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Veronica Villalon has been a Treasure Valley high school lunch lady for about seven years. She helps prepare both breakfast and lunch for the students. "And we get to interact with the kids as they're coming in to get their food," she said.

Being a lunch lady for high schoolers is a noble profession she's proud to claim. "I love working with the older kids," said Villalon. "I remember back when I was in high school and the custodian or the lunch lady noticed I was alive. Being noticed is so important. I see them come in with their violin and I ask them about that or if they're wearing a football jersey, I'll ask about that."

Villalon said she knows that due to COVID-19, the kids have had to undergo hardships never before imagined: the loss of activities and events with their friends, as well as social distancing, stringent hand washing and wearing face masks to protect themselves — and others.

Villalon, who has been writing stories and poems nearly all her life, was inspired by their willingness to wear masks and wrote a poem about it. "I've been writing stories since I was 9 years old," she said, "at first with my neighbors Sonya and her brother Enrique, who liked to be called Henry. We'd write stories about going to the beach … silly stuff," she said, laughing. "Sonya had lighter colored hair than me so when she wrote her part of the story, she would make the darker-haired girl mischievous and the lighter-haired girl the hero. When I wrote my part, I would switch it up."

Villalon said she gets her penchant for story telling from her mom, who would make up stories for her children every night. "That was so special." Villalon has kept the family tradition going by writing stories for her five kids and now her six grandchildren.

Her most recent poem, though, she wrote for the students she sees every day. She hopes they will see it "and that they will see we notice them. I know they don't like wearing a mask. I want them to know that we see you're making a point to care and keeping people safe."

She knows those who have compromised health conditions rely on others doing their part to help keep them safe. Top of mind is her younger sister, Yolanda, another lunch lady for grade schoolers in California, who has pulmonary hypertension. And, Villalon said, "I have the early signs of pulmonary hypertension."

She hopes with the upcoming vaccines and vigilance to continued health precautions, there will soon be light at the end of the tunnel.

"COVID has affected everybody's lives. I'm hoping it will get better before the end of the (school) year so the students can have graduation ceremonies like they used to," she said. "The year before last, when everything was normal, they invited me to their ceremonies. I miss that … being able to be a part of that."

Jeanne Huff is the community engagement editor for the Idaho Press. You can reach her at 208-465-8106 and follow her on Twitter @goodnewsgirl.

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