WORTHINGTON — If you ask Wayne Verdoorn, he'll tell you he's just a regular guy doing a necessary but unglamorous job.
But the way his co-workers tell it, Verdoorn has completely changed Prairie Elementary's custodial department in the few short years he's led the staff.
"God has always given me a heart for service," he said.
Verdoorn grew up just across the state line in Sibley, Iowa and spent many fond memories in Worthington. After he graduated high school, he wanted to serve the community's youth by becoming a teacher. But when he graduated college with an education degree, there weren't any teaching jobs in the local area.
To avoid moving too far away, Verdoorn went to work at JBS, where he spent 25 years in management. He still wanted to work with kids, though, so he got involved with coaching sports. Over the last nearly three decades, Verdoorn has worked with soccer teams of all ages, as well as middle school basketball.
Once Verdoorn's children were through college and on their own, he decided he wanted to change his career. He quit his job at JBS and began looking for work as a paraprofessional with District 518. Prairie was in need of a new head custodian, so he applied, bringing his extensive management experience with him.
He started his current job in November 2017, and loves serving both staff and students in the building. Verdoorn has been serving Worthington's children for so long that some of the first athletes he ever coached are now grown up and have kids who attend Prairie.
Verdoorn says he owes his success to a long list of people.
"I have a great support team at home and here at Prairie," he said. "I couldn't do it without either one."
Every member of the custodial staff deserves recognition, he stressed, noting that custodians often go above and beyond to make sure everyone at Prairie gets what they need.
As the head custodian, Verdoorn is the first person to arrive at Prairie each day. He usually starts at 6 a.m. (five if there's snow on the ground for him to shovel). After unlocking the building, he walks through the school and looks to see if anything needs maintenance or repair. Then he gets ready to welcome the students to breakfast.
Custodial work revolves primarily around the lunch room, Verdoorn explained. He and his staff clean up after both breakfast and lunch, and in between those times he has to be prepared for all manner of odd jobs that arise, from cleaning up after a bloody nose to delivering a new chair.
He's usually done with work around 2:30, which works out great for him to continue coaching sports after school.
Verdoorn's favorite part of his job is interacting with the students, and he has a particular affinity for the youngest Prairie pupils. The kids call him "Mr. Wayne," and they are always happy to greet him. Verdoorn even makes a point to take his lunch hour in the cafeteria, so he can sit with the students and get to know them.
"I'm not teaching them in the classroom, but I can teach them in the hallways and I can teach them in the cafeteria," Verdoorn said.
He believes that he can have a significant impact on kids who are struggling.
"If they get to see somebody who cares about them, it can make a huge difference in their life," he said.
Verdoorn's quick smile has earned him a strong rapport with the elementary students.
"I've seen him interact with them, and I can see how amazing he is with them and how much the kids respect him," said Fabiola Andrade, a second-grade paraprofessional.
"When my students see him in the cafeteria, hallway or classroom, he always takes time to get to know them, visit and answer their questions," added first-grade teacher Julie Ebbers.
Staff said Verdoorn often goes the extra mile to make the students smile.
"During our annual field trip to the Butterfly House, one of the students marveled when a butterfly chose to land on his head," said ESL teacher Valerie Rossow. "This kindergartener was very quiet and shy, but he was so excited he couldn’t stop talking about it.
"His teacher had snapped a photo of the event and shared it with Wayne because he knew the family. On his own time, Wayne made a framed copy of the picture and personally delivered it to the family’s house so that boy would have a keepsake of his special memory."
"In kindergarten, we often have milk spills," explained kindergarten teacher Ana Standafer. "There was a stretch in January when we had a milk spill for five consecutive days. This meant that Mr. Wayne had to clean our carpet with his big carpet shampooer every single time it happened. In effort to curb this daily mess, I explained to to our students that we wouldn't want to bother Mr. Wayne every day.
"''Don't tell them that! I love seeing the kids,' Mr. Wayne said when he overheard my lecture to the kids," she recalled.
Prairie staff also speak highly of Verdoorn, sharing lots of stories about the positive impact he's had on the school.
"Wayne knew that I didn't have nice tables in my room for my students to work at," shared kindergarten teacher Olivia Salentiny. "When they were converting a computer lab into a room for a different purpose, he invited me to come down to look at the tables, and he let me have first dibs on how many tables I wanted. He didn't stop there, though. He replaced the legs on the tables so that I could fit students on the ends of the tables rather than just on the sides.
"Another time, I wanted to try a smaller teacher desk in my room, so he took out my desk and, instead of just getting rid of it, he held onto it for a week to make sure I liked my new desk before he gave the desk to someone else to use," she said, concluding that "Wayne truly goes above and beyond in everything he does for anybody and everybody in the school."
Orchestra teacher Melanie Loy recalled an impactful statement Verdoorn made when he first started at Prairie.
"He said to me, 'My job is customer service — you are the customer and I am here to help you with anything you need,'" she said. "I told him that was the most amazing and gracious offer I had ever received as a music teacher. Wayne is all about service to others, and blesses students and staff with his humanitarian approach."
Prairie principal Heidi Meyer described Verdoorn this way: "He is one of the most selfless people I know. He is present, friendly and kind to all. The students love him."