YANKTON | When Cody Lukkes learned of the treatment of a disabled relative, he wanted to give a voice to those who didn't have one.
"I grew up with a great-uncle who was born with Down syndrome. He was born back before (the special-education laws) went into effect," he said. "My great-uncle went one day to country school, and the teacher said, 'Don't come back.' They didn't think he was teachable. He didn't get the privilege of going to school."
Instead, the great-uncle remained at home and grew up on the farm.
"When my great-grandma passed away, my mom and dad took (my great-uncle) under their wing and taught him to become independent," Lukkes said.
"I think he's in his 80s now. He's living in a nursing home, and he's always at our family (gatherings). I enjoy spending time with him."
Besides his great-uncle, Lukkes attended grade school and high school with two special-needs classmates.
"They had disabilities that impacted them. One had Down syndrome and the other had cognitive disabilities," he said. "I always had a soft spot for helping them when they were young, and I still see them when they're out and about."
Lukkes has channeled that compassion into a 13-year career as a special-education teacher. He spent the first three years at the Irene-Wakonda school district, and has worked the past decade with the Yankton School District.
For his professionalism and impact on others, he has received the 2018 Distinguished Service Award from the Center for Disabilities. The University of South Dakota Sanford Medical Center sponsors the annual award, honoring a special educator in South Dakota.
"I didn't even realize I was nominated for it," he said. "I received the notice that I won the award, and I had to read the email twice."
Margaret Stewart at Ability Building Services in Yankton nominated Lukkes for the award. She formerly worked as an education assistant in Lukkes' classroom.
Her nomination letter reflected her respect for him.
"'Mr. Cody' is a very devoted, caring and loving teacher in the special education department. He has nine years of experience (at the time) working with the Yankton School District. He believes that teaching children with special needs is a privilege," she said.
"He respects every child in his classroom and uses many different tools and outlets for these children so they can build and advance on their learning skills."
Lukkes has also coached the Special Olympics basketball teams in Yankton, Stewart noted in her nomination letter.
"It is not about winning for him, it's about being a part of something that is much bigger than that," she said. "It's about belonging to a group where you can just be yourself and not be judged. It's all about being loved and accepted."
Lukkes grew up in Tyndall and graduated from Bon Homme High School. He earned his bachelor's, master's and specialist degrees from USD.
When he joined the Yankton School District, Lukkes worked in the middle school for four years. He has worked for six years at Stewart Elementary School as an early-childhood director for special education.
"They say, if you last (in education) for five years, you'll stay with it, and I've been in it for 13 years," he said.
Lukkes works with the Birth-to-3 coordinator and other sources to screen young children for special needs. He can arrange home-based services as well as those in the school setting.
It's important to reach children at an early age, Lukkes said. They can care for needs before they enter school. If they do require continued services, the early detection provides a head start.
"With earlier exposure, they can learn skills and develop more independence, which is a big thing," he said. "That's our top goal, to create independent students."
He also promotes peer learning, where students learn from each other. It can involve something as simple as how to line up, where to put coats or how to have a conversation.
On an average day, Lukkes works with about 35 students, each of them two or three times a week. He works with about 8-10 children at a time with the assistance of three educational assistants (EA).
"At Stewart Elementary, our students come to us if they need help in a certain area, but they remain in the classroom as much as possible," he said.
Lukkes approaches each student in a non-judgmental manner before deciding what, if any, services they may need.
"I like to come in on a clean slate. I start developing a sense of what they can learn before we start giving them a label," he said. "We're always getting new kids in our room, probably on a weekly basis. Parents may ask me, 'Does my child have autism?' I comment back, 'I'm not saying one way or the other. I want to get to know your child first.'"
At times, the child does show a learning disability, Lukkes said. He uses tact and compassion with parents who may show a wide range of emotions and uncertainty.
"A lot of the time, it's the first time a person has to tell a parent that something might be wrong with their child, and that's tough," he said. "It's also a matter of building a relationship with the parents and learning what we can do at the school to build that relationship. It's not just the student but the whole family that's affected."
As a measure of reassurance for parents, Lukkes shares his own experiences growing up.
"I often tell parents that I'm a prime example. When I was younger, I was in the early-childhood program for language (skills)," he said. "I was the youngest child in the family and didn't really talk much. I really benefited from the help I got when I was little, and now I want to pay it forward."
Children develop at different rates, he said. They shouldn't necessarily be compared to a certain standard or other children, he added.
"In one family, older siblings may do the talking for the younger child, or that child just hasn't discovered his voice yet," he said.
In addition, Lukkes uses his role to raise awareness and to create bonds between students of all abilities.
"As an educator, my goal is just teaching people that, because you have a disability, it doesn't make you different than anyone else and that we all need to be treated fairly," he said. "I feel, here in Yankton, our kids are really good about interacting with kids with disabilities. They are exposed to them from Day One."
Lukkes and Angela Hafner, another special-education teacher, serve on Stewart Elementary School's events committee. They use the role to educate people about disabilities.
"We have the Disability of the Month. One day a month, we recognize a special disability and the kids wear whatever color recognizes that disability," he said. "At the beginning of the day, a student-council member reads (something) about that disability. And we have a special quote."
Lukkes has also promoted bonds through coaching the Special Olympics basketball program. He became involved with the program when he joined the Yankton School District.
"I was the first coach to bring the junior team, the elementary and middle-school aged students, into Special Olympics. It was fun to get them started with Special Olympics here," he said. "When I started coaching, it was with Sheila Woodward. Because I worked for the district, I knew who to ask or what kids to talk to (about Special Olympics)."
Lukkes has changed his Special Olympics role, but continues working with the program.
"My plate was getting kind of full between my day job and coaching three high-school sports," he said. "I don't actually coach a team anymore, but I still volunteer at the local and regional tournaments."
Lukkes stressed the importance of creating students who can care for themselves not only while in school but as they move into adulthood.
"Our goal is to create an independent student," he said.
Stewart Principal Jerome Klimisch pointed to Lukkes' philosophy as a prime reason he won the award.
"Mr. Lukkes is very dedicated to early-learning education and working with kids of all ages. He believes, if kids are struggling, the sooner they receive intervention help the better," Klimisch said. "However, he does not believe in doing everything for kids. If they develop a learned helplessness because we do everything for them, they will never get to feel successful on their own."
Lukkes cares for all students in many ways, Klimisch said.
"I appreciate all the many ways he reaches out to kids, whether it be his early-intervention kids or the many coaching assignments and volunteering he does for the district and community," the principal said.
Lukkes quickly deflects the spotlight.
"I wouldn't be where I am today if it wasn't for my co-workers. We have five special-education teachers in this building alone. Everyone is very helpful," he said. "I like to have those co-workers so that, even if I feel I've made the right decision in a situation, I can bounce ideas off them."
As for his future, Lukkes would like become an administrator, such as a special-education director. But for now, he finds tremendous rewards in seeing his students achieve both large and small goals.
And the students show their affection for Lukkes in their own way.
"One time, a student sang 'Happy Birthday' to me with a communicative device," he said.
Lukkes looks forward to continuing the adventure.
"With young ones, it's fun to see what they're doing in the classroom. There's always something new," he said. "And I like seeing how excited they get for figuring out things. It's fun to see when they put it all together."