School lunch staff support students beyond the cafeteria
NEW BEDFORD, Mass. (AP) — In the cafeteria at Normandin Middle School on Thursday morning, Maria Santos pulled some money out of her pocket.
She planned to give the cash to a student that needs a haircut. She was concerned.
“We care about the kids here,” she said, sitting by eight other women who work in the cafeteria alongside her, preparing about 960 meals a day, but doing much more than fill trays for the students in the school.
The haircut is just one example of the dedication the 60-year-old woman from Santiago, Cape Verde has for students. She won’t retire; she’ll come to work with a walker if she has to in order to continue to serve as a de facto grandmother, mother or aunt to the students.
Recently, Santos and the other women used their own money to buy sneakers and gift them to about 16 students in need, a project Santos calls “Shoes of Love.”
Since she doesn’t drive, she took the bus to buy the shoes. They got additional names of students and their shoe sizes with help from a guidance counselor.
Principal Sean McNiff said the women “just took it upon themselves to do it” and it’s great to have the kids building relationships with cafeteria staff.
Last year, Santos and the girls gave out a few pairs of LeBron James sneakers and coats.
Santos recalled seeing a student with a plastic bag as a sock.
Santos, who’s been at Normandin for about 18 years, said she understands the kids. She recalled growing up in Santiago, going to bed without food or water and she didn’t have shoes.
And like many grandmothers, mothers and aunts, she wants to make sure her “kids” have it better than she did.
She came to the United States when she was 20 years old in 1977. She asked one of the women to grab a picture that she keeps in her office. In part, it says she became a U.S. citizen on April 2, 2009.
In the picture, she’s standing between former Normandin principal Dr. Jeanne Bonneau and former staff member Dr. Anthony Azar. They both helped her get her citizenship, she said. Dr. Bonneau is like a mother to her, she said.
Santos’ dedication to her job and the students is the stuff of legend.
According to a 2011 Standard-Times story, despite finding that a burst pipe flooded all three floors of her home the week before Christmas, she still showed up to work.
Staff at the school offered support and raised money to help her replace the many items she’d lost.
“I have a passion to feed them,” Santos said, noting she can’t wait to get up each morning to do her job.
She worries about the students. Worries that some may not have enough to eat every day. She worries what and when they’ll eat when they’re not in school.
She said she prays that dinner will be served at the school some day. That would guarantee the students get three meals a day. Breakfast is prepared and delivered to the classrooms.
Santos said she also likes to make deals with the kids so they come to school and on time.
Kids report to the cafeteria when they’re late for school so Attendance Officer Ryan Saucier can talk to them about why they’re tardy and what can be done to improve their attendance.
Saucier said Santos has given students gifts to get the students to come to school on time.
“A lot of the time it does work,” he said. Saucier said the women go above and beyond serving lunch.
He showed a video on his phone of Santos dancing with some of the dual enrollment students. He showed photos of the women presenting gifts to a pregnant staff member.
Saucier provided The Standard-Times with comments students wrote about the women that work in the cafeteria.
Sixth grader Kayla Trice wrote that one day she was late to school and had to report to the cafeteria to get a late pass. She was crying because she got in a fight with her mom, she wrote, which is why she was late. Maria asked her what was wrong and made her feel better.
The next day, Maria gave her sneakers, a pink purse and a flower headband, she wrote.
The ladies know she’s a vegetarian, she said, and always make sure she has a meatless meal.
Back home in Cape Verde, education wasn’t mandatory. “Here, they have it for free,” Santos said.
“I want them to go to college instead of jail,” she said.
Information from: The (New Bedford, Mass.) Standard-Times, http://www.southcoasttoday.com