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Changing lives 1 person — and 1 meal — at a time

.Fairhaven cafeteria supervisor Lindsey Ison and her garden at Fairhaven By R. Michael Semple

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is one of a series of Saturday profiles of area residents and their stories. To suggest a profile, contact features editor Burton Cole at bcole@tribtoday.com or metro editor Marly Reichert at mreichert@tribtoday.com.

NILES — “It all started with one teacher coming to say, ‘My student is hungry,'” Fairhaven School cafeteria supervisor Lindsey Ison said. “Look at us now.”

The Boardman resident originally from Austintown was recognized nationally as a LifeChanger of the Year for starting a food backpack program — fully supported by grants and donations — that grew out of that one hungry child’s need.

Now Ison, 40, is turning some of the LifeChanger award money into a network of gardens at Fairhaven that will be used for everything from science and math courses to cooking classes.

Up next is the Bulldog Boutique, named for the school mascot, that will enhance students’ job skills while supplying families with necessities from winter coats to diapers.

Plus the cafeteria prepares 200 meals per day — breakfasts and lunches — that go to students’ homes while school’s out.

“I’m the cheerleading coach, too,” Ison said. “I like to keep busy. It’s so much fun.

“No, this isn’t what the (cafeteria supervisor) job is,” Ison said with a laugh. “This is what’s on my heart to do for our students and families.

“My faith is what drives me. When something’s on your heart — it started out helping that one person who didn’t have breakfast. I just kept going. Everything kept falling into place.”

BEGINNINGS

Food and family were cornerstones of Ison’s early life.

“I was always in the kitchen cooking. I was always planting,” she said. “My family was generally Italian. You had the Sunday family dinners. You had the gardens,” she said. “My dad still has a garden. He grows blueberries and watermelon.”

The Austintown Fitch High School graduate earned a degree in nutrition and food

science at Youngstown State University.

“I feel like food can do so many things for you, from healing ailments to nutrition for the body to bringing joy during family time,” she said. “I’m a science buff, so I love all the science behind the food and all the chemistry.”

The gardens at Fairhaven so far consist of two small square beds. Local Boy Scouts plan to build two raised beds at wheelchair height. Other garden beds are also in the works.

“I’d like to get planters and put blueberries and watermelon and stuff like that, so that will be in the works, too,” she said. “I also want to build a greenhouse.”

THE WINDING ROAD

Ison’s career followed roads — and sometimes air miles.

“I worked for Northside Hospital once I turned 18 and graduated high school,” she said. “I also worked at Beeghly Medical Center as needed, too, before it became Akron Children’s Hospital.” Roles included ER registration, admitting and scheduling.

Plus, she worked with infants in daycare in Austintown. On top of her studies, hospital and daycare work, Ison ran on the YSU cross country team.

“I also attended the Ohio College of Massage Therapy in Akron,” she said. “A focus on holistic health and wellness and sharing it with others has always been a part of my life.”

She moved to Arizona to work in the nutrition department of Scottsdale Healthcare. “Waking up in the beautiful mountains every day felt like I lived in a resort,” she said.

Volunteer work included working with the activities department at an assisted-living center.

“After experiencing Arizona, I decided to return to Ohio to be closer to family.”

She obtained a State Tested Nursing Assistant license and worked in home health care for Caring Hearts. “I took care of people in their homes around the Valley. I would make their favorite dishes, so I learned a lot of new recipes. I heard their stories from war and marriage and loss.”

Another work experience was with the Schumacher Group as a regional administrator in 12 hospitals along the East Coast from Sunbury, Pa., to Naples, Fla. “There was a lot of travel required and my daughters were young, so I chose to return to Northside Hospital.”

When Northside started to close Ison landed a job as food service supervisor at Omni Manor Healthcare in Austintown. She took the post at Fairhaven School for students with disabilities about three years ago.

“Coming here with our students, it’s been such a blessing. This is my home. I love coming to work,” she said.

CHANGING LIVES

Nominating Ison for the LifeChanger of the Year Award, Principal Sandra Kernen wrote, “Oftentimes, parents aren’t even sure who the cafeteria supervisor is.

“Since her first year, she has been chasing down grant funding and discovering ways to educate students, staff and families about healthy eating. However, she manages to do it in fun ways, such as having Olaf visit classrooms during lunch time to share the benefits of carrots or having Moana share fruit and dance moves to keep students moving and healthy.

“Ms. Ison secured grants to ensure each student in the program receives free lunches for the next four years,” Kernen wrote.

Ison is quick to point out that she does none of these projects alone. Donations for backpacks and the garden project so far have come from the Trumbull County Board of Developmental Disabilities, the Cafaro Foundation, Ronald McDonald House, Fairhaven Golf Association, the Fairhaven Foundation, the Community Foundation, Home Savings and Lowe’s.

Student help comes through the CITE — Community Integrated Training for Employment. The Bulldog Boutique will be coordinated with Lisa Casassa, the early intervention director.

ONE PERSON AT A TIME

Staying busy is not just a thing at school for Ison and her four children, ages 4 to 12.

Besides teaching third-graders in Sunday school at Old North Church in Canfield, Ison got together a group called Making Kids Count in Boardman to collect and bag diapers, clothes, baby strollers and whatever else is needed to supply churches and schools.

She and her family also did an apple pie bake-off for the Rescue Mission and volunteer with a food bank in Columbiana; they volunteered at Thanksgiving for veterans at the Covelli Centre.

Being a blessing doesn’t have to involve masses of people and flashy projects. For people too overwhelmed by the giant task of trying to help everyone, Ison offers a favorite quote from Mother Teresa: “Never worry about numbers. Help one person at a time and always start with the person nearest you.”

bcole@tribtoday.com

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