When you walk into our school-based health center at the Salomé Ureña Campus in Washington Heights, Itela Leafa is the first person to greet you.
This has been the case since Nov. 13, 2000, when Itela first began working as an administrative assistant for Children’s Aid. Itela runs a tight ship at the health center, helping practitioners manage three departments – medical, dental, and mental health.
Itela, now the lead administrative assistant, works to sign students up for services, bring students from the classroom to their appointments, partner with custodial staff to ensure that the health center is in great condition, and everything in between.
Staff and students alike respect Itela, and she has formed close relationships with everyone who walks through the health center doors. One of the reasons she is so effective in her role is because she cares deeply for each student that seeks services. In addition to physicals and vaccines, students use the health center to treat chronic conditions like asthma.
Itela, a mother of four and grandmother of three, uses the skills she cultivated at home to make students feel more comfortable.
“I apply motherhood sometimes,” she said. “When I see some of these kids, I always try to start a conversation with them. I want them to trust me so when they struggle or have any issues like bullying or hunger, I always make them feel comfortable to come to the clinic.”
Itela’s coworkers rely on her to foster connections between students, parents, and practitioners, and ensure that all paperwork is properly filled out so that patients receive the best care. Rose Vergara, program manager for the health center, attributes Itela’s optimism and calm approach for her continued success in the role.
“Itela has charismatic charm, great interpersonal skills, and is willing to go above and beyond to help meet a student’s need,” Rose said. “When faced with challenges, she has a cool, calm, and collected approach, while maintaining an optimistic attitude. Her organizational and multi-tasking skills are extraordinary, which is needed when working with a student population of 800 plus students.”
The health center serves students from sixth to 12th grade, so Itela has watched the students grow up. On several occasions, she has run into former students on the street who recognize her and update her on their lives.
“Being in the job for this long, they become my family,” she said. “I’m in this building five days a week, more than I’m home. It’s so great when I see kids move on and they’re doing good in school. That’s the part I love the most. if I can make a difference in one or two students’ lives, it will make my job a lot better.”