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Education Support Professionals Keep Students Healthy

Custodial and maintenance employees, like Pat Nicholson, keep schools clean and safe for educators and students. Through bites of kiwi, chunks of mango, and forkfuls of arugula, child nutrition manager Donna West helps students acquire healthy eating habits. New York retiree Janis Bianco helped develop the weekend backpack program, which supplies students with healthy food when they’re away from school.

Maintaining a Healthy Outlook

In this issue of NEA Today, we highlight“healthy.” It is one of five tenets used by NEA to illustrate the various ways education support professionals (ESPs) help to meet the needs of the whole student. The five tenets are listed at the top of this page. 

For students to achieve, they must first have their most basic needs met. This includes staying healthy. In this issue, you’ll meet Carmen Hill, a school nurse in St. Louis, Mo., who helps students do just that. Like other school-based health professionals across the nation, Hill treats sick students and educates them about maintaining healthy lifestyles. Traveling farther north, we’ll introduce you to Christie Thereault, a Vermont treatment center supervisor who works with students who sometimes become violent due to psychiatric challenges and addiction.

You will also meet Donna West, an Alabama nutrition manager, and Janis Bianco, a retired stenographer who helped create a program in New York that provides students with backpacks filled with food to take home over the weekend. Finally, be sure to read about the work of beloved custodian Pat Nicholson, who is also a former Washington state ESP of the Year, and watch the video about him at

To learn more about how ESPs serve the whole child by keeping students supported, challenged, safe, healthy, engaged, and more, read our ESP book online.

We Keep Students Healthy

Pat Nicholson, Custodian
D. Hawk Elementary School, Bremerton, Wash.

Pat Nicholson is one of many custodial and maintenance service workers nationwide who keep schools clean and safe. They also remove snow, perform electrical repairs, remove spills, apply paint, and maintain boilers. And custodial and maintenance staff make sure public school buildings have proper indoor air quality, uniform temperatures, and adequate ventilation. For more, listen to Nicholson describe his work in a video at

Carmen Hill, School Nurse
Gateway Elementary School, St. Louis, Mo.

Carmen Hill’s school days begin earlier this year than they have in the past. She is her school’s only medical professional, and Hill knows that in today’s world more and more public school students have chronic medical conditions, which means school nurses like her are busier than ever. 

Hill dispenses medication, monitors students with asthma, diabetes, and severe allergies, performs first aid, helps children with ADHD or bipolar disorder, and tends to students with coughs, fevers, and sore throats. Hill also assesses students for possible abuse, counsels students who are bullied, and even provides snacks to hungry students.

“I usually buy some snacks and cereal to have in my office so if a child comes in hungry, they have something to eat,” Hill says. The children have such enormous needs that it’s easy to become overwhelmed, she adds.

“I have to take care of my kids so they can go back to class and learn,” she says. “There are many schools that don’t have a school nurse at all, but my school is fortunate to have a school nurse full time. If I weren’t here, who would take care of the sick kids? The other school staff would have to provide medical treatment, and they do not possess the training needed to do the task!”

Hill also works with community foundations, charities, and businesses to get her kids the dental and vision care they need. She teams up with the Kids Vision 4 Life program for vision screenings, eye exams and new eyeglasses, and Gateway Dental for free on-site dental checkups and procedures. Throughout the school year, Healthy Kids Express comes to Gateway to provide resources for children and families suffering from asthma.

While her students’ physical health is Hill’s chief concern, she also cares deeply about their self-esteem, personal character, and world view. Under her guidance, about 20 girls make their way to Hill’s office every Thursday after school to participate in Girls R Inc. The program focuses on five areas: beauty, health and hygiene, growth and development, nutrition and exercise, and fashion and etiquette. Hill teaches the girls about matters big and small: from coping with stress and anger, proper nutrition, and oral hygiene, to the importance of daily exercise.

“I always had great mentors growing up,” Hill says. “I’m just giving back.” 

Hill, who began her career as a hospital nurse, has been a school nurse for the last 20 years. “I love to nurture in both the school and hospital setting. It’s part of my genetic makeup. I love to provide the hugs, encouragement, and inspiration that all children need.”

Donna West, Child Nutrition Manager
Brownwood Elementary School, Scottsboro, Ala.

