A woman who was detained as a child at the Manzanar Japanese internment camp during World War II and went on to a 61-year career with the Huntington Beach Union High School District is among three local school workers honored as Orange County Classified Employees of the Year.
The others are a veteran Newport-Mesa Unified School District bus driver and Harbour View Elementary School's popular head custodian.
Seven award winners countywide were congratulated by county Supt. of Schools Al Mijares during a recent ceremony at the Orange County Department of Education headquarters in Costa Mesa.
"These individuals truly exemplify the spirit and intent of this award through their commitment, creativity and character," Mijares said. "Suffice to say, our county is incredibly fortunate to have staff members performing at this level and contributing extraordinarily to the success of our students and schools."
‘Heart and soul’ of Huntington Beach Union
Kay Nakauchi, a certificated personnel secretary for the Huntington Beach Union High School District, received the county Superintendent Special Recognition Award for her resilience, kindness and perseverance during her 61 years with the district.
During World War II, Nakauchi and her family were forced out of their Westminster home and relocated to the Manzanar internment camp, according to the county Education Department. They were permitted to leave after two years because her father accepted a job in New Jersey. The family eventually made it back to Orange County.
After graduating from Huntington Beach High School in 1955, Nakauchi earned her associate of arts degree from Orange Coast College in Costa Mesa, according to a Huntington Beach Independent article from 1975.
In 1957, she joined Huntington Beach Union as a counselor's secretary at her alma mater and has outlasted at least 10 superintendents, served thousands of teachers and administrators and is the district's longest-tenured employee.
She was named the district’s Classified Employee of the Year in 1975, when she was a credentials technician in the personnel office, according to the Independent article.
Nakauchi helps certificated staff members navigate the school system from recruitment to retirement. She is involved in all aspects of teacher credentials, fingerprinting, contracts and salaries.
She considers her interactions with others the best part of her job, according to a county statement.
Nakauchi declined to be interviewed for this article.
"Kay is often called the heart and soul of Huntington Beach Union High School District due to her commitment to serve our community," district Supt. Clint Hardwick wrote in Nakauchi's letter of recommendation for the county award. "She works hard and is dedicated to make sure Huntington Beach Union High School District is the best in the nation."
Head custodian is a celebrity on campus
As the fourth child in a family with 16 children, Arthur Camarena, head custodian at Harbour View Elementary School in Huntington Beach, knows a few things about how to look after kids and keep things tidy. The 20-year veteran of the Ocean View School District earned his award in the county's classified employee category for maintenance, operations and facilities.
"Arthur has earned celebrity status on his campus," said Harbour View PTA President Melissa Marsh. "In the mornings as students and parents arrive, he greets everyone with a warm smile, a wave and often a high-five."
One of the school's most popular fundraisers encourages families to bid on the opportunity for two students to work side by side with Camarena as "head custodian for the day." He teaches them how to hose down picnic tables, among other tasks.
Because of the strong work ethic he learned from his parents, Camarena applied for a night custodian job for Ocean View schools during his senior year at Westminster High School. At age 17, he was working 25 hours a week in addition to his classes.
"My dad was a workaholic," Camarena said. "He put it in our heads to always work hard and give it our best."
Camarena, whose wife, Jessica, is a special-education teacher at Oak View Elementary School in Huntington Beach, said he feels lucky to have his son Aden at nearby Golden View Elementary and to work at the same school where his daughter Faith attends first grade.
"Every morning at nutrition, she'll come out here and hug me," he said. "How many teachers or staff get to be here with their kids?"
Harbour View Principal Cindy Osterhout said Camarena is a "humble, kind and giving person."
"There's no job too big or too small, and always with a smile," she said.
School bus driver sees students as ‘my kids’
Francine Harms, a 12-year school bus driver for the Newport-Mesa Unified School District, described winning her county award as top transportation employee as overwhelming, perplexing and awesome.
"I'm passionate about my job because I love interacting with people — this job is all about people," she said. "If I was doing a job where I was sitting by myself every day, I'd be very depressed."
With her infectious laugh, Harms reportedly has the ability to put a smile on almost every child's face. It also helps to have a sense of humor with angry drivers who occasionally yell at her.
And then there are the days when a student vomits, pees or poops on the bus.
A big part of Harms' job is coordinating with students, parents and teachers to develop bus routes, especially for kids with special needs.
"The kids in the district are my kids," she said.
Her goal, she said, is always to help nervous students and their parents feel calm and comfortable.
"She also trains and mentors new drivers," according to a county statement. "She is ready to step into any transportation role at a moment's notice, including being a backup driver or going out on rescue missions when issues arise on the road."
During her first year of driving, Harms quickly bonded with a young boy who had a speech impediment. The first-grader lived with his father; his mother was in jail.
“He didn’t really have a mother figure in his life,” Harms said. “One day he told me he loved me and started crying because he didn’t have a mom.”
DANIEL LANGHORNE is a contributor to Times Community News.