ZEPHYRHILLS — For students at Zephyrhills High School, Suellen Smith's cafeteria is far more than a place to grab some food and chat with a friend.
Under the supervision of Smith, who has worked at the school for 15 years, the cafeteria has evolved into a school-based community center for students in need.
Students referred by teachers visit the cafeteria if they are low on food and need a free snack to help get them through the day. Or if they need a special dress or formal suit for prom or homecoming, they can stop by the fully stocked clothes closet, where Smith keeps an abundance of donated formal wear. She also has donated school supplies to needy students in the past, and heads up a Relay for Life team at the school.
"She'll do anything for the students," said Octavia Dixon-Seal, a student at Zephyrhills High.
In May, Smith was honored with the Community Humanitarian Award by the Florida School Nutrition Association at the group's annual conference in Daytona Beach. Pasco's district Food and Nutrition Services director, Julie Hedine, nominated Smith for the award, which, according to a news release, "recognizes an individual who has applied his or her knowledge and expertise to help others within their community in a humanitarian effort."
As Pasco schools observe National School Lunch Week, Oct. 12 to 16, Smith will be in the cafeteria, serving students in more ways than one.
"I just try to give the kids whatever they need," said the Zephyrhills resident. "Anything that will help them stay in school, make them feel better about themselves and do the job they're supposed to be doing in school."
That includes supplying a snack to students who are referred by teachers because of a special need for food.
"I set them aside with a private place to eat, and ask them if they need anything else, like clothes," said Smith, who previously worked in the cafeteria Pasco High for 12 years.
For the past six years, Smith has maintained an extensive two-room clothes closet for students.
"When the kids get the clothes they need for these special events," she said, "they feel so happy and relieved."
Smith also has served as a mentor for students who might need a little extra guidance in their lives.
"One of my students said that it's because of me that her life is now better," said Smith. "I say she just needed to believe in herself."
Smith is also a captain of the school's American Cancer Society Relay for Life team, Bulldog Strong, and last year raised $3,500 for the effort. She has served as an adviser to the school's student council, and initially helped to spearhead a school program in which needy students can take home weekend backpacks filled with food. And in honor of the International Day of Peace, she recently encouraged students at lunch to write positive messages on colorful links for a peace-promoting paper chain that now hangs in the cafeteria.
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"I want them to know that all of these chain links, when placed together, are stronger than any individual link," she said.
Smith applies this belief to the Zephyrhills High staff, which she credits with helping to make her ideas and projects possible.
Gloria Bravo, her assistant cafeteria manager, returns the sentiment.
"Miss Sue is awesome," said Bravo. "She is really the kind of person you want to work with every day. And she loves the kids."