EAGLE POINT — Wearing a purple "Little Butte Meteors" mascot T-shirt, 49-year-old Rick Wayne Watson holds up a new vocabulary word written on a letter-size dry-erase board for a group of first-graders at Little Butte Elementary School.

EAGLE POINT — Wearing a purple "Little Butte Meteors" mascot T-shirt, 49-year-old Rick Wayne Watson holds up a new vocabulary word written on a letter-size dry-erase board for a group of first-graders at Little Butte Elementary School.

"Who knows this word?" he asks.

"Concrete," cries first-grader Merisah Poulson.

"Very good," Watson says. "Who can use it in a sentence?"

"I rocked on the rocking chair on the concrete," says first-grader Summyr DeCosta.

Watson began volunteering in Shirley Blanchard's first-grade class when his niece, Kodi, was a first-grader, and he never stopped. Not only has Watson been helping in the class twice a week for the past nine years, his volunteer hours have grown in number and expanded throughout the Little Butte campus, staff members said.

"When the kids understand it, their eyes light up," Watson said. "It's a joy to be around them, and never a week goes by without getting a long, heart-felt 'thank you' from a teacher."

Nowadays, he's at Little Butte every day even though his niece attends Eagle Point High School. He works about 25 hours per week making copies, cutting out shapes, chaperoning field trips, overseeing health screenings and doing whatever else teachers or administrators ask of him. His daily presence has earned him the nickname "Uncle Rick."

"I think he dreams about volunteering," Blanchard said last week when she gave him accolades at an Eagle Point School Board meeting.

Little Butte staff members voted to give him the "You Make a Difference" award, given out annually by each campus in the Eagle Point School District.

"Rick generously works for every adult at the school and when thanked, he offers a gracious response of 'my pleasure' or 'I do it for the kids,' " Blanchard said. "When he finishes the work left for him, he stops by each classroom collecting projects to help lessen someone else's workload.

"This year, especially, he has been a lifesaver," she added, referring to district budget cuts that caused many class sizes to increase.

The school board presented Watson with the award last week.

The honor brought Watson to tears.

"It really makes me feel special," Watson said.

He said his volunteer work brings him a sense of self-worth that he can do something useful. That has been important to him as he has struggled for the past 12 years with a disability that resulted from a violent attack in Talent, he said.

"It takes a whole community to raise a child, and I firmly believe that," he said. "I don't work, so I might as well do something."

On July 24, 1998, Watson was attacked by an unknown assailant and left for dead at the Suncrest rest area off southbound Interstate 5 north of Talent.

The attacker tore off Watson's ear, broke his nose and cheekbone, permanently impaired his equilibrium and wiped out most of the memories of the 10 preceding years of his life, Watson said. Oregon State Police never apprehended his assailant.

"The doctor was surprised I woke up, so I shouldn't complain," Watson said.

His suffering has sharpened his sense of humor, and he jokes about his disability, an imbalance of the inner ear. He has to stretch out his arms to balance when he walks.

"I stagger around," he quipped. "Everyone at the school knows it's not because I'm drunk.

"A sense of humor doesn't cost any extra."

When he's helping students, he said he forgets his troubles.

"He helps us learn," said first-grader Bailee Worrell. "He's fun."

Third-grade teacher Vince Marlia said Watson makes teachers' jobs easier by doing tasks such as making copies that take up a lot of time but don't provide direct instruction to students.

"When he's not here, sometimes we're scrambling," Marlia said. "When he's not around, we notice it."

Reach Paris Achen at 541-776-4459 or pachen@mailtribune.com.