peter said of the awards, "We are both winners."
Mrs. Fitzgerald and Peter have become good friends through their work together.
"Peter told me that he wanted to keep volunteering for a long time. It was wonderful," Mrs. Fitzgerald said.
Mrs. Gaus said Peter has grown to enjoy the work and points out when it is time to go to the church.
"He is more confident in handling himself with other people and making eye contact. It has been really good for him," she said.
He also is a good role model for other youth who may be hesitant to volunteer.
"When they tell me they don't know if they can do anything, I tell them to look at Peter. He is the poster-kid for volunteer work," Mrs. Fitzgerald said.neigh_north
Kathleen Ganster, freelance writer: firstname.lastname@example.org.