PRIEST RIVER — It was 20 years ago when the idea of joining the Civil Air Patrol was first brought to Chris Naccarato’s attention, but it wasn’t until just a few years ago that something clicked.
“Something brought it back to the forefront of my thinking and I thought, “Wow, that would be a great way to serve the country,’” said Naccarato, a fifth-grade teacher at Priest River Elementary.
Now, as Naccarato enters his fourth year as the aerospace education officer for the Deer Park CAP squadron, holding the rank of captain, he was recently awarded the prestigious honor of being named 2019 National Civil Air Patrol Aerospace Educator of the Year. Naccarato said it was exciting to learn he was selected, though he refused to take all the credit.
“I never looked at this award as a personal award, I looked at it as a team effort,” he said, adding that he has a lot of support from administrators, teachers, parents and volunteers. “It’s like NASA … The astronauts get all the attention, but there are 500,000 people behind them. It’s the same way with my program.”
Naccarato has dreamed of going to space since 1973, and while that dream has yet to be realized, he has brought space to his students over the years through his National Astronaut in the Classroom Association. Naccarato implemented NACA shortly after starting his career at PRE in 1992, and this past spring marked the 45th astronaut to visit PRE through his program with an appearance by Idaho’s famous astronaut Barbara Morgan. Naccarato consistently uses his love of space and aviation to educate his students both at PRE and CAP, encouraging his students to dream big because, in the words of Morgan, “The sky is no limit.”
Before he was selected for the national honor, Naccarato was selected as CAP Aerospace Educator of the Year for the state of Washington, and also for the CAP Pacific Region, which includes Washington, Oregon, California, Alaska, and Hawaii. He was chosen for the national award out of educators from more than 1,500 units across the country after being nominated by one of his commanders. Naccarato said he was especially surprised to learn he won the national award, because he had not heard yet that he had won the regional honor — which will actually be presented in about two weeks.
Since he was unable to attend CAP’s national conference in August due to a family emergency, he was presented with the award at PRE last month in front of his students, as well as the rest of the student body and staff, and members of CAP’s Washington Wing, including the director of aerospace education Maj. Sylvie Kacmarcik, and Lt .Col. Clay Shepherd, the communications officer for the Deer Park squadron.
Naccarato has always aimed toward the sky and, while he ultimately chose teaching as a career, he said a part of him has always wished he had gone into the military.
“My dad and a lot of my relatives have military backgrounds,” Naccarato said, adding that his oldest daughter is now in the National Guard as well. “They call it Civil Air Patrol, but really it is the United States Air Force Auxiliary, so we are a part of the Air Force and take great pride in that.”
Educating youth is an essential part of CAP, Naccarato said, so he works with cadets from junior high and high school. This is “great,” he said, because he works with the younger students at PRE every day, and then once a month gets to extend what he does in the classroom even further to the older kids. He works with some “really incredible” cadets, he said, who work hard and take CAP seriously. The Deer Park squadron was a perfect fit, and Naccarato said he knew from the moment he arrived at the unit.
Naccarato teaches anywhere from five to 15 cadets every month and said he would like to see more kids take advantage of the opportunity.
“CAP really offers a ton of opportunities for kids, for pilot training and all sorts of things — it’s incredible,” he said. “... I just can’t say enough about CAP. They do such good work, and don’t get nearly the credit or publicity they deserve.”
Mary Malone can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow her on Twitter @MaryDailyBee.