This summer we launched a campaign to highlight staff in our district to tell their story and how they make The Bellingham Promise come to life. As the year continues we will meet more staff, at all our schools and learn more about them and their work.
Here are the first six stories.
Katrina Foster, Department of Finance and Operations executive secretary
“I grew up on two wheels. My parents used to take us and we’d camp out at the Hannegan Speedway every summer. My dad was on the board there, and I still have friends that race there. This is a 2016 Moto Guzzi V7. It’s kind of a hybrid bike in terms of that it’s not a cruiser and it’s not a sport bike, it’s like an everywhere bike.
My daughter is in school now, she’s six. She will be in first grade at Birchwood next year. Now that she’s in school, I am at Birchwood a lot more. I volunteer in the library once a week and it definitely gives me a new perspective of what it takes to run a school as opposed to what it takes to run a school at the district level. It’s a lot more hands-on work–you understand why you’re not getting emails back right away from the school staff.
I love the variety of my work. It changes every day. I never come in and do the same thing over again; with my old job it was a lot of repetition. I also love my coworkers–we have great rapport, so it makes it a really enjoyable workday. We’re all really approachable. When people think about the office of the assistant superintendent of Finance and Operations, they may think we’re a bunch of button-pushing accountants, but we really like to help people and help them understand what we do and how we do it. We really make the funding happen behind the schools.”
Kim Remsing – Transportation Operations Supervisor
“I drove for seven years before I started working behind the desk. For me, when I was a driver, the last day of school, no matter what, I was always in tears because I was going to miss my kids. That’s probably the one thing I always remember. You build connections with them.
I think a school bus driver–not my job as operations supervisor, but a school bus driver–is probably one of the toughest jobs there is, and I don’t think people recognize that enough. They’re here at 6 a.m., then they come back and they are here until 5 p.m. They have 60 kids behind them, driving down a freeway trying to make sure the kids are all staying in their seats and behaving. You have to have a love for kids and a love for driving, just to really love this job, and we have a whole team of people like that.
I’ve been working 21 years in people transportation. Now, I work mostly with the students in Special Education or with students who are homeless, arranging bus transportation for them. I work with the Special Education staff from the director to the school paraeducators assisting and helping with student behaviors and management on buses. I also plan all the Special Education routes.
I have to put this whole puzzle together–I have to take all the pieces and make them fit, so they not only fit economically but time-wise and everything else. If one new student comes in, about five different pieces have to come out and you have to rearrange and figure out how to put those pieces back in.
I enjoy my job a lot. I think more than anything for me, it’s working with the staff and the drivers especially. I think all of us here, would do just about anything for our drivers to help support them and help them succeed. I think we have a fantastic team. I always say that, not that I’m looking to go anywhere, but job postings come up and maybe they’ll be more money, and I think, do I want to leave here? Is the grass greener? I don’t think it is; we have a really great team here.
I felt like I was called here. I’d been at Evergreen Public Schools for 17 years, but I knew there was no movement for me at that time. I applied for this job twice–I didn’t get it the first time which is ok.
I had my birthday party on Lummi Island, before I ever knew about this job or that I was going to move up here. We rented a house and we had so much fun, I just loved it here and thought I really need to move up to that area. Then this job came about. Bellingham is home now, even though I’ve only been here five years.”
Matt Read – Buildings and Grounds Lead
“The work never ends. This summer we are working on a lot of ball fields and teacher moves. We plod along. Then, before you know it, the kids are back. I look forward to the kids coming back though. That’s why we’re here, I mean, the kids and faculty. I’ve made many relationships with the faculty now over 20 years – to where I kind of miss them. I like seeing people, the gym teachers, the faculty. They always come talk to me. That’s what I like and that’s why I started to work for the schools to begin with. Over time, I think a lot of people could figure out grounds, but if you can have relationships with people I think that’s more important.
My department is buildings and grounds and about half is grounds – my crew. We’ve got three guys that are right near 40 years’ experience in-house, and a couple of guys are new, which is a good blend. That’s what makes it interesting to me, because the young guys can teach stuff to the old guys and the old guys can obviously teach stuff to the young guys and me. I’m the lead, but I can still learn from the young guys. I like the community we have in grounds. I think it’s a special thing in itself, just the way we work together. Synergy, was the word someone described to me once, its greater than the sum of its parts, and we work together well that way. That’s why I like this job.”
Greg Verbarendse – Systems Analyst
“I started playing French horn in sixth grade band at Shuksan. I studied piano early on because my mom is a pianist, and then I switched to the French horn for band and stayed with it. I studied music at Western and got a music performance degree on the French horn and still play today. I freelance a little bit, I play mostly with the Bellingham Symphony Orchestra. Working as a musician, I’m not a solo artist, so whether it’s in chamber music or the symphony, you’re working collaboratively. I think there is tremendous value in learning that.
