When Suellen Smith began stocking formal attire in a closet in the Zephyrhills High School cafeteria, she was hoping the effort would help create a little magic for some young men and women.
The cafeteria manager knew that most of the school’s students come from families that struggle financially, and she wanted to do her part to help.
So, in addition to the hundreds of meals it serves up each day, the cafeteria is also known as being a place where students needing to dress for a special occasion can do a little ‘shopping’ for free.
What began quietly, around five years ago, has helped hundreds of students make special memories.
And, while it started with the idea of helping give students a time to remember, Smith’s compassion has resulted in the cafeteria manager having a few shining moments of her own.
The honors began flowing in last year when Smith received the Community Humanitarian of the Year Award from the Florida School Nutrition Association and the “Best Behind the Scenes” award from Pasco County Schools.
She was recognized on a bigger stage recently, when she traveled to Washington D.C., where she was honored by the School Nutrition Foundation as one of five School Nutrition Heroes in the country.
A video telling the story of Smith’s fancy clothes closet and the other ways she helps students was played during the Feb. 29 national event.
It was replayed on March 15, when the Pasco County School Board lavished praise on Smith — casting a spotlight on her accomplishments.
Smith never expected the attention or applause, but she is touched by the recognition.
“It was just happenstance that it started,” Smith said.
“I just had gotten involved with the county’s Cinderella Project, and then I realized that we could do it out of here, and I’d have dresses available for the kids’ homecoming and the military ball,” she said. “It has just grown bigger and bigger through the years.”
Since returning from the nation’s Capitol, she’s received a cash donation to help with expenses, she said. “I also got a box of dresses shipped to me from Maryland,” she added.
While helping kids, Smith said she gets something, too.
“Nobody has more fun with it than I do,” she said. “I gave three away yesterday. That was three times I got to get somebody dolled up, and leaving here like a princess. It was really fun.”
She basked in the glow of recognition at the national event.
“I was a celebrity for an evening — queen for a day — that’s what I say,” Smith said.
At the conclusion of her video, throngs of people approached her at the national awards ceremony.
“So many people came up and just hugged me. And, people cried,” she said.
While Smith doesn’t view herself as a hero, it means a lot to her to be appreciated, and she hopes other cafeteria managers will feel inspired to do what they can for the kids at their schools.
“I was blessed when I started in school food service that I worked with a manager that showed me that we could do more for the children than just lunch, that we could actually touch their whole life,” Smith said, during the video. “So, that’s what I try to do.”
Published March 30, 2016