ZEPHYRHILLS — "Mrs. Smith goes to Washington" is how Suellen Smith, the Zephyrhills High School cafeteria manager, describes the honor she has received from the national nonprofit School Nutrition Foundation.
Smith has been recognized as one of five 2016 School Nutrition Heroes, which, according to a news release, "are nominated by peers and chosen by SNF to represent the many professionals who have dedicated their lives to serving the needs of their school district and community."
The heroes will be recognized at the foundation's Celebration of School Nutrition Heroes during the School Nutrition Association's 44th Legislative Action Conference, Feb. 27 to March 1, in Washington, D.C. Smith will make the trip along with Pasco County schools food and nutrition services director Julie Hedine.
Affiliated with the School Nutrition Association, the foundation "is dedicated to securing financial resources for education, professional development, scholarships and research in school nutrition."
"I'm very honored and humbled," said Smith, a Zephyrhills resident. "This is a big thing, and I'm just blown away."
Smith, who last May received the Community Humanitarian Award from the Florida School Nutrition Association, is being honored for evolving her cafeteria into a community center for students in need. She maintains a two-room clothing closet, offering formal wear to outfit students for prom, homecoming and graduation. She also supplies free snacks to students whom teachers have identified as being in need of food, and she mentors pupils in a variety of ways, from helping them fill out college scholarships to alerting them of positive notices about themselves and their classmates in local newspapers.
Smith also is a captain of the school-based American Cancer Society Relay for Life team, Bulldog Strong, and she has served as an adviser to the Zephyrhills High Student Council, initially helping to spearhead a program in which students in need can take home weekend backpacks filled with food.
"I just started off as a regular lunch lady," said Smith, who has served the school for 15 years and who previously worked in the Pasco High School cafeteria for 12 years. "I learned a long time ago that you could do so much more as a cafeteria worker than feed them lunch."
During her visit to Washington, D.C., Smith hopes to learn more about how bills and laws affecting school lunch programs are implemented. She also wants to do her share of sightseeing.
"This will be an adventure," she said.
Smith credits the students she serves with all of the honors she receives.
"It's all about the kids," she said. "Without them, where would I be?"