A lot of things have changed since she started working in a school cafeteria. Meals were once prepared from scratch. State regulations didn’t prevent the cafeteria from providing food at a meeting where staff or members of the public were in attendance. And a district would never consider bringing in a private company to handle food services.
At Glen Landing Middle School in Gloucester Township, Camden County, Cafeteria Manager Marge Vallieu views these changes as challenges. No matter what happens in Trenton or at a local board of education meeting, she is determined to make a difference in her school and community. No doubt it is that sense of dedication that earned Vallieu the title of NJEA 2012 Educational Support Professional (ESP) of the Year.
“I was just floored when I learned I was the state ESP of the Year,” beams Vallieu. “But I welcome the opportunity to show that ESP members across New Jersey play important roles in their schools and communities.”
It’s not just a job
Except for the years she was raising her two daughters, Vallieu has been working outside the home since high school. She had jobs at an insurance company, a hospital, and a department store. But when her youngest was seven years old and she was looking to return to the workforce, her friend Jane Domanski encouraged her to apply for a food services job in the school district. Domanski already held a job in Gloucester Township—and still works thee, now as a cafeteria manager.
In 1988, Vallieu started as a sub in the cafeteria at Gloucester Township Elementary School, but got a full-time position the following year. She has been employed by the district for the next 22 years, working in three different schools. Vallieu has spent 17 of those years as a cafeteria manager.
Many might view Vallieu’s position as one of preparing food and creating menus, but she understands that there is much more to her work.
“I am a trusted adult and mentor to my students,” Vallieu notes. “Teachers often ask if I can get to the bottom of a problem because a student would not open up to them. I gladly intervene. Sometimes the student just needs a smile or a hug, other times they need a sounding board. I treasure the opportunity to help a child feel cared about, confident, and safe.”
Sometimes Vallieu phones parents if a child routinely comes to school without money for lunch. “My goal is to make sure children are well-fed, not to make a parent feel bad.”
Contributions to the community
Vallieu also makes her mark on the community at large.
“After 9/11, I thought a lot about how our local first responders often don’t get the recognition they deserve. We decided to have a heroes luncheon.”
She combined the event with the school’s annual Thanksgiving lunch. Everyone got involved--ESP, teachers, students, and administrators. For eight years, the luncheon was a huge success and was even featured on NJEA’s television show “Classroom Close-up, NJ”. Unfortunately, regulations adopted by the State Board of Education in 2009 put an end to the wonderful tradition. There was no money in the budget to continue the luncheon because food service departments must operate independently of the school board.
Vallieu was disappointed but not deterred. At school she organizes food drives for needy families and gathers donations for the local animal shelter. For three years she chaired a Christmas card campaign at her district’s schools for those serving in the military.
“These endeavors are fulfilling to me personally and they also show that ESPs are an active and caring part of the community.”
It was also Jane Domanski who urged her friend to get involved with the local association. Vallieu waited until her youngest daughter had graduated from high school before she volunteered and then she jumped in with enthusiasm.
She has served the Gloucester Township Support Professionals Association (GTSPA) as a department representative and association secretary and currently holds the position of treasurer. Vallieu has coordinated a booth at the local mall for Pride in Public Education Day. She is co-chair of the Camden County ESP committee and her co-chair is, of course, Jane Domanski. Every year Vallieu and her fellow officers run a workshop to welcome new members and answer any questions they may have. Her goal is to help them have a successful experience on the job.
“I want to educate new hires about what it means to be part of a union and what membership can do to help them throughout their careers.”
On the state level, Vallieu serves on the NJEA ESP committee.
Vallieu joined her local’s legislative committee after seeing a campaign ad that boasted the candidate had been endorsed by the NJEA.
“My thought was ‘I am the NJEA’ so I knew I had to get involved. I’ve never looked back. And yes, I am proud to be a PAC contributor.”
Through the National Education Association, Vallieu was selected to be part of a 13-member panel to help develop ideas for a training manual for support professionals on dealing with sexual harassment and bullying in the school community.
Like so many ESPs throughout the state, Vallieu has been affected by efforts to privatize food and other services in schools. She and her colleagues in Gloucester Township have withstood privatization, but not without a lot of hard work. With help from NJEA staff, Vallieu. Fellow officers and the Gloucester Township superintendent spoke to the county superintendent as well as state and local legislators in an effort to educate them about the harmful effects of privatization on school employees and students.
GTSPAs victory was not without its costs, however. For example, to ensure that their food services department covers its own costs, Vallieu and her colleagues gave up their uniform allowance and 10 members went from full time to part time, thus losing their health benefits.
“We took a big hit,” she acknowledges, “but we are still here and we are in the black.” Vallieu encourages her colleagues around the state to “hang in there” and wants to remind them that they should exercise their rights when under attack.
“I don’t like politics, but I love my job,” says Vallieu. “I’ve seen firsthand the importance of a union.” She has taken advantage of every opportunity that association membership provides, including attending workshops and conferences. She makes sure her supervisor gets a copy of every certificate she’s earned, but that’s not the only reason she goes to these events.
“I have learned that my voice matters and that I do have the knowledge and expertise to help others,” Vallieu concludes. “I have gained confidence in myself and made many friends.”
And now that she’s the 11th NJEA ESP of the Year, she’s made history as well.