Vanessa Hayes SNA Member Since 2008 » Tifton, Georgia “Go big or go home” is how Vanessa Hayes, MPA, CC, SNS, school nutrition director for Tift County Schools in Tifton, Ga., describes her approach to pursuing leadership roles, as well as to making plans and goals for the future. This engaged leader, at both the state and national level, believes we can all learn from each other. Hayes reflects on what she’s learned from professional and personal mentors, how she seeks to inspire others and how she’s gotten through the tough times. On Her Career Journey I always knew I wanted to be a professional chef, because I love food and people. Before starting in school nutrition, I attended culinary school and was a private chef for an NBA player in Miami, then worked as a hotel chef in Charlotte, N.C. I had no benefits, so when I learned about a school nutrition manager opening in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, I applied. I worked in school nutrition during the day and was a private chef for a Carolina Panthers football player at night. When my school’s principal was promoted to the district’s largest elementary school, I went with her. Many of the kids there brought lunches from home, and it was a challenge to involve them in the school meals program, so we did lots of school nutrition-related activities to draw them in. I fell in love with the work and the kids. It was instant gratification, being part of something that had an impact. Then I moved back home to Georgia and worked at a Head Start program as a nutrition specialist. Later, I worked as school nutrition director for Georgia’s Dougherty County School System and since 2012, I’ve been in my current role as school nutrition director for Tift County Schools. On Inspiration [SNA Past Presidents] Jean Ronnei and Nancy Rice showed me that you can be quiet as a leader. There are times you need to listen, and I’m growing into that. Plus, they taught me to relax and to be relatable. I’m also inspired by former First Lady Michelle Obama, because of everything she endured as part of her efforts to improve school meals. By watching her, I learned how to manage difficult situations, and I was inspired to do a self-inventory about my own approach. On a personal level, my dad taught me that you judge someone’s worth by the measure of their work, not by their possessions. That has helped me to understand my staff. My mom taught me that not everyone will love you, but advised me to “give them you and your best, and they’ll forget what they think they know about you.” I try to inspire others. I do a lot of motivational speaking. I talk about the hard things. I tell people that at the end of the day, “If you know your name and you’re able to dress yourself and live your life, it’s not that bad.” When you want to help, you have to realize you can’t solve everything, but you can listen and help people feel lifted. On Leadership I became a volunteer leader because I fell in love with SNA and our members. I needed to be a support to them. I sometimes say I “masquerade” as a director, because I am really here to help people, including staff. Sometimes those who work for us need us more than we need them. So, when SNA recognized something in me as a national leader, I stepped up. As a leader, you’re an example. You provide a framework and support for others. You are a representation of excellence and a source of inspiration. I have learned how to facilitate and move hard conversations forward. I’ve also learned that I am teachable. I never expected to glean as much from other people as I have. We all learn from and support each other. On Goals & Challenges I’ve learned that I can’t be haphazard with goals; I have to be strategic. Jean Ronnei advised me about being purposeful in goal setting. I set timelines for accomplishing my goals. For example, the year after next, when I’m done with my leadership work at the state level, I want to run for a national SNA position. I also want to earn my doctorate, possibly in public administration; I’m not finished learning! Then, after my school nutrition career is over, I think I want to work in faith and family counseling and continue the legacy my dad built as a minister. Besides that, I want to go to Paris to eat, drink and be merry! I want to experience other cultures, and I love people watching. When I’m going through tough times, my faith keeps me going. I believe you need to trust the process and know that God has a plan. I left the Dougherty school district because my contract wasn’t renewed, even though my program had been recognized for having best practices, such as doing farm to school before it really existed. It was devastating. But as part of God’s plan, Tift County recognized who I was and what matters to me. It was a freeing revelation to be supported in serving kids, not school boards. During that transition, I had a conversation with [SNA Past President] Dr. Josephine Martin. She’s a living legend, a trailblazer, and I’m in awe of her. She told me, “I’m thinking of you. I hope it all works out for you. You are necessary. We need you in school nutrition.” When you hear something like that, it equips you to succeed. I knew I was going to make it. You take challenges day by day. Sometimes, to fix something, you use all the tools in the toolbox, and sometimes you just need a hammer. And you learn you can’t always “fix” things, so when you stop wrestling with needing to solve every problem, you become so free. As told to Cecily Walters, a freelance writer in Portland, Ore., and a former managing editor of this publication. 30-SECOND BIO CHILDHOOD AND CURRENT HOMETOWN Moultrie, Georgia (“I live on the family farm I grew up on!”) EDUCATION B.B.A. (bachelor’s degree in Business Administration), Tuskegee University; M.P.A. (master’s degree in Public Administration), Valdosta State University; A.A. in Culinary Arts, Art Institute of Atlanta YEARS IN SCHOOL NUTRITION 22 TITLE School Nutrition Director EMPLOYER Tift County Schools, Tifton, Georgia PROGRAM AT A GLANCE 12 schools, 7,800 students, 84 employees, $5.2 million budget. Offers breakfast, lunch, at-risk snack program, summer meals, farm to school. SNA LEADERSHIP Georgia SNA Conference Program Cochair, 2017, chair 2018; Georgia SNA President; SNA ANC 2017 Program Cochair, chair 2018; SNA Resolutions and Bylaws Committee; SNA State Affiliate Task Force Committee FAMILY Daughter Vanae (18), Mother Eve, Cousin and Best Friend Debbie Herring (“the Gayle to my Oprah”)
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