Harpswell school raises more than $2K for beloved lunch lady

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HARPSWELL — Theresa Desjardins often says no one leaves her kitchen hungry.

Desjardins, known as “Ms. D.”, has been the cook at Harpswell Community School for nearly 13 years

In recent months, however, she has been out of work while recovering from a long-awaited kidney transplant. Although she is set to return next week, in her absence, students, staff and other members of the school community have raised almost $2,400 to assist with her medical bills.

The funds came primarily from a benefit spaghetti dinner held Feb. 9, where ceramic hearts made by every student in the school were sold for a suggested donation of $3-$5. Admission to the dinner was $5 per person, or $20 for families of four or more.

Michelle Chasse, a second-grade teacher who helped plan the event, said she came up with the idea at a meeting, while listening to a teacher from the Williams-Cone School in Topsham speak about his wife, who was also in need of a kidney transplant. When the idea of fundraising for her came up, Chasse was inspired.

“It encouraged me that they were doing a fundraiser, and it occurred to me that we could help Theresa,” she said.

Because the school has held spaghetti dinners in the past, Chasse and Cheryl Card, the school secretary, thought it would be a good way to raise the money. Teacher Debbie O’Neil and education technician Barbara McGovern also helped with the planning.

Chasse said Desjardins has a special connection with students, often staying in touch with them long after they leave Harpswell Community School.

“This (was) an opportunity for the community, even those who are no longer in the schools, to connect and be there for her,” Chasse said.

Teachers, staff, students and parents came together for the spaghetti dinner, where nearly every staff member took on different assignments, including waiting tables and serving food.

Chasse said several food service workers from around School Administrative District 75 volunteered to cook for the event, and district discounts paired with a donation made it possible not to use any money raised to pay for food.

“I feel pleased with what we were able to do for her, pretty much our whole teaching staff was there and worked the entire time,” Chasse said. “Even our custodian brought his kids for dinner and then volunteered his clean-up time.”

In addition to making the ceramic hearts, each grade level also crafted table decorations, which Chasse said helped students “feel ownership” at the dinner.

She added though the majority of attendees were members of the current school community, some people with children no longer attending the school also came, including a mother whose daughter is now in college.

According to Desjardin’s GoFundMe Page, before December, she had been awaiting a kidney transplant for eight years. The page also states Desjardin’s health insurance is “great,” but does not cover everything.

On Tuesday, Desjardins said when she was first hospitalized with kidney failure eight years ago, she was approached by a school staff member and asked how she would feel about a fundraiser. She initially refused. 

She said she is a private person, and many people at school did not know she was sick. But she consented after a member of her transplant team encouraged her to consider fundraising when costs began piling up.

“In the end I am glad I did because I have been out of work for almost three months with almost no income,” Desjardins said. “I was nervous going into the spaghetti dinner, because I don’t enjoy being in the spotlight, but it was a beautiful and humbling experience.”

Card said the money raised will likely cover about a month of Desjardin’s medical expenses. “It is my understanding that it costs approximately $2,000 a month in medications,” she said.

Card added she is still accepting donations, and ceramic hearts are still for sale. Anyone interested in donating can send a check payable to Harpswell Community School to 308 Harpswell Islands Road. 

Principal Betsy Lane, who took over after former Principal Kerry Bailey retired late last year, said the impact Desjardins has had on the school and its surrounding community is evident.

“I have a sense just being here this short amount of time that she is a highly respected member of the community,” Lane said. 

Desjardins said she is excited to return to serving students.

“I love my little school community and I feel so very blessed,” she said. “I will be returning to work soon and am excited to get back to my ‘other family.'”

Elizabeth Clemente can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or eclemente@theforecaster.net. Follow Elizabeth on Twitter @epclemente

Cheryl Card, left, Harpswell Community School secretary, and her mother Joan Chonko enjoy the benefit spaghetti dinner for lunch lady Theresa Desjardins on Feb. 9. Card helped organize the fundraiser and is still accepting donations.

Each student at Harpswell Community School made ceramic hearts to be sold at a Feb. 9 benefit spaghetti dinner, for a suggested donation of $3-$5. The dinner raised more than $2,000 for food services worker Theresa Desjardins. Hearts are still available for purchase at the school.