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Out of darkness emerges a ‘ray of sunshine’

Photo: iStock / Getty Images Plus
By Pete Levine ·
Out of darkness emerges a ‘ray of sunshine’
Photo credit: Member-provided photo.

When Vicky Yarger describes her former colleague from Altoona, Pennsylvania’s, Penn-Lincoln Elementary, Janice DeAntonio, she runs out of superlatives.

“Her personality is amazing.” “The kids love her.” “She lights up the room.” “She’s like a ray of sunshine.”

Why the breathless outpouring of compliments for DeAntonio, the school’s secretary? Why did Yarger, who has since left Penn-Lincoln (she had served as a part-time secretary alongside DeAntonio), nominate DeAntonio for AFSCME’s Never Quit Service Award?

Take one example: just prior to the pandemic, in February 2020, DeAntonio sat down to pen individual Valentine’s Day cards for the school’s students. All 385 of them.

“That’s just the kind of person she is,” says Yarger.

For DeAntonio, those gestures are every bit as important – and sometimes more important – than her day-to-day duties.

“I wanted to make sure every one of these kids knows someone cares about them,” she says. “That’s me. I always want someone to feel like they’re appreciated or cared about.”

DeAntonio, who has worked at Penn-Lincoln since 2000, admits with a warm frankness that Penn-Lincoln is a “tough school.”

A parent of a student may be imprisoned or absent. The neighborhoods that feed into the school are high-poverty areas.

But the kids, DeAntonio says, “are wonderful. They appreciate the small things and a smile. Yours might be the only smiling face they see all day.”

DeAntonio, a member of AFSCME Local 2952 (District Council 83), says she hadn’t even heard of Penn-Lincoln when she started applying for jobs back in 2000. It certainly wasn’t the closest school to where she lived, but she followed her intuition and took a leap of faith; a leap that’s paid off.

“It turned out to be the best place,” DeAntonio says. “It’s very rewarding. Some days are very challenging but there always seems to be something that happens – someone stops by and says, ‘We don’t know what we’d do without you.’”

It’s common, DeAntonio says, for people to remind her of the role she’s played in their lives. Often, they’re former students who remember one of her kind gestures. Or they might be former high school students DeAntonio mentored in their senior year, when they volunteered as student-teachers at Penn-Lincoln.

In part, DeAntonio credits the role itself – secretary – with allowing her to connect with students in a unique way.

“I have a different relationship with them [than their teachers]. I’m neutral. I’ve had kids talk to me about their personal life or, at Christmas, we try to help families in need,” said DeAntonio. “We’ll be a Secret Santa. It’s not just me – we do that as a group – we provide dinners for them and presents and they appreciate it.”

DeAntonio says that the entire school staff works together to lift up kids who may not get the support or attention they need at home.

But if being a secretary provides a unique foothold into kids’ lives, there’s little doubt DeAntonio has her own gifts.

She recalls one instance years ago when a student was sent down to see the school nurse. The child waved at her on the way. DeAntonio learned the child never showed up at the nurse’s office.

“It was just an odd situation. I checked and the story wasn’t jiving. I said, ‘Something isn’t right.’”

DeAntonio flagged it for the student’s teacher, and they eventually discovered the student had planned to harm themselves. If DeAntonio hadn’t intervened, the child could have gone through with it.

She was later told, “You pretty much saved this child’s life.’’

“That was the day I cried the whole way home,” DeAntonio says.

If DeAntonio’sco gift to Penn-Lincoln has been saving kids’ lives – literally or figuratively – she admits that there was a time she needed saving.

Many years before she joined Penn-Lincoln, DeAntonio was a 26-year-old expecting mom, married, eagerly awaiting the birth of her son.

But her husband was killed in an industrial accident, and she suddenly found herself a single mom.

“My husband passed away shortly after I got pregnant,” she recalls. “He was only 32. He knew he was having a baby. Next month, he died in an industrial accident. I hit rock bottom.”

Left to grieve, with few resources, DeAntonio eventually had to climb her way out. It took everything she had.

“Giving up was never an option. You have to find the strength to keep going,” she says solemnly. “Thankfully, we got through that.”

She draws on that well of strength today to help her students overcome the adversity they face.

“That made me a stronger person. I reached down and pulled the strength out.”

Nearly a quarter of a century into the job, DeAntonio admits there are times when the role can get the better of her. But she has no plans to retire – at least not yet.

“There are definitely days when I think I want to retire, but no,” she says. “It just keeps me going. It’s my extended family, and I feel like I have many children and grandchildren. I enjoy it.”

Never Quit Service Awards

Know a co-worker who goes above and beyond the call of duty to make their community better? Nominate them for AFSCME’s Never Quit Service Award.

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