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Decade of dedication: Gravesend teacher honors late colleague with ongoing fundraiser for special needs students

For the last 10 years, adaptive physical education teacher Michael Gross has fundraised for his students — all to memorialize a fellow educator who went above and beyond for his kids before his tragic passing.

Andy Menkes worked as a vision specialist at PS K721 — a Gravesend public school for students with special needs — before retiring in 2013, after a career said to have been marked by kindness and compassion, especially to the children he worked with. But only six months into his retirement, Menkes was killed in a tragic accident.

“He passed way way too early in his time,” Gross told Brooklyn Paper on Wednesday.

In an effort to keep his colleague’s memory and impact alive, Gross began an annual fundraising campaign, which has strived to uplift and empower the school’s students through a series of awards for the past decade.

This year’s fundraising goal was $2,000 dollars when it was created on Jan. 3, but that goal was quickly surpassed and, with the help of 57 different donors, has reached $2,286. 

“The first $200 will go towards The Andy Menkes Award,” said Gross. “This award — $100 per recipient — goes to two deserving graduates at PS K721 that exemplify the traits that Andy possessed, such as being kind to others, willing to sacrifice their time and effort, and always is helpful to both peers and staff alike.”

The next $800 will supply team t-shirts and awards for students who participate in the Divine Capers Jr. Memorial 3 v 3 school basketball tournament, which takes place each spring, Gross said. “This tournament is a school favorite that so many students look forward to.”

Any additional donations will be used to supply students participating in the PS K721’s annual Special Olympics with high-quality medals, and to buy new gaming tables for the school.

“We go for the real medals for the students instead of the plastic ones because they run hard and especially for special needs students, they really work hard and when they get that medal it means everything for them,” Gross told Brooklyn Paper. “That’s what we do with the funding, and it’s great because it keeps Andy’s name alive.”

Menkes was not your average teacher, as evidenced by the longevity of Gross’ fundraising campaign, and by the steady flow of donations each year. The late educator made a profound impression not only on his students, Gross said, but also on his colleagues and local community members.

“You could call Andy any time — in the middle of the night, any time — and say, ‘Andy, I need your help, my car just broke down,’ and he’d just say he was on his way,” Gross said. “You could say you were in California and he’d still say he’d be there and he was on his way. That was the kind of person he was.”

People like Menkes are hard to come by, he added, “and that’s the whole reason why I started this, and I’m very happy I did.”

In addition to the annual fund, Gross and fellow PS K721 staff participate in the Andy Menkes Polar Bear Plunge, held this year on Feb. 4. This year, eight staffers got in the icy waters of Coney Island Beach — but even more came out to support.

“It’s been overwhelming this year to see the support,” Gross said, adding that even newer staff members who never met Menkes are willing to donate their time and money. “It’s really nice.”

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