AFT Paraprofessionals and School-Related Personnel Semifinalists
Supportive Service Assistant, Frances E. Willard Elementary School, Philadelphia, Pa.
Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, Local 3
Elaine Feather is so beloved by her colleagues at Willard Elementary School that five of them, from fellow support staffers to teachers and the school nurse, have nominated her as their AFT Everyday Hero. All her nominators say it would be impossible to capture Feather in writing without pages and pages of stories. First off, they say that no single job title or description would be sufficient because she is completely oriented toward children. Like many others, Feather became a school employee after volunteering in her own child’s kindergarten class. Officially, Feather has been a supportive service assistant and noontime aide for more than 20 years. Unofficially, she is “substitute mom, nurse, playground monitor, dance leader, bus monitor, equipment manager and office assistant.” “Whatever and wherever she is needed,” they say, “you will find Elaine there.” Here’s what else they say: “She treats all of the students as if they were her own. She shows them love, compassion and respect each and every day. She is the most visible, reliable and dependable staff member we have at our school.”
That’s saying a lot, because we know there are so many visible, reliable and dependable AFT members. But Elaine Feather’s rapport with kids goes well beyond the call of duty. Living in the neighborhood as she does, she’s at school at 6:30 each morning, looking after students who arrive early. Her face lights up as she greets them with special nicknames like Love Bug and Sweetie Pie. Her endearments help motivate them in school. “Elaine is a positive role model, not only for the children but for adults as well,” says one of her co-workers and nominators, Karen Chrzanowski. “I have the honor of working with her at lunchtime. She inspires me.” Along with the early hours, Feather piles on late hours, enhancing students’ play time and making sure they get home safely. Kids know she has their backs, and they respond to her lighthearted spirit. The kids trust her.
“We love watching her dance and play with the children,” her fans say. “She is usually assigned to work with the most challenging students because she has the patience and kindness to handle them. She is loved and respected by the entire staff and student population at Willard School. We highly recommend Elaine Feather as our hero.”
Media Specialist, Sam Barlow High School, Gresham, Ore.
Oregon School Employees Association, Local 6732
You know how important focus is. School media specialist Lynn Hollenbeck is completely focused on how she can improve the lives of kids, especially kids in need. While working with students who earn credit in the library at Sam Barlow High School, Hollenbeck has a knack for listening. The library’s job of organizing information and helping with research is “pretty rigorous,” she says. Being there with students gives her an opportunity to chat with them and uncover their problems, from small ones like computer glitches to big ones like homelessness. “Lynn mentors students in their college and scholarship searches,” says her nominator, Patty Neuenschwander, who also works at the school in Gresham, Ore., near Portland. “She pays particular attention to students who have no other responsible adult in their lives, students who are struggling just to make it to school every day. She offers them the kindness and compassion they yearn for.”
Examples abound. Hollenbeck coached a homeless soccer player who landed a free ride to college, plus a $20,000 scholarship. An exchange student who began her studies in the United States “very fragile and overwhelmed” now feels comfortable here. One boy was living in a garage and borrowing money for bus fare—until Hollenbeck persuaded her friends and colleagues to pitch in for gift cards. Her nominator says Hollenbeck never takes her eye off the potential for good, saying “OK, here’s what we need to do next.” Not that providing the extra lift is easy. This year, the school librarian has to split his time equally between two high schools, which means only half-time at Barlow. “It’s been a tough year for both of us,” says Hollenbeck. “We’re trying to adjust.”
Staying focused on kids speeds that adjustment. Outside school, Hollenbeck feeds children from the community gardens she works in, and she’s always searching for ways to show others the joys of giving. She has inspired her own three children to become global citizens as well, with all three literally working around the world in community programs such as farming and water sustainability. Hollenbeck, of course, downplays her contributions. “It’s easy to want to help others,” she says. “It’s amazing how many kids struggle. But once they start volunteering, they get such a feeling of gratification that it’s contagious, and they want to give back. The extra mile—that’s what life is all about.”
CARE Coordinator, Orange Coast College, Costa Mesa, Calif.
Coast Federation of Classified Employees, Local 4794
Jennifer LaBounty likes to mix it up. She came as a single mom to California’s Cooperative Agencies Resources for Education (CARE) program, which helps enable single parents who attend community college full time to take part in campus activities. Because of her “pay it forward” philosophy, LaBounty, over time, has become the CARE coordinator and provides other social services as well, while also earning her master’s degree in psychology at Pepperdine University and teaching psychology part time at Orange Coast College and Santa Ana College. LaBounty has her hands in everything. Besides adopting the role of students’ “mom,” sending them updates and reminders, she also remembers their birthdays. She once hosted a baby shower at her home for a homeless, pregnant student. She has co-chaired OCC’s Classified Forum, a sounding board for issues concerning support staff at the college. She also has served on many hiring committees and on the college’s shared governance committee.
The crux of her work, however, is with CARE. LaBounty advises the CARE Club, and has served on its outreach and recruiting committee since its inception. In this capacity, she engages with countless campus events, including a student services fair, a book festival and Dia de la Raza (Day of the Race). She is so passionate about access to college that she has become adept at fundraising, meaning that CARE enjoys the growth and recognition money can bring. Right now, she’s up to her elbows in a campuswide fundraiser, handing out fliers and setting up bins around campus where people can donate clothing and household goods. If CARE is able to fill a 28-foot truck, Goodwill will contribute $1,500 toward scholarships that all CARE participants can apply for. Simply participating in these fundraisers heightens students’ self-esteem, LaBounty says, adding that it’s important for them to give back to the community, so they raise money for others in need as well. She likes doing different types of fundraisers every year, which keeps it fresh. “I change them up all the time,” she says. “We’ve had concerts and other events so people want to participate.”
