It’s lunchtime at Chartiers Valley Middle School. Music is pumping and students are dancing.
Just a few minutes prior, boredom had set in. The food had all been eaten and it seemed like forever until the next period would begin.
But head custodian Dona Gaudio once again came to the rescue.
She tells the students not to worry, “Miss Dona will fix this. It will go quick.”
On comes the music, and it’s time to dance the rest of the period away.
For Gaudio — affectionately known throughout Chartiers Valley as “Miss Dona” — it’s important to make sure that every aspect of the students’ needs are met.
While she spends her days cleaning the floors and bathrooms, cutting locks off lockers and hanging up banners, she also watches out for the kids.
No student eats alone in the cafeteria under her watch. If a student or staff member is struggling, she stops to listen and help ease their burden.
There are days where she buys the entire school — all 744 students — a treat just to brighten their day.
“She’s a gem,” Principal Adrienne Floro said. “She takes an interest in the kids. She will sit down and eat lunch with them. She really takes opportunities to teach them, too.”
Her efforts for going above and beyond led Gaudio to receive the 2019 Champions of Learning Award for a staff member from the Consortium for Public Education and United Way of Southwestern Pennsylvania.
“I love my job,” said Gaudio, 58. “I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else than in this school district working with kids.”
Gaudio has known that she wanted to be a custodian since she was a sixth-grader at Midway Elementary in Midway, Pa.
She was shy with a speech impediment and often got teased. She was assigned a task to clean the erasers alongside a school custodian. She still clearly remembers walking through the dark tunnel to get there.
The custodian, “Mr. George,” was waiting at the end.
He showed her how to clean the erasers, but also talked about his lack of interactions with the kids. He hardly ever left the basement. That stuck out to Gaudio.
“I made it my point that day and throughout my life that I wanted to be a custodian and I wanted to be present with the kids,” Gaudio said. “I wanted to interact with them. I wanted to see if I could help them.”
Through his words, “Mr. George” helped Gaudio immensely.
“He goes, Dona, don’t let anybody bully you,” she said. “He goes, if they ever make fun of you, all you have to do is flip your hair around and just keep on walking, like, you can talk to me all you want, you’re not bothering me.”
Working alongside Mr. George gave Gaudio the confidence she needed to come out of her shell and make friends.
After graduating from high school, Gaudio moved to Scott Township and by 19 years old was married with a house and baby.
She looked in the newspaper for a job, and there it was: Chartiers Valley was hiring a substitute custodian.
Thirty eight years later, she’s worked her way up the ranks to head custodian at the middle school.
She’s stuck to her childhood goal to help students who are struggling. She makes sure her presence is known.
For dress up days, Gaudio gets in costume alongside the students. Then, there are days where she runs to the store and buys bags of pretzels or ice cream for all 744 students just because.
Even for the tasks that are on her job title, she does more than is required.
If a student has an accident and dirties their clothes, she will wash them and return them to the student within a short time. She can even be found 20 feet in the air on a cherry picker changing light bulbs or cleaning the blades of the fans in the common’s area of the new middle school.
Everything she does is in hopes of getting a smile.
“I take care of everything here,” she said.
Gaudio comes in early for shifts and leaves late. She wants to make sure everything gets done. Her phone is always on when she’s not at the school so people can call her if they need something.
“This is my home,” Gaudio said.
She spends more time there than she does at her actual home in Weirton, W.Va. But, a large part of her job, for Gaudio, is what’s not in her title. She tells stories of students who were struggling at lunch, like a boy who kept getting in trouble. She sat down and had a one-on-one conversation with him.
“We just talked and he turned around,” she said. He later bought her flowers as a thank you.
She makes sure to introduce herself to each student in the school. If she doesn’t know them, she will approach them at lunch and get to know them.
“She makes your day better,” said eighth-grader Paige Bookser, 13. “She’s like a light at the end of a dark hallway.”
Students say they notice Gaudio’s work ethic.
“She really acts like she wants to be here,” said eighth-grader Dylan Marian, 14. “And she gives me candy all the time.”
For Gaudio, winning the award meant everything.
The last few years have been difficult. Her husband, Sam, died in May 2017. Gaudio’s longtime mentor at Chartiers Valley, Albert McGill, died in February.
Gaudio dedicated the award to McGill, who worked in Chartiers Valley for more than 40 years.
The award stays in the school. When she leaves — something she has no plans of doing — it will go to his family.
For Gaudio, her biggest hope is that a little bit of her kindness wears off on the students at Chartiers Valley.
She hopes “that they could remember that I had a custodian, Miss Dona, that really put a smile on my face everyday when I saw her,” she said.