Shady Grove cafeteria manager thankful for opportunity

Published 10:31 am Tuesday, April 2, 2024

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By Mike Barnhardt

Enterprise Record

The saying goes: “When one door closes, another opens.”

Nothing could be closer to the truth for Jason Ijames, the cafeteria manager at Shady Grove Elementary School.

After grduating from Davie High School in 1997, Jason took a job at Lee Jeans, and then began to work as a machinist at Kaydon in Mocksville, a job he had for about 10 years. “I thought I would do that for the rest of my life.”

Then Kaydon closed its doors.

Jason not only was out of a job, he had to find a way to support his family, which included wife Nicole and six children.

Someone suggested he apply for a job with the school system, and the rest is history. He started to work at Shady Grove in 2014, as a bus driver who also worked as a custodian and in the kitchen.

It was the food service side of that first job that most appealed to Jason, and for the past two years, he has been the cafeteria manager.

When the children come through the line for breakfast and lunch, he makes a point to be there, to greet them and make them feel welcome.

He said with a smile that out of the 505 students at the school, he knows 400 by their names.

“They’re the children (or grandchildren) of people I went to school with,” Jason said.

He tries to engage the students, because he remembers well the school staff members who took the time to talk to him when he was a student.

“One small, positive gesture can change a child’s world,” he said.

Breakfast is available to all students every day, and the school serves three entrees for lunch  for the students to choose from – two hot and one cold, along with four or five side dish options.

“I eat a school lunch every day. It’s a very good meal. For the price, you can’t pack as healthy of a lunch. It’s a big meal.

“I’ve been blessed to have a good team, good people around me. It’s not rocket science, it’s feeding kids.”

While normally a loud place, the cafeteria is eerily silent when there are not students in the room, because as Jason puts it: “They need to be kids.”

Some things never change. When he was a student, pizza was the favorite. It still is; although it is now purchased from a pizza chain rather than made in-house.

The focus this year has been on introducing more fresh foods.

“We’re starting to offer more fresh salads, fresh fruits. The fruits have gone over very well, we’ll see how the salads go. Some students may take a banana to put in their bookbag for later.”

As owner of Jason’s Italian Ice, he sees students away from the school building as well. He’s also the executive pastor at Mt. Zion Community Church in Mocksville, a church where his father had been minister for 45 years.

Jason is back on the job full time after being treated for colon cancer three years ago.

“I stand here right now cancer free,” he said.

“I love food service, I love children and I love people,” he said. “The children here are appreciative and I couldn’t imagine myself doing anything else.”