Middlesex County Education Association President Lois Yukna was formally recognized as the 2017 NJEA Educational Support Professional (ESP) of the Year at the ESP Conference on Feb. 4. Longtime public education advocate and school secretary Donna O’Malley received the 2017 NJEA Career Achievement Award.
The story that traces Yukna’s path to 2017 ESP of the Year was featured in the February NJEA Review. With a career spanning over 25 years, she has worked in both the transportation and attendance departments in her district. Sacrificing countless hours to improve the lives of others, she has proven to be a leader for her local, county, state and national union.
“Lois represents the best in all of us,” said NJEA President Wendell Steinhauer. “She represents the unseen heroes of our schools. The folks who make our schools work, but don’t even like to talk about their true value.”
Steinhauer described the breadth of Yukna’s service to association work, from committee work and officer positions at the local level, to her service as NEA Director ESP At Large on the national level.
“Think beyond the numbers and the titles,” Steinhauer said. “Think about the sacrifice, the hours of unpaid work and the hours away from her family. Her life’s work serves as just one example of fierce advocacy and an unwavering union power.”
Yukna thanked her colleagues in Woodbridge, Middlesex County, NJEA and NEA for their support throughout her career as a school bus driver, an attendance officer and as an advocate for public education. She quickly focused on the importance of school support staff in the lives of students.
“My greatest honor is to be able to help our students understand the importance of education, give them the love and compassion they may not receive at home, and help them understand their importance in society,” Yukna said. “ESPs are essential to the educational health of our school systems. It is through my work with students that I realized how important our presence in the school building really is.”
Yukna also noted the challenges and rewards of advocating for public school employees.
“Advocating is not about doing what’s comfortable, it’s doing what’s right,” Yukna said. “I used to think that everything was black and white. I’ve come to understand that seeing through the grey foggy area is how you get to the sunshine of advocacy. For me, there is no greater reward than helping a member.”
O’Malley receives Career Achievement Award
Donna O’Malley has a long record of service to the students and staff of Tabernacle Township Schools in Burlington County. She is the administrative assistant to the principal of Tabernacle Elementary School and a former president of the all-inclusive Tabernacle Education Association (TEA).
In addition her nine years as president, O’Malley has served various leadership positions for well over 23 years. Resolving issues with a calm and professional manner is the hallmark of her leadership.
“Donna has been described as the ‘glue’ of the Tabernacle School District as she always has a willingness to help others, as well as her genuine care for the students,” NJEA Secretary-Treasurer Sean M. Spiller said as he conferred upon her the 2017 NJEA Career Achievement Award. “Donna recognized very early on that to effect change, she must be the change.”
Representing educational support professionals and teachers, O’Malley has chaired TEA’s negotiations team through five contracts. Beyond Tabernacle, she has served the Burlington County Education Association (BCEA) in various capacities, including as 1st and 2nd vice president. O’Malley currently represents the county on the NJEA Delegate Assembly. She has been a delegate to the National Education Association Representative Assembly more than 10 times.
O’Malley recalled that it was her late husband who had suggested 29 years ago that she should apply for a job at the school. She did, first as an assistant on the playground, in the cafeteria, and for a kindergarten class. Later she was hired as a 10-month secretary to the principal. The salary in that secretarial position was $8,000.
“That salary was the catalyst for my becoming involved in association work,” O’Malley quipped.
O’Malley described her work with students, staff, parents and administrators in the school as deeply rewarding. She also noted that living and working in Tabernacle has positioned her well to be a cheerleader for the district and for her association.
“I have found living in the same community where I work valuable because I can carry the good news about our schools and public education to my neighbors and to my friends at church and the clubs to which I belong,” O’Malley said. “I believe that is our responsibility as school employees—as educators—to make sure our families, friends, neighbors and communities view education employees as a resource if they have questions or concerns. I believe public education is a birthright that each of us must preserve and protect. We can to do that through our personal connections.”
As an ESP, O’Malley understands that everyone in the school—no matter his or her title—can make a difference.
“Each one of us serves an important role in education no matter our career path because it truly ‘takes a village,’ and in the words of Dr. Seuss, ‘To the world you may be one person; but to one person you may be the world.’”
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