One day recently, Hilltop Elementary School Principal Louise DeJesu noticed that a student's shoes were coming apart. She summoned her secretary to measure the child's feet, then provided the money for a new pair.

Before sending a suspended student home, she will check to see whether he or she has eaten. In fact, students who come to her hungry — no matter what time of day — leave fed. Ultimately, she'll find out whether the students' parents are hungry, too, and send a few grocery store gift cards their way.

The 63-year-old Arnold resident has been a balm for what ails a Glen Burnie community that she says is known for its "working poor." Often going into her own pocket to help students in need, she has become an advocate for a school where 62 percent of students receive free or reduced-price meals, yet which annually overcomes meets federally mandated adequate yearly progress targets.

On Wednesday, the Anne Arundel County Early Childhood Coalition honored DeJesu at its "Champions of Young Children" breakfast at Anne Arundel Community College.

DeJesu was awarded the inaugural Jennifer Summers Barrett Champion of Children Award, named in honor of a special-education teacher and Junior League of Annapolis member who died recently.

"The future is not about money. The future really is those individuals in front of us," said DeJesu in accepting her award. "There is nothing I wouldn't do for them."

Though she's been at Hilltop Elementary for about 16 years, DeJesu has worked in the Anne Arundel school system for more than four decades. She has also served as principal of Belvedere, Riviera Beach and Solley elementary schools. Along the way, she has gained a reputation as someone whose efforts to nurture and educate children extends well beyond the classroom.

"Louise DeJesu has been a champion of children," said Anne Arundel County school board President Patricia Nalley, who attended Wednesday's event. She said she has known DeJesu for more than 30 years. "She has been an advocate, passionate for her kids, for her community. She fights for her kids to get what they need."

DeJesu said that she need not watch any news reports to get a sense of the effects of the lagging economy. She says she sees it in her students every day.

"Clothing used to be the No. 1 concern; now it's food," said DeJesu. "It happened about a year ago. Kids would be telling me they're hungry, that there was no food in their refrigerator. They wanted two lunches, they wanted two breakfasts.

"We gave it to them," she added. "And then I contacted the parents. And then I contacted the churches, and they bought me some food cards; they made donations, and I give the food cards to people."

This past summer, DeJesu was instrumental in making certain that those students could continue receiving free meals during the summer months, courtesy of a grant that the county received, she said. The meals were provided at nearby North County High School, and any child age 2 to 18 who entered was fed, no questions asked. The service began shortly after the last school year ended and ran until the first week in August.

"This [school] year, we're going to do it again, only longer," said DeJesu. "It was great seeing young kids eating with high school kids."

Hilltop Elementary was recently chosen as the site for the county's branch of the Judy Center, a facility that offers early childhood services to children and their families. The center offers services such as infant and toddler programs, parenting workshops, GED classes and library resources.

The center has worked well at Hilltop Elementary, DeJesu said, adding that students from the area often enter the school system without having gone to Head Start, preschool or day care.

"Louise is dedicated and the most caring person. It is under her leadership that I have learned about nurturing and fostering the young child," said Erin Brady, a reading specialist at Hilltop Elementary. "It's been such a pleasure to have this opportunity to work with her and have her mentor me. I'm able to grow professionally from just watching her."

DeJesu said that her work is often challenging, and added that among the attributes she looks for in educators is a sense of forgiveness.

"We all make mistakes, and children do make mistakes," DeJesu said. "They get into trouble, they're disrespectful at times. Of course, you hold them accountable. … But in the same way, after you have reconciled that problem, the next day you invite them right back with open arms and love them, and say to them, 'That was yesterday. Today is today. Let's start again.'"

She says she sees the fruits of her efforts when children come to her office and say, "I want to read to you," or bring parents to reading and math nights to show what they've learned.

"When I help children, I feel good," said DeJesu. "I feel better about myself as a person, and I feel like I'm making a difference. I know I want to leave this earth making a difference. I want my life to have mattered."

joseph.burris@baltsun.com

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