Custodians serve as schools’ wizards behind the curtain
To mark the upcoming National Custodial Worker’s Recognition Day (Oct. 2), FCPS Creative Media Productions asked Larry Mazzoni, a custodial and facilities manager in Plant Operations, to recommend a few of the district’s best employees. He quickly tapped Chad Vaughn at the Academy for Leadership at Millcreek Elementary, Ed Gonzalez at Winburn Middle, and Steve Coofer at Paul Laurence Dunbar High School. “The dedication and perseverance of these three is second to none. Each has taken on a monstrous task and succeeded beyond expectations,” Mazzoni said, adding, “We are not normally in the spotlight and don’t expect it. But I can without a doubt say we have quite a few custodial staffs that deserve some thanks.”
Custodians face physical and psychological demands that require stamina and versatility, as lead custodian Chad Vaughn well knows. “It’s a busy job. Anything can go at any time. Schedules are wonderful and great, but you’ve got to be flexible. I learned that quickly when I came on board,” said Vaughn, who has served at Millcreek for 11 years.
Mazzoni recalled how Vaughn turned things around at this elementary site. “Chad worked diligently to reverse the course this building was on. I would put the cleanliness and operation of Millcreek up against any facility in Fayette County and grade it in the Top 3. When walking into Millcreek now and realizing what it used to be, it’s a day and night difference,” Mazzoni said.
Vaughn also ensures his supplies are organized and his crew looks sharp, right down to their matching wardrobe, admitting, “I’m a very neat guy.” Staff and students can easily spot the three custodial workers in their navy shirts and khaki pants. “At times it can get tough and sweaty, but the main thing is we’ve got to look (professional),” Vaughn explained.
Whether moving equipment for teachers, covering breakfast duty with the youngsters, or finishing paperwork for facilities rentals, he remains upbeat and confident. “I usually get here a little early so I can get a head start,” Vaughn said. “I make sure the building is open and the lights are on. I do the downstairs, front foyer, office area, and the gym. The most important thing is making sure the school has a clean environment for the kids to come in to learn.”
“The kids motivate me with their smiles. If they’re struggling, we try to get them back on the right track,” he said, adding, “I love my staff here, and I love Millcreek as well. It’s an honor to be in this job and to be around great people.”
Lead custodian Ed Gonzalez has worked at Winburn for almost six years after a brief stint with Morton Middle. In addition to their hands-on duties, he and his crew also provide other types of support. For instance, as a bilingual staffer, Gonzalez pitches in with interpreting and translating for families because a third of Winburn’s students are Hispanic.
“We deal with the students the same way teachers and the administrators do. Some of them approach us more than other people – it all depends on the student. We talk to them and try to guide them or get them the help they need,” Gonzalez said. “I like to help the kids and make sure you’re doing the right thing for them.”
On the custodial side, Gonzalez cited communication as a key component for him and the three other workers at Winburn. “There’s a lot of demands so you have to have patience, especially dealing with (safety) drills and coordinating events for teachers. We want to make sure they’re comfortable in those areas,” he said.
Like his lead counterparts, Gonzalez arrives around 6:30 a.m. to make sure the building is ready for the day. “I check all the A/C units and make sure we have no leaks, check the boiler room, clean the front office, and work with the administration if there are any issues from the day before,” he said. The shifts are staggered, so his crew can divide the work requests after lunch.
Mazzoni, from Plant Operations, remembers when this school’s environment was less than ideal. “Ed took over Winburn Middle in its worst condition,” he said. “Within the first year, I noticed an upswing. It took a few years to clean up the neglected building, but Ed has done just that and now has one of the better buildings in the district.”
Steve Coofer knows a thing or two about hard work. He has logged 26 years at Dunbar, where these days he supervises a crew of 10 custodians. “I started as a part-time worker and went through the ranks and made campus foreman in three years,” he recalled. Coofer has also worked 20-plus hours a week at UPS for the past 18 years. Despite the grueling schedule, he has stayed on top of everything and earned respect in Plant Operations.
“Steve has kept Dunbar High School looking its best and operating as flawless as possible. He has also hosted a number of state events over the years and always has the building and grounds ready,” Mazzoni said. “He has worked all hours of the day and night whenever needed. He is dedicated to his facility and goes above and beyond to make sure his staff is doing their jobs.”
On a typical day, after Coofer opens the doors and raises the flag out front, he checks online for teachers’ requests and work orders that he can handle without calling the maintenance staff. He later tackles the bottom level with a dust mop, clears trash from the cafeteria tables, and preps spaces for special meetings or events such as testing in the gym. “People might just think it’s all about the cleaning, but there’s a whole lot on the other side as far as getting the building set up for functions. We’ve already had three open houses (this fall),” he noted. “And when it’s over, we’ve got to make sure the school is ready for the morning.”
“You’re doing something kind of special, making the atmosphere for teachers to teach and students to learn. We might be in the background, but we’re up front because we make it happen for the school,” Coofer added. “The most satisfaction is when people compliment you in the hallway on how the building’s looking, and a lot of people thank you for what you do.”