By Nancy Cathey, RD, LD 2017-12-30 11:34:27
SNA Member Since 2009 » Las Cruces, N.M. The feats of most school nutrition directors are impressive all on their own. Imagine, though, all the work completed, challenges defeated and achievements earned during an average school nutrition career—while also having the responsibilities of a 25-year member of the U.S. Navy Reserves. “The leadership opportunities that I got through the Navy Reserves were life-changing experiences,” says Nancy Cathey, executive director of operations, Las Cruces (N.M.) Public Schools. Here, Cathey recounts how her dual careers transformed her from a natural introvert into a proud, confident leader. On Inspiration My military career—all but one year spent as a reservist—allowed me to do amazing things that I wouldn’t be able to do in any other way. I went in as enlisted and, within a couple years, I moved into the officer ranks, retiring in 2007 as a Navy captain. During those years, I served in a medical unit and also handled Marine support; I got the opportunity to do humanitarian missions in foreign countries, which changed me forever. In Africa, we worked with governments to take medical care into rural parts of very poor countries. I also did that in Thailand and Ecuador, and spent a year in Kuwait providing medical support as our troops went into and out of Iraq. In my school nutrition career, I’m an internship preceptor, so I have master’s degree students who spend time with us. I work really hard to convince them that they want to come into the public health or child nutrition side of the dietetics profession—and I’ve been successful! It’s all about opening their eyes to what child nutrition is and the exciting things you can accomplish in this segment. Often, people just need someone to say, “I believe you can do this.” I have a manager who started as a substitute and didn’t have a high school education, so she couldn’t move up at first. I kept telling her that she had so much potential, and she eventually went back to school, got her diploma and is now a manager. As a leader, you provide guidance and support, so that people can grow to their full potential and meet the organization’s goals and mission. I really focus on mentorship; any employee who expresses interest in moving up or growing their skills, I try to help them find the way. On Leadership I knew I wanted to be a leader when I got to college. I’m naturally very introverted and shy, so that was a lot to overcome to find my way into leadership positions. Still, I was the president of a business sorority and the leader of the student dietetics association. I started finding that I had the skills to help these groups achieve what they wanted to do. I’ve continued to apply those skills in different capacities—my husband and I were church youth directors even when we didn’t have children. Once we did, I volunteered as a Girl Scout leader and was involved in Junior League. As my children grew older, I moved into leadership roles in my profession, with such organizations as Healthy Kids Las Cruces, which works on obesity prevention. Currently, I also sit on the county’s health alliance, which seeks to support the health department, as well as the City of Las Cruces Policy Advisory Committee, which is just getting started. On Challenges Being so introverted, I’ve had to work a lot on overcoming that tendency. Every time I get involved in a new organization, I still go through the same queasiness. It’s gotten easier as I’ve had more experience, but even when I joined SNA’s Nutrition and Research Committee, I had the same anxiety going in. I always have to convince myself that I do have something to offer, and I am there for a reason. The things I believe and that I want to accomplish are just as important as for those who are natural at this. During tough times, I remember that I truly believe in child nutrition and its ability to improve the health of children throughout the United States. I have to keep that big goal in mind—I’m impacting lots of students every day. I don’t get to look at them all face-to-face, but I know that over the long-term, it’s worth every effort. On Achievements Usually, within a school district, when you come in as a foodservice director, others think that food is all you know. It took me a while to convince everyone otherwise. In addition to school meals, I now supervise transportation, as well as safety and security. The fact that I have something to offer beyond running a foodservice department is really exciting. Even within foodservice, we’ve been able to expand. We have two dietitians and another nutrition employee, and we do a lot of support for nutrition education, physical activity and staff wellness initiatives. The fact that we’ve been able to spread our wings and go beyond simply feeding students—which is still our primary focus—is important. Still, every time we almost finish a big project, I keep adding new goals. One employee told me that I was never going to accomplish everything I wanted to. Now, as I start thinking about retirement, I’m having to admit that it might be true. If I keep adding goals, there will be no end. One day, I’ll just have to walk away and say that I did all that I could in the time I had. I’ll have to say that was good enough. 30-SECOND BIO CHILDHOOD HOMETOWN Born in Arkansas, but raised in several towns in New Mexico CURRENT HOMETOWN Las Cruces, N.M. EDUCATION B.S., General Dietetics; B.S., Management; M.S., Nutrition and Dietetics, Oklahoma State University NUMBER OF YEARS IN SCHOOL NUTRITION 27 TITLE Executive Director of Operations PROGRAM AT A GLANCE 40 schools, 250 employees, 2,500 students and ~$13 million budget SNA LEADERSHIP SNA Nutrition and Research Committee; New Mexico SNA Past President, Education Chair FAMILY Husband Robert (married 40 years), daughters Michelle (33) and Robin (31), sons-in-laws Daniel and Chase, grandchildren Donovan (5) and Haylee (1) As told to Kelsey Casselbury, contributing editor.
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