Tena Sonko, Foodservice Supervisor, Cumberland Juvenile Detention Center, Fayetteville, North Carolina
When describing an extraordinary person, it’s often said they go above and beyond the call of duty. After speaking with Tena Sonko, it was abundantly clear that’s exactly what she does every single day — and in so many different ways. Tena is not merely a foodservice supervisor, she is also a teacher, a ServSafe certification instructor, a gardening mentor, a food show competition producer, a certified CPR trainer … and the list goes on. “She does so much with the kids that extends beyond simply serving meals,” said Shalita Forrest, Tena’s coworker and training coordinator. “She is a jewel in this facility because she provides way more than just child nutrition.”
While Tena oversees every meal and snack her students receive in accordance with K-12 regulations, her care for them doesn’t end after they’ve eaten. Tena spearheaded a therapeutic garden at the facility to help teach horticulture and expose students to a world of healthy foods. The garden also serves as a calming, contemplative space. As the center’s students often aren't able to venture away from the facility, having a green space filled with budding plants gives them the opportunity to experience something new and nourishing.
The lessons students learn in the center's therapeutic garden extend beyond simply growing plants though. The garden is a wonderful motivator. It’s a privilege and teaches students to be accountable for their actions so they can continue to participate in the program. And since they tend the garden in teams or groups, they learn ways to hold their peers accountable as well.
Some of what they grow in the garden is incorporated into dinner meals, but as just one example of Tena’s spirit of giving, they also share the produce with the community. It’s donated to nursing homes, children’s hospitals and other facilities. “It’s important to me to teach students the value of giving back. A lot of our plants and supplies are donated, so it just makes sense to do our part and give to someone else. I try to teach them that you have to pour into someone else the way someone poured into you.”
Tena even looks out for students’ well-being when they’ve left her facility by helping them achieve ServSafe manager certifications. The training empowers students to automatically earn a higher wage and gives them an advantage when looking for employment in foodservice. It also shows them opportunities and direction they may not have had before. Tena is the only person in the North Carolina’s juvenile detention centers and youth development programs who has qualified to teach this accreditation. It’s another way she teaches her kids how they’re in charge of their own outcomes. “I tell them they don’t have to follow what someone says they’re going to be,” Tena shared. “They make their own decisions, and they can decide what they want to be. We try to instill as much positivity in them as we can.”
Another example of how Tena goes above and beyond is the success of the food competition she hosts for the students. Based on the popular TV show Top Chef, teams compete to win a coveted chef’s jacket, with staff and others acting as judges. This program would be difficult enough to pull off in a regular K-12 setting, but since her students are incarcerated because of crimes, safety concerns and regulations created additional roadblocks. Shalita remembers how Tena was determined to persevere. “No matter what, she never gave up. She said, ‘These are my kids, and everything I can give them, they’re going to get while in detention.’”
Every action Tena takes is focused on the betterment of the kids in her care, and it all starts with food. She takes immense pride in cooking as many meals as possible from scratch. However, with the unique needs of her students, prepacked products like Pillsbury™ Mini Waffles allow her to pack meals for the kids to take with them for days they have to appear in court or meet with counselors. Breakfast bars, cereal cups and other snack items help round out those important meals.
With over 30 years of experience creating nourishing meals for those in her care, Tena has a lot to teach us all. When asked what advice she’d give others in foodservice, she said, “I treat everyone of these children like they’re my own. At the end of the day, I’m always going to do what’s best for my children. And that’s the attitude you have to take. This is my family, and I’m going to go to the end of the Earth for my children. You can’t look at it any other way.” That’s an amazing outlook we could all strive to achieve. Thank you, Tena, for everything you do and everything you are.