By Mark Ward Sr., PHD 2015-05-01 11:31:39
Meet Kevin Ponce Kevin Ponce, SNS, now the director of school nutrition for Oklahoma City Public Schools, had retired with a pension in 1993 when he faced a disconcerting decision. After 20 years in the Air Force as a telecommunications technician, “I had [related] civilian job offers, but knew that wasn’t what I wanted to do the rest of my life,” he recalls. So Ponce’s mind went back to his native Hawaii and its thriving tourism industry. “The only trouble was that my last Air Force posting was in Oklahoma,” he says with a laugh, “and my wife, who’s from the Southwest, decided we were going to stay put!” Bloom Where You’re Planted Because the midlife career change he intended required job retraining, Ponce earned a degree in hotel and foodservice administration from the University of Central Oklahoma. “Then I bounced around in several jobs—hotel management, hotel banquet captain, college dining—but the hours were tough and the commutes were long,” he recounts. In 1999, a help-wanted ad from the foodservice department at Oklahoma City Public Schools caught his attention. Ponce was ultimately hired as an area supervisor, with responsibility for 22 schools. Four years later, he moved to the central office as a food and equipment specialist. “But I still wasn’t sure that school nutrition was my niche,” he admits. Yet when invited in 2004 to interview for the director’s job at nearby Western Heights Public Schools, he decided to go for it. Though the program only served six schools, “Taking a job at a small district gave me a chance to learn every aspect of school nutrition operations and form a lot of close working relationships,” he explains. “That’s when I decided the profession would be my new career—and when I joined SNA.” Three years later, Ponce was elected president of the School Nutrition Association of Oklahoma (SNA of OK); the same year he moved to Mid-Del Schools, where he managed the school meal operation for 14,500 students at 26 sites. “At that point,” Ponce says, “I felt my career had arrived at a place where I was comfortable and wanted to be. I was directing school nutrition at a midsized district and energized by the challenges and opportunities we faced every day. And, personally, my goal was to supplement my military pension with a career that would give me a second pension. Being a school employee allowed me to do that. So I wasn’t looking to make a move.” That was then. Changing Course A year ago, Ponce saw a help-wanted ad that sent his career in a new trajectory. “Oklahoma City Public Schools was looking for a school nutrition director. The district had decided to end its contract with a management company and go to self-operation,” he recounts. The more Ponce thought about the position, the more it fascinated him. “First of all, director positions don’t come open very often,” he notes. “Second, it would be a really intriguing challenge to bring a district from contract management back to self operation. How many times in a career do you get a chance to do that? Third, it felt like coming full circle in my career, since I started out at OKC Public Schools.” Ponce applied and was hired in June 2014. To his delight, the district simultaneously hired Deborah Taylor as associate director. She, too, was a longtime school nutrition director in a smaller district and an active Association member, serving as SNA of OK president just prior to Ponce’s term. Together, they now lead a program that employs some 640 staff members who serve 46,000 students in 89 schools on a yearly budget of $27 million. “For Deborah and me” he notes, “the challenge in our first year has been to master all the policies and procedures of a large district and to build the leadership team and infrastructure to move forward.” Ponce and Taylor have long been professional peers, and he reports their new relationship is working well: “We complement each other, because Deborah’s expertise is the nutrition side and mine is operations. Also, we relate to our staff in similar ways. We’re both personable and good listeners. And we’re both committed to empowering our people to be leaders in their own right.” Current Title: Director of School Nutrition Services City, State: Oklahoma City, Okla. Favorite School Lunch as a Kid: Baked mahi mahi Profession You’d Choose if Not School Nutrition: Tourism Book at Your Bedside: Children’s book Fruit, Veggies and Poi by Kevin and Paula Ponce Dream Dinner Guest: Queen Lilu’uokalani, last monarch of the Kingdom of Hawaii Favorite Subject in School: Math, though I’m not good it.” Meet Deborah Taylor A year ago, a consultant hired by Oklahoma City Public Schools alerted Deborah Taylor, RDN, SNS, to some interesting news. The district was returning its foodservice program to self-operation after 10 years under contract management. Would Taylor be interested in helping lead the transition? “At the time,” Taylor recalls, “I was in my 22nd year as school nutrition director for [Shawnee Public Schools]. I’d decided that’s where I was going to eventually retire from. So I told the consultant that I wasn’t interested in moving from my current job or in going to such a big district.” Famous last words. Taylor discovered a rapport in her conversation with the consultant, so when asked “to ‘pray about it,’ I said that I would, but in the way that people use when they really mean ‘no’ but want to be polite,” she admits. Still, the request got her thinking. “I started imagining all the possibilities to do nutrition education in such a large district. And with the management company pulling out, there would be a huge need for a new staff training program.” The Right Move Taylor applied for the director’s job. As fate would have it, her application was unintentionally held up. “I went for my first interview and ran into Kevin Ponce, who had just finished his second interview,” she recalls. “We’d known each other for years. I’d even asked him to be a reference for me!” Thirty minutes after Taylor’s interview, her phone rang. The search committee was offering her the job of associate director, the No. 2 position, after just hiring Ponce as director. Yet, the news was welcome. “I have so much respect for Kevin,” she says. “And I knew that we’d complement each other.” The prospect of a “dream team” pairing was appealing. “I told myself that if all the experienced school nutrition professionals in our state just stayed where they were comfortable—and nobody stepped up— then Oklahoma City wouldn’t be able to self-operate. If it did succeed, the program had the potential to be a model for the state,” she asserts. In June 2014, the two sat down and discussed their respective strengths and professional aspirations. “My passion is nutrition. I’m actually excited to be freed up from the operational side and to concentrate on menu planning, marketing and staff training,” she explains. Still, adjusting to her new role has its challenges. “It’s very different for me to focus on only part of the program,” she concedes. At Shawnee, a district with 4,000 students in seven sites, “I knew everything that was going on and had to do a lot of it myself. Now in OKC, I’ve had to learn to let go, to hand things off and to be patient while things work their way through the system.” A Childhood Calling Taylor’s journey started half a world away Germany, where her parents were Baptist missionaries after the Second World War. “Much of the country was still bombed out,” she recalls. “From that experience I was drawn to ‘helping’ professions and to working with people who don’t have much.” Later, her father took a pastorate in Oklahoma. In time, Taylor married her high school sweetheart, and together they attended Oklahoma State University, where she earned a degree in foods, nutrition and institutional administration. She held a variety of foodservice and nutrition positions before landing at Shawnee Public Schools in 1992. “Right away, I loved the preventive aspect of school nutrition, of cultivating healthy eating habits in students before they develop lifelong health issues,” Taylor says. That same passion has earned her wide recognition over the years. She served as 2006-07 SNA of OK president, was named a Southwest Regional Director of the Year and today serves as a member of the national SNA Spokesperson Network. Thoughts about retirement are now on hold. “I love my job, I’m not ‘old,’ I have good health and I’m making a difference,” she states. “And I just can’t imagine not doing something I’m passionate about.” Current Title: Associate Director of School Nutrition Services City, State: Oklahoma City, Okla. Favorite School Lunch as a Kid: “Chocolate milk for 3 cents a carton” Book at Your Bedside: Take This Cup by Bodie and Brock Thoene Someone You Admire: Martha Washington Top of Your Bucket List: Take a Rhine River castle tour Dream Dinner Guest: SNA Past President Dorothy Caldwell Mark Ward is a freelance writer in Victoria, Texas.
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