Mr. Haapapuro Honored by Fred Rogers Institute with Helper Award

By Office of Communications
September 19, 2023

It’s a beautiful day in the neighborhood at Katherine Johnson Middle School. 

Science Teacher Eric Haapapuro, known as Mr. H by his students, was honored this week by the Fred Rogers Institute with a Helper Award. Inspired by the legacy of Fred Rogers — a children’s television host and icon of the 20th century — the Helper Award recognizes individuals who care for children in their daily and professional lives. 

While completing a career with the U.S. Park Police, Eric went back to school as part of a career switcher program to become a middle school science teacher. 

“I think it’s great that someone, after they’ve done so much for our community, that he comes back to teach kids,” one of his students said. “It’s so nice that someone could finish their job but come back to help people that want to learn.”

“Anyone who does anything to help a child is a hero to me.”
— Fred Rogers

“Mr. Haapapuro is a teacher who is sure to offer a helping hand during science labs, a positive affirmation to encourage taking risks, and a smile to welcome students back after an absence,” said Katherine Johnson Principal Tammy Silipigni. “Our halls feel more inclusive with him greeting our Eagles.”

Students also feel more safe at school with Mr. H around. When explaining safety drills to his students at the beginning of the year, he shared some of his experience as a first responder. “He was telling us how important it is that we are safe as students and that we always feel safe in school — especially his class,” a student said.   

As a child, Eric said watching Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood was his “happy place.” 

“The calmness that [Fred Rogers] exuded all the time … and when he came home from the outside world and got comfortable and talked directly to you … that for me is what I always remember most,” Eric said. 

After studying journalism and public relations in college, Eric’s first job was for a non-profit. In his spare time, he started volunteering as a firefighter and trained to become a paramedic. He fell in love with emergency medicine and helping people get better. These volunteering jobs filled “a hole in me that I didn’t know needed to be filled,” Eric said. “I didn’t know how much I wanted to help people until I started to do it.” 

Mr. H in a helicopter talking to young kids

Eric found his way to working for the Park Police in Washington, D.C., for more than 20 years. His roles ranged from working as a patrol officer on the National Mall to being in the aviation unit as a rescue technician. From helping lost children to assisting in dignitary protection and search and rescue, Eric loved his job. “I loved interacting with the public. I loved helping people,” he said.   

Eric was directly across from the Pentagon on September 11, 2001, and was responsible for keeping citizens in the area safe and calm.

In the last six years of that career, he worked as a pilot and mentor. As he approached retirement, Eric started considering a second career as a teacher. 

“Often when you think you’re at the end of something, you’re at the beginning of something else.”
— Fred Rogers

His oldest child had just gotten through middle school, and it had him thinking of himself around that age. “I thought, what would I have done differently with my life if I had someone to mentor me and help me follow my passion?” he said. “It’s an awkward age but with help in the right direction, you can help set someone up for success. I wanted to have an impact.” 

Looking back, Eric realized he was living science every day. Fighting fire and being a paramedic were science. Flying was science. His cooking hobby was science. That is how he decided to teach science. 

“I never really enjoyed science,” one of his students said. “It's never been my strongest subject, but after being in Mr. H’s class, I started to understand it a lot more because he gives so many examples that are easy for kids to understand. I started learning so much more in such a small amount of time.” 

To others who may be considering becoming teachers through the career switcher program, Eric said, “this is without a doubt the most rewarding thing you’ll do. Not only do you learn the pedagogy and science of teaching, but you learn how to do that and relate to kids.”

Mr. H teaches science

Eric is grateful for the mentorship he received through the career switcher program, and that he continues to experience from his colleagues.  

Receiving the Helper Award “makes me very thankful for everything that I have been able to achieve as a result of learning.” He is also grateful for “being given opportunities to succeed” that he may not have experienced had someone not stepped in and given him that opportunity.

Overall, Eric said, “I am extraordinarily thankful for all the helpers that have gotten me to where I am.”

“I’ll be back when the day is new. And I’ll have more ideas for you. And you’ll have things you’ll want to talk about. I will too.”
— Fred Rogers

Eric was one of 14 recipients nationwide of this new award, which was announced this year to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the Fred Rogers Institute and honor the 20th anniversary of Mr. Rogers’ death.