It was a very special evening for John O’Connell High’s lead cafeteria worker, who believes that a “hello and a smile goes a long way,” as he was recognized for going above and beyond in serving his students.

At last Tuesday’s Board of Education meeting, Dexter James was honored with a RAVE (Recognizing All Valuable Employees) Special Service Award.

Nominated by a colleague for the honor, James has spent more than 30 years with the school district, building meaningful relationships with his students. It has not gone unnoticed.

When he asks students how they are doing, “he really wants to hear from them what their day is like,” said Jennifer LeBarre, Executive Director of Student Nutrition Services.

No matter how busy things get, James takes the time to greet each student. He thoughtfully reminds them that by eating healthy meals, they’ll be ready for class. He creates a welcoming environment for students.

“Sometimes they look happy, sometimes they look sad,” said James. “I just say, ‘Hey, smile. It’s going to be a beautiful day. Here, try some breakfast. Get some fruit. Come see me for lunch.’”

He uses his position as the lead cafeteria worker to help students in his own way.

“I always said that when I became manager, I could do things differently because I’m in charge,” he said. “And that’s what I do. It’s all for them.”

Whether it’s ensuring that students are well-nourished or helping them get the services they need, he said, “if they’re not happy when they come in, they are happy when they go.”

Anything helps, he said. “It’s like I always say, we don’t know what they go through when they come through our doors.”

And he’ll keep working toward demonstrating acts of compassion and positivity.

“I appreciate the award,” said James. “I’m going to always be there for them.”