Interviewee: Virginia Brissey

Interviewer: Jeffrey Boyce

Date: May 16, 2012

Location: National Food Service Management Institute

Description: A Pennsylvania native, and a Navy veteran, Virginia Brissey worked as a program manager for Kids First in Arkansas.

Jeffrey Boyce: I am Jeffrey Boyce and this is May 16, 2012, and I am here at the National Food Service Management Institute with Ms. Virginia Brissey. Welcome Ms. Brissey and thanks for taking the time to talk with me today.

Virginia Brissey: Thank you.

JB: Could we begin today by you telling me a little bit about yourself, where you are from and where you grew up?

VB: I grew up in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. I’m a Yankee from the very beginning – and joined the Navy at nineteen and wound up stationed in Memphis, Tennessee, met my husband, who was career Navy, and travelled the United States for the next sixteen years, settling in California, in the San Diego area, where we spent about seventeen years. After he retired we were still there for another five or six years. And then as we tell people, and it has a ring of truth, our kids wouldn’t leave home so we did. And my husband got a job with an x-ray service company. He was an electronics technician and became an x-ray service engineer. And it led us to Little Rock, Arkansas, in 1978, and that’s where we have been ever since. It’s now home. My husband died seventeen years ago and it’s still home. I still own a home in southern California that my children have lived in, one after the other. My daughter still lives there. My two sons followed us to Arkansas, and after my son was killed my daughter-in-law and my grandson stayed, and then my other son stayed there with his son. So we have two boys that are now twenty-four and thirty-five, and they’re just wonderful. And my daughter has a son and a daughter, who we are just getting to know very well – I am.

JB: You said you were in the Navy. Tell me about that. What did you do in the Navy?

VB: It was a long time ago and things were much different with women in the Navy. Not many jobs were available to women at that time and so I worked in office work primarily to begin with. I was stationed at Memphis – Millington, Tennessee – and I met my husband there, as I said. And at that time if you got married you could get out of the Navy, you just had to tell them you wanted out. I didn’t really want out, but after about a year of being married, our schedules were so different and we never saw one another, and I decided to leave the Navy. But when you’re married to a Navy man you’re in the Navy anyway for a long time. But the interesting part, I was nineteen, and I became a Third Class, which was rare at that time among WAVES, making rates. They usually got out before that. Very few were there. So I was put in charge of the barracks. So at nineteen I was in charge of forty girls, all of whom were at least my age or older, so it was an interesting experience. I was home with my children then for eleven years. We moved around and wound up in southern California. So when my youngest child was eight I went to work for a weekly newspaper, and within a few months I was writing most of the paper. And then finally after about a year I began writing a weekly column called Cruising with Jennie, and it was primarily things that were going on around the town. We were a town of about ten thousand people, a large portion enlisted Navy personnel. So it was a great job and I had a lot of fun with it, and I finally was editor of the newspaper, and at that time it was a matter of either writing or rewriting everything that went into the paper, and I enjoyed that thoroughly. But I finally burned out. It was a difficult thing after a while because after writing that, I went and set it up too, at the printer’s – you do everything from beginning to end. I finally burned out, and because I was known as a problem solver in the town then – I had been in a lot of volunteer activities – I was offered a job as Coordinator of Senior Citizens. And they were having a lot of problems – it was the first time federal money had come down to the program, and they were having a great many problems, so I was asked to get in there and see if I could solve it. Well, we made it into a very successful program, and I stayed with that until my husband decided he wanted to go elsewhere to get a job. He was tired of that and wanted something else. So when we came to Little Rock I wanted to find something, and since I now liked that field, of working with adults at that time, I heard about and applied for a job that was a combination senior citizen and preschool program at a Catholic church, primarily in a black neighborhood. And it was a wonderful experience. I was there for seven years and we just had a great time with it. It was not what people expected. When they funded the program they assumed that these senior citizens would want to take care of the children at times. That’s not the way it worked. They were willing maybe to take a crying child and cuddle them for a few minutes, but they raised their families and they wanted to quilt and knit and play checkers and do other things, and not mess with kids. But it was still a great experience and that was my first introduction into the child nutrition program.