My mother-in-law is a retired school teacher, and I have a lot of friends who are teachers now, so I’ve always had a great amount of respect for the work teachers do. The main thing that’s changed my perspective, now that my son is in school, is seeing how much work goes on behind the scenes and how hard people work, with the central office here, with buildings and grounds, transportation, the unsung heroes of supporting everything else that goes into teaching besides the classroom work. Prior to working here, I wouldn’t have really understood that.
I think it’s tremendously impressive seeing how much everybody cares and how hard everybody works to keep things going–nobody takes anything for granted here. We have an amazing team in IT. It’s one of the best teams I’ve worked with anywhere as far as the group as a whole. My favorite thing about my job is how dynamic it is: I do a lot of project work, but I also support all our staff and students too, so every day is a different mix of regular user support, project work and planning long term goals as well as getting the day-to-day stuff done.
I’ve also been really impressed with the school district working as a SEIU union leader. I’ve been impressed with the relationships that the administration has kept with unions. I feel like we truly work as partners to develop solutions; whether it’s in bargaining or other personnel issues, we are working as a team.”
Isabel Meaker – Executive Director of Family Engagement
“This job was supposed to be my six-month detour I was going to take, now it’s my tenth year here. What happened?
I attended Western for my BA in Spanish. I thought I wanted to be a teacher, and somebody told me, “You need to spend some time at a school.” AmeriCorps came just at the same time. I thought, aha, this is interesting, because the AmeriCorps job was to connect with Latino families, and I remembered being terrified of going to my daughter’s school. So I thought, I’m doing this. But it was the end of September, early October, by the time I got to Shuksan (Middle School). I thought, I’ll do this job until about June, and then I’ll do something else. And then the next year I thought, I started a few little things–I want to finish them. I wanted to go one more year–and that was when Dr. Baker came.
Dr. Baker was brand new himself too. He was interested in connecting with students and families who were historically marginalized. The first time I met him was because he wanted to go to meet families at their apartment building. We went there, and he was really interested in hearing what the parents had to say; they really wanted to connect, but they didn’t have a way to connect with our district. It was a great, great evening. Then Dr. Baker said he wanted to do a linkage between the school board and the Latino community and the district couldn’t get anyone to show up. I said, how many people do you want there? They said they would invite 15 and three would show up. I said, you want 15, I’ll invite 15–and 20 showed up that evening. That was the night that Dr. Baker learned that, in the school district, nobody was doing the work that I was doing through AmeriCorps. I think he thought that I worked for the district.
A lot of people ask what I do as executive director of family engagement. What I do is I help families to get to know what we are doing in the schools, and I help the school staff connect with what’s happening at home. When we work together and when the kids see we are speaking the same language that’s when we see the magic happen. We are connecting these two worlds.
Literally the reason why I fell in love with this work is because I cannot disconnect from seeing myself as that mom, because I remember how I felt. If there would have been somebody doing the work that we do, that would have felt so good. Because of my own experiences, I feel like it is hard to let go. Sometimes it’s not even that somebody needs to do something for you. Sometimes they just need encouragement to know that they can do this. That can make it a lot easier. I want to be able to be that person.”
Mataio Gillis – Food Services Culinary Program Supervisor
“Food has represented “safety” for me since the earliest age I can remember, so naturally I started being interested in cooking so that I could be around food more often. When I turned 14 I got a worker’s permit, and got a job as a prep cook. Someone really took a chance on me. I saw this link sort of between me being happy, me being joyous and me having an opportunity to create. I said yes, I want more of this. Cooking and being in a kitchen became the source of joy, it became more about feeding others and I just wanted more. So it was only natural to enroll in culinary school and commit to a career serving others.
Over the past 32 years, I worked my way up from prep cook to chef to owner, all of these years of experience have led me here. I have to say that working here is the opportunity of a lifetime and I’m so lucky to have been included as part of a team that is taking on something like this menu restructuring!
When we sat down on my first day, we were talking about a 10% transition to scratch cooking; six months later we are publishing a menu with more than 60% transition; in the first year!
I’m excited about the opportunities to train and teach staff on the new menu recipes. I’m also excited to think about a school menu that has a focus on vegetarian items and is even featuring vegan options like the chickpea masala, and falafel and hummus. I love that. I’m excited about all these new options and to see what kids’ reactions are going to be.
One of the most positive things about the food service staff here is, no matter what, if you asked any person in food service why they are here, they will tell you it’s for the kids. If there are any kids who were like me and are going to look at this meal as joy or security, as happiness or as ‘this is the best part of my day,’ even if it’s just five kids next year that I can give that back to, then that’s closing the loop. I’m truly happy to have this opportunity.”