Mary Kurkowski SNA Member Since 1998 » Port Huron, Michigan President-elect of the School Nutrition Association of Michigan (SNAM), Mary Kurkowski began her foodservice career as a cook in the cafeteria at Northern Michigan University, where she was working on her bachelor’s degree in Institution and Restaurant Management. Fast forward to today where, while leading the school nutrition operation at Port Huron (Mich.) Schools for the last 25 years, Kurkowski has found herself to be “an accidental leader by circumstance,” serving numerous volunteer roles at the state level and earning such awards as Michigan Director of the Year and 10 HealthierUS Challenge distinctions. Here, Kurkowski shares the turning point in her life that marked her transition to association leader, and recounts other achievements along the way. On Challenges I believe it was songwriter Bob Marley who said, “You never know how strong you are until being strong is your only choice.” When I think about my leadership journey and what gave me the courage to expand beyond my safe little world as a successful school nutrition director and mother of four daughters, it was the divorce from my husband John. I knew I could handle being a single mom and being even more involved in my daughters’ personal lives, but what the situation allowed me to do was think, “Ok, there are other things that I am capable of accomplishing.” So, I stepped out of my comfort zone to become a little more involved with my colleagues and the foodservice profession. It made me stronger. It helped me in my professional career, because it made me realize that I am capable of more than “just” being a director. I can go to SNA’s Annual National Conference, I can be a part of the Association, I can get more involved with my local chapter, I can participate in SNA’s Future Leaders Program, I can be on the Michigan Board—and I am even capable of going to the Legislative Action Conference for the first time and talking to my senator, Debbie Stabenow. After doing each of these things for the first time, it was like, I can do this! So, it was taking that leap and that first step to believe in myself. Going through something like a divorce and overcoming it, gave me the fortitude and the confidence to know that I could become a leader and be more active helping other directors. On Accomplishments I think anyone who works in school nutrition knows we are making a difference in our student’s lives, because we are not just feeding children but we are preparing them to learn. Here in the Port Huron District, the School Breakfast Program has clearly been a huge success and I am just thrilled to have gone from serving 1,200 to now 4,500 breakfasts every day. Studies have shown that without it, children would be hungry and not learning to their full potential. I can remember years ago, before we started breakfast in our district, counselors would bring middle school students down to the kitchen, because the kids were not feeling well from hunger. And some of the stories they they would tell us! Because the bills could not get paid, they did not have any electricity, so they had no way to cook food and had to eat partially thawed frozen meals. So, we started to put something together for them for breakfast. When breakfast was finally mandated, it was probably one of the best things to happen in the school district. I hear from teachers that kids are now ready to learn, and that it has made a difference. That is probably the greatest reward in our job. On Inspiration Being a leader has definitely changed me. When I first attended Future Leaders in 2016, someone asked me who it was who had inspired me professionally—I could not say that there is any one person. When attending state or national conferences, I would listen to all those people presenting at education sessions and think, “They are doing some really cool things. Why don’t I take some of those ideas, alter them and use them in my district?” The generosity and collaboration that I have been given from other school nutrition professionals is what has inspired me. That is what it is all about: sharing and working together toward the same goal. And that is what I do when other new directors see some of the programs that I have been successful with. Here in Michigan, we were one of the USDA pilot programs for CEP (Community Eligibility Provision), and I frequently share ideas and feedback about it with directors in other states. On Leadership I believe leadership involves coaching, mentoring and motivating. I motivate my staff to help them reach the goals that we set out. I also educate the teachers in our district, explaining why we are going to do a particular project or make a change—and what we hope the outcome will be. You don’t just become a leader overnight, and you don’t just do it on your own. School nutrition professionals are there for each other and looking to collaborate and help each other out. So, my advice to anyone looking to be a leader is: get involved and be passionate about what you are doing, and you can be successful. 30-SECOND BIO CHILDHOOD HOMETOWN Rochester, Michigan CURRENT HOMETOWN Port Huron, Michigan EDUCATION Bachelor of Science, Institution and Restaurant Management; Northern Michigan University TITLE Director of Food & Nutrition Services EMPLOYER Port Huron (Mich.) Schools PROGRAM AT A GLANCE 17 schools, 60 kitchen employees, 75 noon-hour staff with a $5 million budget. Port Huron operates breakfast, lunch, after-school snack/supper and summer meal programs. YEARS IN SCHOOL NUTRITION 28 SNA LEADERSHIP Past Area III Representative, past Membership Chair, current President-Elect, School Nutrition Association of Michigan FAMILY Daughters Jennifer (30), Caroline (28), Katherine (26) and Diane (24) and six grandchildren As told to Doug Scott, contributing editor.
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