When LaBounty began working for CARE in 2004, there were 28 students in the program. Now there are close to 100. Although that may not sound like a big number, her nominator says, all these students are single parents and many have no family support. A few have been victims of domestic violence. “Jennifer makes sure they are connected to the college.”
Head Custodian, Scenic Hill Elementary School, Kent, Wash.
AFT Kent Classified Employees, Local 6344
At Scenic Hill Elementary School near Seattle, head custodian Ginger Ott started an award-winning recycling program a few years ago. The students began with simple recycling at lunchtime, and then moved on to conserving energy and water, growing worms for composting, and joining community groups such as the Kiwanis and the Boy Scouts on outings to plant trees and pick up litter and debris. At school, kids patrol the hallways looking for lights to turn off in empty classrooms. Older students teach younger ones how to recycle. The K-6 school’s initiatives fall right in line with an AFT resolution promoting union involvement in local sustainability programs, green building maintenance and environmental education.
“We started with simple, basic recycling: paper, cardboard, water bottles, pop cans,” says Ott, a member of AFT Kent Classified Employees. “Then we moved on to milk and juice cartons. That gave the kids a way to get involved. They really just took off with it.” This is no privileged school, either. There may be 15 or 16 languages represented in a single classroom, the vast majority of students get free lunches, and many of the new immigrants have never attended school at all. More than a few enter school having never seen a flush toilet. Still, once students understand how to recycle, they never stop. This school year, they came back from summer vacation still recycling. What’s more, they’ve been teaching their families the importance of conserving resources by reusing and recycling. They’re excited to earn 2 cents per item on chip bags and glue bottles, and happy to know their contributions are turned into park benches.
“It’s a lot more work the first year, but once you get it going, the kids take over. It’s their project. It’s fun,” says Ott. “The kindergarteners really catch on. My first kindergarteners are now third-graders, and they don’t know any other way.” The school’s Green Team may own this program, but Ott drives it, says her nominator, Sylvia Watson of AFT Washington. Since launching the program in 2009, she says, Ott has been responsible for increasing the school’s recycling rate from 12 percent to 48 percent, and increasing its energy conservation by 16 percent, saving thousands of dollars and keeping tons of trash out of landfills. “Ginger is dedicated to her school and the students, to making them the best they can be,” Watson says. In addition to hitting the highest benchmarks in the county for their recycling, Scenic Hill is one of 10 schools statewide that won a new greenhouse and gardening supplies in a contest sponsored by the Washington State Potato Commission. “Now,” Ott says, “we just have to learn more about plants.”
Food Service Manager, St. Martinville Primary School, St. Martin Parish, La.
St. Martin Federation of Teachers and School Employees, Local 6451
Praise for Lynette Thomas, “lunch lady” extraordinaire, is endless. “Mommy Nette” or “Mawmaw” to many in this small Louisiana town, she is a mentor, teacher, cheerleader, provider and friend. In her day job for the past seven years at St. Martinville Primary School, the food service manager serves healthy meals with a heaping side of confidence. She hosts a celebration every month for all the birthday kids, who sit at their own table in the middle of the cafeteria and are feted with cupcakes, ice cream and presents. For some children in St. Martin Parish, this is their only birthday party. Every Halloween, Thomas and her team of six food service workers create a haunted house in the gym, with treats for all. Up the road at her hometown of Parks, where “kids can’t go trick-or-treating like they used to,” Thomas puts on a Halloween extravaganza, closing off two blocks, manning a table with neighbors who give out candy and balloons to the younger set, and enlisting high schoolers to create a scary graveyard and haunted house for the older ones. Hundreds come every year for “Trick or Treat on Simon Street.”
That’s not all. With gifts donated by the parent-teacher organization, the local government and her co-workers, Thomas keeps the party going year-round. At Christmas, it’s bikes raffled off to a lucky boy and girl. The children dance in a Mardi Gras parade in the school cafeteria, showered with beads and stuffed animals as they march. At Easter, she leads the school staff in making baskets. When testing time rolls around, Thomas creates TV-style game shows in the cafeteria to supplement learning in the classroom. “Who Wants to Rock the State Test?” consists of five curriculum-based questions, with each child getting one question. They are allowed to call on their “lifelines,” and everybody learns. “The kids are loving it,” she says. “They’re so hyped now. It makes testing a game. I say, ‘You know you can do it.’ It’s wonderful for them. Sometimes, my heart gets so full.” Thomas’s latest plan for a party is to invite Cupid, an up-and-coming hip-hopper from nearby Lafayette, to bring his own style of line dancing back home after exams.
After school lets out, she works at a summer feeding program, and on Sundays, it’s community breakfast after church. “She lives paycheck to paycheck like most people, but will feed everyone that comes to eat,” says her nominator and co-worker Janet Ebow. “Like the old lady who lived in a shoe, she raised so many children, she really knew what to do!” Thomas celebrates not only with the hundreds of children who come through her cafeteria doors, but with the dozens of women and children she’s taken into her home. She gives these families a place to stay, warm meals, and enough kindness and encouragement to get them back on their feet. The children in St. Martin Parish are lucky to have felt the love and good cooking of Lynette Thomas.