‘They’re her family’: School’s singing nutritionist honored for dedication to students

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PARMA, MI – Whenever hot dogs are on the menu, Parma Elementary School students can expect to hear Dawn Hendges belt out a few strains of the Oscar Meyer Weiner song.

The kids typically join in.

Hendges’ favorite part of the job has always been making lunchtime in the Western School District building fun and checking in with all the kids in the lunchroom.

“We like to play, so we’re all messing around,” Hendges said. “I usually sing through the lunch line when we have hot dog day.”

After 20 years as a food and nutrition service worker, Hendges admits that kind of interaction with the kids is what she’s missing most this year as the COVID-19 pandemic has forced students to eat lunch inside their respective classrooms.

But her care in preparing and delivering hot lunches on a daily basis and her passion for helping students has not gone unnoticed. Hendges is one of two people recently named Michigan’s 2020 Education Support Staff Professionals of the Year.

Hendges has gone above and beyond for students during the COVID-19 pandemic, ensuring they have high-quality nutritious meals every day and promoting the location of food distribution centers in the district so no students go hungry, Wester School District officials said.

Her always-friendly demeanor and treating of students like her own children might sound like worn-out cliches for a food service worker, but it’s the truth with Hendges, Food Service Director Jenny Lucas said.

“She doesn’t do anything half-way. When she comes to work, they’re all considered her kids,” Lucas said.

With building restrictions causing food service staff to deliver lunches directly to the classroom, Lucas said Hendges doesn’t have quite as many opportunities to interact with students, but she still finds time to do so in between wheeling a large, stainless steel table with lunches from class to class.

Hendges will prepare breakfast and lunch for students, re-stocking the cart over four different class periods. Her work allows teachers to take a break during their lunch periods instead of overseeing them during their lunch periods.

It’s during those daily trips that Hendges can briefly rekindle the relationships with children she has gotten to know well over the years, Lucas said.

“She notices very little, minute things about kids – if they have a new headband, if they have a new T-shirt, if they got their haircut,” Lucas said. “In a normal year, when they come through the line, they hit Dawn first and it’s always ‘Good morning Jenny. Good morning Mark.’ She knows the kids by name as they come through the line. They’re all very excited to see her and she’s very excited to see them.”

Hendges said the pleasure has been all hers as a staff member at Western School District, where she initially started as a food service worker at the high school.

Now the head cook at Parma, Hendges said her job remains simple: Make sure the children are eating healthy and that they’re going good in school.

“I just enjoy watching the kids interact with everyone, and each other,” Hendges said. “These kids are so amazing here, it’s just unbelievable. They’re so polite. I couldn’t do my job without them.”

Hendges is always looking for other opportunities to interact with students, most recently during meal distributions to the community, Parma Elementary School Principal Sue Haney said, adding she also consistently volunteers to serve meals during after school activities.

“It’s just her love for the kids and her dedication to the school,” Haney said. “They’re her family. Dawn is one of the people who – it isn’t just a job for her. She loves the kids and treats them like they’re her own.”

While Hendges isn’t a big fan of the limelight, she said the award “means a lot to me,” even though she’s just doing her job.

Working with elementary students has been a joy for Hendges, she said, noting that one of her favorite parts of monitoring lunches in the past was letting students come up to the front of the cafeteria and sing if they wanted to.

“We like to have fun in the lunchroom,” she said.

Hendges is joined by Crawford-Oscoda-Ogema-Roscommon Intermediate School District’s Holly Holm as Michigan’s 2020 Education Support Staff Professionals of the Year.

Hendges and Holm are now eligible for the national Recognizing Inspiring School Employees (RISE) Award, which was created by the U.S. Department of Education to honor school support staff.

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