Loving Head Cook, ‘Miss Dawn,’ Wins ESP of the Year: ‘This is home to me’

By Brenda Ortega
MEA Voice Editor

At Parma Elementary School in Jackson County’s Western School District, students coming through Miss Dawn’s cafeteria line enjoy a generous serving of love along with their chicken nuggets, buttered corn and apple slices.

Dawn Hendges

“The kids absolutely love her because they know she cares,” said Principal Sue Haney. “She jokes with them, talks with them, laughs with them, knows what’s going on in their lives. They’re family for her.”

Last week, MEA member Dawn Hendges was named one of two Michigan Education Support Professionals of the Year for 2020. The school’s head cook for the past decade, Hendges says she likes to make students feel special so coming to school feels like home.

“We hug and sing have a good time, and they know they can come talk to me,” said Hendges, who started 20 years ago when her own children were little and stayed.  “They like to know someone is listening. I don’t know—it’s hard to explain how good they are. They’re amazing.”

About 250 students pass through her food line every day, and Hendges notices if one is wearing a new outfit or another is celebrating a birthday, said Food Service Director Jenny Lucas. She remembers their food preferences and special needs.

“And then they share their lives, whether it’s ‘I’m going on a camping trip this weekend,’ or ‘I’m getting a new baby brother,’ or it’s just sharing something from their day or what happened over the weekend. They’re excited to see Dawn, and she always remembers and comments on things.”

Hendges encourages students who enjoy performing to stand up at the front of the lunchroom and sing once they finish eating. She hands out suckers to students and sings happy birthday on their special day. She decorates the cafeteria for every holiday.

The pandemic has presented new challenges this year. Instead of hugs, she gives elbow bumps. And instead of feeding students in the cafeteria, she and others bring the food to classrooms. “It’s very hard right now because they like to hug, and we can’t, but we still have fun,” she said.

Her effect on students can be seen even with COVID-19 restrictions in place, Lucas said. When the breakfast or lunch serving table arrives at the classroom door, students have to be discouraged from hugging Dawn.

“The teachers will have students line up at the door, or they’ll have us bring in the meals and set them on a table, and all the kids want to rush up to see Dawn,” her supervisor said.

She goes the extra mile, Principal Haney added. In a normal year, when monthly Friday night lock-ins are part of the routine, Hendges takes time off from her second job at Kohl’s department store to supervise the fun, even though it’s unpaid.

Now two evenings a week, she helps to distribute bagged meals for families in the community in need of food assistance. “And I’m sure, for the kids who maybe don’t have money in their lunch account, she puts part of her paycheck in the cash register making sure those kids get fed.”

It takes many different people to meet the needs of kids, Haney said. “In a school of 400 students, some of them connect most with the cook or the parapro or the playground ladies… people – like Dawn – whose hearts connect with kids sometimes when others can’t reach them.”

No one was certain who nominated Hendges for the award, and she seemed perplexed by the attention. “This makes me very nervous!” Hendges said. “I just love my job. It’s what I’ve been doing for so long—this is home to me.”

To offer this award, the Michigan Department of Education partners with MEA; AFT Michigan; and AFSCME Council 25. Awardees receive $1,000 and consideration for the national Recognizing Inspiring School Employees (RISE) Award, overseen by the U.S. Department of Education.