Two women were recognized during the Annual Educator Appreciation Breakfast and Awards Program Thursday at Fairfield Middle School.
In addition to naming Lisa Myers Fairfield’s Teacher of the Year, Vaju Moorthy and Therese Cummiskey were honored for their selfless dedication to the district’s school children. Moorthy was given the Friend of Education Award for raising money to pay off the district’s debt in its lunch program. Cummiskey received the Lifetime Friend of Education Award for her countless educational programs and hosting field trips during her 30 years as Jefferson County Naturalist. Cummiskey has announced she will retire from the job later this month.
Moorthy said she became interested in raising money for the district’s meal program after finding out from her friend Debbie Pogel that the lunch deficit had reached $37,600 in 2017. Award presenter and Fairfield High School English teacher Fred Hucke remarked that, at one time, the students who couldn’t pay for meals because they were too far in debt had to settle for a cold sandwich and a carton of milk as their lunch.
Moorthy serves a meal every Friday at Phoenix Rising Hall, and she had begun donating the proceeds from one lunch every month to a charity. After hearing from Pogel about the school’s lunch deficit, she decided that would be her principal charity, and that she would continue raising money for the school until its deficit was zero.
From February to June of 2008, Moorthy’s Divine Star Charities raised between $8,000-$9,000 for the lunch program. This, combined with matching donations from companies and donations from other individuals, nearly erased the debt in just five months.
“I am honored to receive the Friend of Education Award, and would like to help with children’s needs in the future,” Moorthy said. “Anything for the kids, Divine Star Charities will do. Without my volunteers and donors, this would not have been possible.”
Moorthy serves both northern and southern styles of Indian cuisine. In addition to raising money for the school, she has raised money for Camp Courageous, Iowa WINS, and others.
Cummiskey has been a naturalist for about 35 years, spending nearly all of her career in Jefferson County. She said receiving the Lifetime Friend of Education Award was “very sweet and totally unexpected.”
“It’s very nice to be acknowledged for the 30 years I’ve been here. I loved it,” she remarked.
Cummiskey said her goal upon being hired in Jefferson County was to make children more aware and appreciative of the outdoors.
“I didn’t want to scare them with environmental alarms, but rather have them fall in love with nature,” she said. “I felt that, if they experienced a wetland, they were going to take care of it when they got older.”
As naturalist, Cummiskey has organized a litany of programs for kids such as wetland studies, creek hikes, habitat classes, and much more. Every elementary school student who has gone through the Fairfield Community School District has taken these classes, because visiting the Jefferson County Nature Center has been part of the district’s curriculum for decades, established even before Cummiskey’s arrival.
Cummiskey confers with the teachers before they bring their students to Jefferson County Park. If the teacher is doing a unit on ecosystems, Cummiskey will craft a program on ecosystems.
“Sometimes the teachers just want a good outdoor experience, an immersion activity to get kids outdoors,” she said. “I definitely think a lot of kids don’t get outside. They’re not comfortable outdoors, or they believe old wives’ tales passed down by their parents.”
Cummiskey recalled one girl who seemed out of place on one of her excursions.
“She looked around like ‘This is outdoors? My grandma doesn’t let me go outside,’” Cummiskey said. “I love seeing their ‘ooh’ and ‘ahh’ moments when they finally get to see what’s swimming in a pond, or learn about a plant they’ve never seen before. I hope they will take these experiences with them and develop a great love of nature.”