By Kathryn Coulibaly, NJEA staff
Thirty years ago, Lois Yukna pulled a school bus out of the yard for the first time, and began a journey that ultimately drove her—after a career change and countless hours of union activism and community service—to be named the 2017 NJEA Educational Support Professional of the Year. Along the way, she earned local and county ESP of the Year awards from the Woodbridge Township and Middlesex County education associations.
Today, Yukna is the proud mother of two daughters, Rachel, a chemistry teacher in Woodbridge, and Kristina, a pharmaceutical representative. She is immensely proud of her seven grandchildren.
But Yukna’s career in education began when her two daughters were young children, and she was looking for a way to provide for her family. A friend who worked as a bus aide suggested that she become a bus driver. For Yukna, it was the perfect solution, especially since at that time, drivers were permitted to bring their children with them.
She began working as a substitute bus driver in 1986 and became permanent two years later. Every year, her school district proposed a reduction in force (RIF) in its budget, leaving the chance that Yukna would not get rehired, but she persevered through the uncertainty.
Yukna loved driving a school bus, but she saw a need for professional development among drivers like herself, and pushed hard to create those opportunities.
She worked with Sen. Bob Singer to make changes to the Commercial Driver’s License (CDL) licensure and volunteered to provide voluntary training classes for her co-workers to help them meet the new requirements.
She was the first person to take the new CDL certification test with everyone in the department watching.
Eventually, Yukna was hired to serve as a driver/trainer and received hourly compensation to train her co-workers after her usual bus runs. Eventually, her title became driver/trainer/safety coordinator.
After decades behind the wheel of a school bus, Yukna has taken on a new challenge this year. She’s now a school attendance officer, working closely with students, parents, guidance counselors, Child Study Team staff, and principals to ensure that everyone is on the same page. She conducts home visits, phones parents and works with the courts if students fail to meet the attendance requirements.
Her experience as a bus driver is valuable in her new position because she has seen firsthand which students were having attendance issues. In those years on the bus, Yukna had already recognized the importance of attendance on student achievement.
Yukna wanted to use her knowledge and experience as a school employee to benefit the broader community, so when the Middlesex County Education Association asked for volunteers, Yukna became involved with the Juvenile Conference Committee (JCC). The JCC is a citizen volunteer panel appointed by the Family Division Judge of Superior Court, which hears and decides cases involving alleged juvenile offenders.
Yukna saw students from her school district who were failing because of attendance issues.
“Attendance issues were always cast as the bus driver’s fault, or the school district’s fault,” Yukna says. “But I knew that wasn’t true.”
Yukna wants to be an advocate for students, but she also knows it is important for children to learn respect for authority and to understand the consequences of their actions.
“I’ve experienced things in my life that help me relate to the kids in the JCC program, Yukna said. “I always tell them my story because how else will they understand that I really know what they’re going through?”
Yukna grew up in Jersey City and moved to Carteret before her sophomore year of high school. The educational opportunities she wished for weren’t available to her, so she focused on ensuring they were available for her daughters.
As a result of the challenges she has faced, and conquered, she takes her work very personally. She not only sees herself in her students, but also her own children. “If something happened to me, someone would help my children,” she said.
Because of her experience with the JCC, and her expertise as a school bus driver and public school employee, Yukna saw a way to do things differently and looks for ways to act on her perspective.
More than two years ago, she worked with a guidance counselor at Woodbridge High School. Together, they developed a grant through the National Education Association (NEA) that funded a $90,000 pilot program for 100 students with chronic absenteeism at the high school.
As a result of their absenteeism, these students were not on track to graduate. They were dealing with home life issues, self-esteem issues and a lack of responsibility. Traditional punishments, such as suspension, weren’t helping them get back on track because the students were often getting in trouble with law enforcement while out of school on suspension.
Thanks to the program, students had an opportunity to go online and take classes to catch up and there was a united team working to get them back on track. Students and families received educational services, as well as motivational and leadership development counseling. The program has already reaped rewards: it reduced the drop-out rate and helps to keep at-risk students out of the school-to-prison pipeline.
Recently, the team won another $20,000 grant from NEA to expand the program.
Yukna believes in the power of collaboration between the school district and local association.
“What we’re here for is to educate children,” Yukna said “In order to educate them, they have to be here.”
For 20 years, Yukna has sacrificed her personal and family time to do union work.
“When I first started working, there were some issues and I started to question things,” Yukna recalled. “I went to NJEA’s Union School and was in the second NJEA Bolivar L. Graham Apprentice class. I got that fire in my belly for union activism.”
As an NJEA Apprentice, Yukna shadowed two Union County field representatives. She worked with them on many of their job assignments and observed numerous negotiations sessions.
“When I first got involved with my local association, I sat my family down and said, ‘I really want to be a building rep, but I need to know I have your support wherever it takes me,’” Yukna remembered.
Yukna worked her way through every job in her association, except treasurer, to prepare herself to be president. She served on the NEA Board of Directors and is the president of the Middlesex County Education Association—the first ESP elevated to that office in the county. Yukna has held office at the local, county, state, and national levels. She has served on seven committees at the local level, 10 committees at the county level, 15 committees and task forces at the state level, and eight committees at the national level. In addition, she has served as a delegate to numerous conferences.
For Yukna, the countless hours have been a labor of love. “I love union work. I love helping people.”
Yukna’s grandson, for one, is impressed by her record. “Grandmom, I’m so proud of you. You do a lot of work for a lot of people,” he said.
Yukna believes in the power of a union to transform lives.
“I would not be where I am today without NJEA,” Yukna said. “I took advantage of everything NJEA had to offer and it’s benefited me in my professional life, my personal life, and in the community service I provide.”
“I’m excited and humbled to be the ESP of the Year,” Yukna says. “I want to break this award into pieces and give it to every ESP because it belongs to all of them. I want support staff to know that you can be whatever you want to be; you just have to have the time and the commitment to work for it.”
Yukna encourages ESPs to be vocal and do what they feel is right.
“You may not always win or get the results you want, but if you’re doing it for the right reasons, the payoff will be there in the end.”
Kathryn Coulibaly is the associate editor of the NJEA Review and provides content and support to njea.org.
Secretary Angela Kaufmann – Westwood Education Association
Instructional Aide Paul Reagle – Sterling Education Association
Secretary Lisa Salimbene – Dennis Township Education Association
Instructional Aide Susan Hickman – Upper Deerfield Township Education Association
Instructional Assistant Gloria Stewart – Orange Education Association
Custodian Robert McCullough – Woodbury Education Association
Custodian Antonio Perez – West New York Education Association
Paraprofessional Grace Snyder – Union Township Education Association
Paraprofessional Shirley Hicks – Trenton Education Association
Attendance Officer Lois Yukna – Woodbridge Township Education Association
Paraprofessional Regina Jagoo – Asbury Park Education Association
Custodian Steve Aitchinson – Morris Plains Education Association
Attendance Secretary Linda Lombardo – Manchester Township Education Association
Paraprofessional Brianne Hartmann -Hawthorne Teachers’ Association
Librarian/Media Specialist Aide David Gallagher – Penns Grove Carney’s Point Education Association
Paraprofessional Linda Garoian – Hillsborough Education Association
Paraprofessional Jayne Heinz – Sparta Education Association
Secretary Angela Lawler – Hillside Education Association
Custodian Angie Heath – Hackettstown Education Association
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