When the sugar snap peas received a definite thumbs down from first graders, Donna West wasn’t discouraged. She understands that her students may not like everything that’s offered through the school’s Fresh Fruit and Vegetable program. She’s just happy to see them try a new food. Says West: “Twice every week, our school provides fresh fruits or vegetables to every classroom during snack time. This is separate from their breakfast and lunch. We’ve given our students papaya, avocado, kiwi, star fruit, mango, and even fennel and arugula. This program is near and dear to my heart because they get to learn about healthy eating, and it also provides for those who can’t always bring in a snack from home.”

 That’s why West makes it a point to mix in “the new stuff with healthy favorites like red grapes, apples, and carrots,” she says. “We know they’ll eat those!”

The program is funded by a grant through the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program, which encourages children to develop healthy eating habits. Many consider the program to be an important tool for battling childhood obesity.

At Brownwood, students learn where the fruit or vegetable in front of them is grown, the different varieties that are available, and how eating the nutritious delight promotes healthy bodies. For more about this program, visit 

Janis Bianco, Retired Senior Stenographer
Rondout Valley Central School District, Accord, N.Y.

Janis Bianco worked as a senior stenographer for the Rondout Valley Central School District for 32 years. She retired in 2012. That same year she and other retired educators and community volunteers at the Rondout Valley Food Pantry helped develop the Weekend Backpack Program, which provides students with backpacks full of food to take home over the weekend. 

“From our work with students, we knew that many Rondout Valley children were not getting the food they needed when they went home for the weekend,” says Bianco. The backpack contents include enough sustenance for two breakfasts, three lunch or dinner entrees, a loaf of bread, juice boxes, a grocery store card for a gallon of milk, fruits, veggies, snacks, and some personal care items. The program started with 30 children, some with dietary issues, including lactose intolerance and diabetes.

“As of today, we are up to 60 students who we service in our two elementary schools, intermediate school, and junior high school,” Bianco says. “The demand for the backpacks isn’t going away. Believe me, if there were more funds available we would be doing many more backpacks!” 

 The group works to secure grant money and raise funds through donations from area teachers, school support personnel, school clubs, organizations, and local churches.

“Without the help of the community, this program would not exist,” she says. “Families are doing the best they can with the hard times they are experiencing, and we are just putting out a little extra helping hand and love to help them out.”   

Christie Thereault, Planning Room Supervisor
Brattleboro Area Middle School, Brattleboro, Vt.

One of the worst days of Christie Thereault’s career happened at the psychiatric and addiction treatment center where she works as a mental health worker. A fight broke out among 10 children, and one of the nurses suffered a broken nose while trying to intervene. Working at treatment centers is not for the faint hearted, Thereault says.

“I’ve been kicked and bruised many times,” she adds. “That’s part of the price you pay working in a treatment center. The staff supports each other and we know that it’s part of the risk of trying to help children with severe emotional problems.” At the center, children as young as age 5 come for treatment for a variety of emotional and behavioral health issues. Says Thereault: “These kids are hurting. Their behaviors are sometimes a result of mental illness and other times, it’s environmental. I’m passionate about working with children, because if we can help them now, maybe they have a better chance in life as an adult. The older they get, the more entrenched these behaviors can become.”

Thereault’s real-world experience at the center, and her academic training—she has a degree in psychology—helps her to no end with the emotional health issues she encounters in her workplace.

“I’m like a bad penny,” she says. “I’m everywhere. I’m in the cafeteria. I’m in the hallways. I’m in the classroom. I make sure to go to their dances too.” Recently, when an eighth grader committed suicide, students throughout the school were emotionally affected. Thereault was able to work with counselors to organize and operate three crisis rooms where students were allowed to come to grieve, commiserate, and adjust to the loss of their friend.

“We wanted to be available to students to sit down and talk or just listen in a supportive way,” she says. “It was also important for us to let the students know about the permanence of what their friend did. That he didn’t need to make that choice. We knew a few of the kids were emotionally vulnerable and we were especially concerned about them.”   

National Education Association

Great public schools for every student

The National Education Association (NEA), the nation's largest professional employee organization, is committed to advancing the cause of public education. NEA's 3 million members work at every level of education—from pre-school to university graduate programs. NEA has affiliate organizations in every state and in more than 14,000 communities across the United States.