Unsung hero

Shelly Coakley, food services manager at Crossroads Hope Academy east of Punta Gorda, stands before one of her 15-foot banana trees as part of a garden and orchard she planted behind the academy.

Almost every successful organization has one.

Someone indispensable, who operates largely behind the scenes, a lynchpin. Someone who makes sure all the clocks work and the wheels go ’round — unsung more often than not, but nevertheless essential to the success of the enterprise.

He or she is someone who rarely seeks recognition or acclaim, but rather looks to personal rewards, to satisfaction for a job well done, intangibles that make it all so worthwhile.

Meet Shelly Coakley, food service manager and jack of many trades for Crossroads Hope Academy, a foster home and charter school for boys on Bermont Road East of Punta Gorda.

She’s also the academy’s vegetable gardener, orchard manager, culinary arts instructor, coordinator of kitchen volunteers, chicken coop tender, Laishley Park Chili Fest impresario, den mother and “Miss Manners” for up to 24 boys at the academy, most of whom have had multiple foster home placements before finding permanent residence at the academy up to age 18.

“I’m super mom,” she beams. “It’s the best job in the world.”

She sees a kitchen as “the heart of a house.” She “equates food with love.” She teaches the boys to prepare, roast and bake “real, whole fresh foods” — boys who came from foster homes where much of the food came from cans or TV trays and the oven was the microwave.

She smiled as she recounted when she asked a new boy to pick some fresh lettuce from her garden for sandwiches. He told her he thought lettuce only came from Walmart. She teaches them to cook and eat things like eggplant and cauliflower. “I want them to be excited about food,” she said.

The boys in her kitchen learn valuable lessons as well, beginning with “a complete nutritious life change.”

One time, one of her boys, home with his foster mom for Mothers’ Day, wanted to surprise her with pancakes for breakfast, but he didn’t know how. So he called Coakley on her cell phone in the wee hours of the morning. Forty five minutes later, starting from scratch, the pancakes were on the table for a very special Mothers’ Day treat.

Or the time another boy called her excitedly from a visit to his foster home, to announce that he’d just cooked a chicken cordon bleu meal for the whole family.

“This is my reward,” she says. “I feel like an empty nester when they leave. We don’t lose touch.”

She also certifies the boys in “Serve Safe” kitchen practices to enable them to apply for kitchen jobs when they leave the academy.

She’s a stickler on teaching them manners as well. Simple pleasantries like how to say “good morning” and to shake hands. There’s a list of table manners prominently posted in the dining area, from “don’t talk with your mouth full,” and “sit up straight,” to “don’t play with your food” to “excuse yourself before leaving the table.”

Shelly never does anything halfway, like when she wanted to enter Crossroads in the annual January Chili Fest at Laishley Park. She sweet talked the Royal Order of Ponce de Leon Conquistadors to build her theme-related booth, which won first prize, and she used her boys to help prepare the chili (with ingredients from her garden, of course), which placed third in the wide competition.

To John Davidson, Crossroads executive director, Shelly “is committed to the mission. She knows that our boys need way more than education to survive. She’s concerned about their health and social skills. She’s A class. She changes boys’ lives. That’s so important.”

“I don’t tell Shelly what to do,” Davidson said and smiled. “She operates autonomously from me. She knows I’m there for her and if she needs something I’ll get it for her. She’s not about what’s best for Shelly, she’s about what’s best for the boys. I’m proud of her. I pray I’ll never lose her.”

It’s been a long trek from her native Manchester, New Hampshire, and her first job on a floating restaurant in Portland, Maine, to Fort Myers “to get away from the cold,” to jobs with Florida Southwestern University and the Community Cooperative Soup Kitchen, then to Crossroads in 2014.

Her daughter, Alexis, home in Cape Coral, said she’s pleased to be one of a family of 25, the only daughter of a mom with 24 sons. Super Mom feels exactly the same way.

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