By Elizabeth Rose
---- — MERRIMAC — A few months ago, the students at Sweetsir School celebrated “Kindness Week.” From preschool through second grades, the kids wrote letters to someone else in the building who regularly performed acts of kindness — a person who “filled their buckets” with good feelings.
For those five days, kitchen manager Linda Vienneau had a very full mailbox as the first and second-graders inundated her with messages professing their love of her and her homemade food.
So, early last month, when Principal Mary Beth Shea heard of a statewide contest to honor a cafeteria employee, she immediately thought of Vienneau for the “Super Hero Lunch Lady” award. She gathered 25 of the children’s letters, included faculty statements, and sent the nomination package to the School Nutrition Association of Massachusetts (SNA).
Last Thursday, officials from the SNA joined Shea, Selectman Laura Mailman, and 225 students and their teachers in surprising Vienneau with the news of her win during a special assembly. During the ceremony, students clapped and cheered for Vienneau while praising her delicious food. According to her young friends, Vienneau bestows not only homemade bread and pizza but also stickers and a fun-loving attitude. The adults praised Vienneau for going above and beyond the call of duty by making the school nutrition program not only healthy, but engaging.
In addition to testimonials, Vienneau received an autographed set of “Super Hero Lunch Lady” graphic novels, a bouquet of flowers, an apron emblazoned with “Super Hero Lunch Lady” on the lapel and a scholarship to a statewide school nutrition conference.
As the students paraded from the assembly, their favorite “Super Hero Lunch Lady” had a hug for every child.
Janice Watts, chairwoman of the membership of the SNA, said the committee was amazed by the letters Vienneau received during Kindness Week.
“We received 18 nominations, all of which were very touching and inspirational, but what sealed the deal for us with Linda is all the letters that she received from students during Kindness Week at the school, long before this contest was ever announced,” she wrote in an email. “These children could have written about anyone in their lives: they chose Linda. That tells the story.”
According to Watts the award is meant to bring recognition to some of the most “unsung heroes” in our Massachusetts schools. The stereotypical image of a lunch lady is negative, she said.
“They are often depicted as mean, nasty women serving mystery meat,” Watts said.
Worcester-born author Jarrett J. Krosoczka always remembered his school’s lunch lady fondly and has now devoted a graphic novel series to her iconic memory. He has also proclaimed her birthday, May 3, to be Super Lunch Lady Hero Day. In his novels, the mild-mannered lunch lady protagonist is a secret super hero crime-solver.
“Jarrett Krosoczka’s books are a refreshing change to this [negative] stereotype, and Linda Vienneau’s attitude, effort and passion certainly dispels the myth very well, as you could see from the love spilling over in the Sweetsir School. She is an inspiration to all,” Watts added.
Like any curriculum, the school lunch program is about choices and reinforcement and, after 15 years in food service, Vienneau is happy to dish out ideas for encouraging healthy eating and a healthy lifestyle.
“When students choose a second vegetable they receive a sticker,” she said. “If I catch them in a kind act I give them a sticker. They get more hugs on Lucky Lunch day. I love the students and I love to cook.”