DALLAS — Thomas Atkins says he found his calling relatively late in life, but he is making up for lost time. At 45-years-old Atkins, started his career in special needs education, now teaching at Thomas Jefferson High School in Dallas.
"When I'm with my kids, I don't want to be anywhere else," Atkins said. "That's how I knew I found my purpose."
On Thursday Mr. Atkins' students, their parents, Atkins' family and friends got together to surprise the public school teacher live on TV with a very special "thank you."
"I want him to know he's changed my family's life," said Sherrie Negrete, the mother of one of Mr. Atkins' students.
Parents say Atkins, who served in the Marines in his 20s and then traveled the world teaching English in Asia, has a gift at a connection with special needs students.
"He's just so calm. I've never seen anyone reach my son like he's able to do," Negrete said.
Atkins also goes above and beyond to create special moments for his class. This summer he helped organize a meeting with Dirk Nowitzki, and he's worked with Mark Cuban's Heroes Foundation to provide custom made suits for prom.
"It's just amazing to see how they light up," Negrete said.
Atkins' ability to connect likely comes from his own childhood. He was diagnosed with ADD as a teenager and says school was incredibly difficult.
"When my students say they're trying, I know they are. I know what it feels like," Atkins said.
American Airlines heard about Atkins' work and surprised him with 60,000 miles to use for his travels. The Heroes Foundation also gifted tickets to a Dallas Mavericks game to Mr. Atkins' class as well as transportation to the game on a tricked out bus. And if that wasn't enough, Del Frisco's is treating students to dinner and etiquette lessons on the house.
"It's just surreal," Atkins said.
Mr. Atkins says his work with students doesn't feel like a job and he'll continue to make a difference any way he can. For parents and students that's the best news they've heard all year.
"I can't wait to keep on teaching these kids." Atkins said, "Every year it just gets better."