By Mark Ward, Sr., PhD 2015-11-19 11:41:48
A state association and state agency partnership yields helpful rewards. Meet Sue Helm There’s a whole lot of land in the state of Wyoming, but as Sue Helm notes, there’s not a whole lot of people. According to Helm, nutrition services director for Lincoln County School District #2 in Afton, that means two things: “First, members here have to get involved, step up and be leaders. Second, our partnership with the state agency is the glue that holds together the school nutrition profession here.” Wide Open Spaces Membership in one’s association is intended to provide networking and shared solutions to common problems. But that wide expanse of land can really complicate things, and no one knows that better than Helm, who recently completed an award-winning tenure as president of the Wyoming School Nutrition Association (WSNA). (She earned one of three national 2014-15 President’s Awards of Excellence.) The state capital, Cheyenne, is more than 400 miles east of Helm’s office, which is located on the mountainous western border with Idaho. Her WSNA treasurer and secretary each reside 8-9 hours away. In fact, Helm’s own Lincoln County district of just nine schools stretches a whopping 100 miles from north to south! Such distances mean it’s “easy for each district to feel isolated,” Helm acknowledges. And while state leaders have the best of intentions, “We each have meals to prepare and a lot of ground to cover. Our officers have to do their full-time jobs first.” Fortunately, in Wyoming, “that’s where our state agency comes in,” she notes. “The staff not only provides technical assistance and training, but also facilitates interaction between districts.” Partners With Pride The agency to which Helm refers is the Wyoming Department of Education’s (WDOE) Nutrition Programs division, headed by state director Tamra Jackson. “In fact, I’m participating in a networking and mentorship program right now that’s being facilitated by Tamra and her office,” Helm reports. Each year, WDOE makes a list of school nutrition directors who are new to their posts or are early in their careers, and Jackson’s staff matches these newcomers with experienced directors. “So this year,” says Helm, “I was asked to mentor new director [Wesley Clarke] in Teton County, our neighboring county to the north.” Helm values the two-way street of the mentoring program, as it allows her and other veterans “to interact with new directors who have fresh perspectives, so we also get new ideas!” But the state agency’s efforts to help support its school food authorities—and support WSNA—don’t stop there. WDOE also provided funds for all school districts to become SNA members. According to Helm, this initiative was prompted by the opportunity to gain access to SNA’s Keys to Excellence benchmarking program. Helm is a great example of a director who takes ideas she hears from other districts and puts them into action in her own. For example, a recent initiative is the implementation of a mobile app for parents and students that allows them to view daily lunch and breakfast menus. Meanwhile, the Nutrition Services department’s website also provides a wealth of nutrition information, tips and educational games for users young and old. All Grown Up That Helm would be a leader in the school district where she grew up might have seemed unlikely when she looks back. She left high school at age 16 to marry and, ultimately, raised four children. More than 20 years later, when her youngest child entered fourth grade, Helm went to work for the district as a substitute kitchen worker. The next year, she earned her GED and, not long after, she was hired as a permanent employee. In 2000, when a private management company took over the foodservice program, Helm was promoted to kitchen manager. Six years later, after the company’s contract was not renewed, she had “literally done every job in our department, from sub to manager,” and was named to her current position as director. “That’s when I began to see school nutrition as a career and joined SNA,” Helm relates. “On one hand, I love my job because of my interactions with our kids. On the other, I love my interactions around our district and our state. By being professionally involved, I’ve grown as a leader and a speaker, and in my capacity to be a better director and better serve the needs of our students and community.” Sue Helm Current Title: Nutrition Services Director City, State: Afton, Wyoming Book at Your Bedside: The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins Top of Your Bucket List: “I already took my first plane ride last year!” Dream Dinner Guest: Mormon Church President Thomas S. Monson Favorite Subject in School: Math Hobbies: Cross-country skiing, wallyball, reading, time with grandkids Meet Tamra Jackson In 2007, the Wyoming legislature decided to make a special two-year appropriation. School districts around the state would be given funds to eliminate any deficits in their school nutrition programs. But the money came with a string attached: Districts were required to file annual reports. “But when the two years were up,” relates Tamra Jackson, nutrition programs supervisor for the Wyoming Department of Education, “the law provided that the annual reports continue. Operators would check off the necessary boxes and send in the reports. We’d confirm that the reports were received and then file them away.” In search of an alternative, Jackson discovered the SNA’s online Keys to Excellence benchmarking program. “I took Keys to our office’s legislative liaison, who then presented it to a legislative committee. In the end, the law was changed. Operators don’t have to achieve any certain level of results in Keys. They just have to certify once a year that they’ve completed the benchmarking process.” But the new requirement raised another problem. What about Wyoming school nutrition operators who were not SNA members and thus had no access to Keys? Jackson solved this dilemma by allocating funds from her own budget to help pay for school district-owned memberships (SDM) where needed. Six years later, Jackson reports, “Since directors started doing the Keys, they’ve all said it’s valuable to benchmark their programs. And since we only ask districts to show that they did the benchmarking and not how they measured up, each district can be honest” about assessing program strengths and weaknesses. Passion and Purpose Jackson and her eight-member staff “don’t look at ourselves as a ‘state agency’ but as partners with nutrition providers. Our strengths are customer service and technical assistance. We tell school districts, ‘You don’t need to fear us. We’ll work with you to help you succeed.’” She has recruited dedicated team members who share her philosophy. “With one exception, none of my staff have a background in nutrition,” Jackson notes. “I believe you can teach people about nutrition, but you can’t teach them to be passionate. The reason I have a great staff is because their passion to serve is the foundation of all they do.” While serving Wyoming school nutrition operators “involves a lot of phone calls and emails, given the distances involved,” notes Jackson, “we all get together twice a year—once in the fall at a directors conference, and once in the summer at the WSNA conference.” She values these occasions. “My staff and I get a lot of value from our SNA involvement,” she declares, as it provides “perspective from the frontline experts who know the real world of school nutrition.” A Wild Career Path A cafeteria frontline can sometimes seem like a zoo. Jackson’s school nutrition journey, however, started at a real zoo. The Nebraska native earned a 1978 master’s degree in environmental education and was hired by the Houston Independent School District to run outdoor education programs at a local nature center and the Houston Zoo. While there, Jackson had a life-changing experience. Her boss was due to give a presentation at a large conference. Jackson tagged along and was shocked when her boss decided Jackson should give the speech. “I was 27 and scared to death. But her faith in me showed what can happen when a leader believes in people. It changed my professional life.” Jackson married in 1985, moved back to her native Nebraska and started a family. Four years later, when her husband took a job in Cheyenne, she went to work with a statewide blood bank. In 2006, she moved into state government as manager of the Child and Adult Care Food Program. The following year, she was promoted to her current position heading the department. “When you believe in people, you can empower them to do more than they thought possible,” says Jackson. “So our goal is to empower school nutrition operators to believe in themselves, while providing them the tools and training they need to achieve their vision.” Tamra Jackson Current Title: Nutrition Programs Supervisor, Wyoming Department of Education City, State: Cheyenne, Wyoming Profession You’d Choose if not School Nutrition: Environmental educator Book at Your Bedside: A War Without Chocolate by Betty Dagher Majaj Top of Your Bucket List: Take an eco-adventure with my husband Dream Dinner Guest: Jesus Favorite Subject in School: History/geography/social studies Mark Ward is a freelance writer in Victoria, Texas.
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