For as long as he can remember, he's always had a soft spot in his heart for youth less fortunate.

Perhaps, then, it's only fitting that Russell "Rooster" Valentini was the recipient of a national honor for his homeless outreach initiatives.

For Valentini, years of hard work paid off after he'd been named this year's recipient of the Sandra Neece Lifetime Award Achievement for the National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth.

Valentini was honored at the NAEHCY 21st Annual Conference, which ran Nov. 14-17 in Denver, Colo., where he traveled to accept the award.

A resident of Slatington, Valentini has served as homeless educational liaison in the Allentown School District as part of the federal government's Homeless Children's Initiative (HCI) Region 8, where he has provided technical services to Lehigh and Northampton Counties' schools for the past 20 years.

The NAEHCY is the voice and social conscience for the education experiencing homelessness. The organization accomplishes this through advocacy, partnerships and education.

Valentini said the experience made his "heart thump."

"To be honored in front of all of those people, when it's really just one program in one area, and to be recognized, it's humbling," he said. "I so much appreciate that these folks that I work with allow me into their lives, because they don't really have to when they know that I'm going home to a house with heat, electricity, food and all those luxury items; that they welcome me back the next day even though they may not have spent a night with any of those things."

A Tamaqua native and graduate of Marian High School, Valentini said there are about 600 students who experience homelessness who are served each year in Allentown alone.

"I wonder how the heck there could be a full-time job that needs to be in existence to deal with children who are students who are homeless," Valentini said. "And now, I'm actually getting an award for it; I'm trying to grasp that because it takes a whole lot of people behind the scenes assisting me to be able to help put the children and families in a position to succeed."

Valentini, whose resourcefulness has helped to ensure that every child, by law, is enrolled and attending classes to get an education, regardless of living circumstances, said each school district has to name a homeless educational liaison.

He alluded to an instance last year where a Jim Thorpe woman stayed in a shelter in Allentown and was able to keep her child in the JTASD.

"It really does affect all school districts," Valentini said. "Every time there's a fire, families become homeless, and we've had a lot of these fires up in our area."

Valentini credits his past tenure with the Tamaqua Ambulance for providing him with a solid foundation to draw upon.

"The greatest experience to help me was going out to the people in trauma, and how to assist them and soothe them when they were in such tender and fragile times," he said.

Sandra Neece was a founding member of Nevada's homeless youth education office in 1988 who gave of herself tirelessly so that all children in the southwest region may have what most take for granted: safety, shelter and a future.

The Sandra Neece Lifetime Achievement Award is given in honor of Sandra, who lost her battle with cancer in 1998.