JB: And this was in Little Rock?

VB: This was in Little Rock, in North Little Rock. I had a cook who basically did all the production records and all that, and I primarily did the billing for that. But I learned a lot, and she would tell me about, and gripe about, all the work she had to do with these production records, and how little equipment we had. We were serving people in poverty, and we didn’t get much above poverty wages ourselves, but the kids were fed and we also of course fed the adults, and that was before there was any reimbursement available for adults, but the city took care of some of it. And I stayed with that program for seven years, and then circumstances, we moved to Texas for one year, which had to do with a job situation for my husband. And when we got there we didn’t like it. We agreed that whoever got the first job, we’d go back to Arkansas. And I happened to get the first job at Camp Aldersgate, which was a summer camp for children with disabilities, and respite camp all year long for weekends for parents to have a rest for their children – from their children, or for their own. It was probably – I learned more from that job than I ever learned anywhere with my own growth. I basically didn’t interact with the children as much as I did with the counselors, who were all high school and college kids there for the summer, and they became my kids. And I still am in touch with a lot of them and I am now going to graduations for their kids. It was a terrific experience and opened my eyes to the fact that children who have such horrid problems, in one way or another, can have just as much fun and be just as much a part of life as a child who can run and play and do all those other things. When that job ended, the woman that I now work for, I had worked for her husband at the St. Augustine Center, at the first job I had. And she knew what I could do and the kind of things I did, and she invited me to come to work for Kids First. It was a brand new program that had started with a research project that was done in eight universities around the country in 1983. And it was to see if intensive intervention with premature babies could make a difference. And it included many facts. I was not there; I was not part of the research. It was over by the time I went to work. But in all the universities where it happened they found they could raise the IQ of babies by thirteen points, just with intensive intervention. It was unbelievable.

JB: Amazing.

VB: And at the end of the program at all of the other seven universities the program died. But Arkansas saw the greatest results of any of them, possibly because of the poverty level of so many of the kids, I don’t know. But we had two people, a doctor, and Carolyn Marsh, who’s my current boss, that had the vision to see that we needed to continue that program. And they fought to get some interim funding until they could qualify for Medicaid and other funding, and they kept the program going. And that’s when I came aboard, when there was only that original site still going. And within a year we began opening other sites in Arkansas in very strange facilities; whatever we could find that would accommodate the kids in the beginning. It was SO needed. There was NO program that would handle children from 0-5 that had severe disabilities – or any kind of disability. It was so new. These were the kids that you never saw for so long. So, the first one that we opened was in the wing of a hospital that was renovated for a center, in a town about sixty miles from Little Rock. And that was one of the first jobs I had, was to get that going – hire the people. At that time my title was Program Operations Manager, and I helped in getting the phone system – all the things that you need to do to set up a new place. And then I began taking over the childcare nutrition, because all of our first centers, all of the eleven centers that we have are served by vendors. We cater all of the meals. We don’t even have stoves in any of our kitchens. We have microwaves, but that’s about it – maybe toasters. So those were the things I got started. The original center was part of the Food Program, but someone else had been working with that. Well, once we had two then someone needed to know how we could combine that so we could do one billing for both centers, and I got started in that. But then I was still opening new centers. We opened another one the next year, and this one was about three hours from Little Rock, so oftentimes I was on the road. Within six years we opened eleven centers total and we still have eleven centers. Each time my part of the Child Care Food Program grew. And after we got to six programs, then we just felt that we needed another Operations Manager. It was just more than one person could do, traveling around the state. So I got a counterpart and then they had six and I had five, so that I could handle the Child Care Food Program as well. And finally after all the centers were open and it was becoming obvious that there simply was more than I could do, and I gave up the Operations Manager job and went into something that at that time was called Program Manager, Policies and Procedures, the title I still hold; and the Child Care Food Program was mine all the way around each time. Then about six years ago my boss got the bright idea that – there were two for-profit corporations that had come into Arkansas, or had begun to have centers in other places that were dealing with the same kind of children that we were. And they wanted to get on the Child Care Food Program and were asking for advice and consultation and how to do this, etc. And my boss suggested, “Why don’t we take them on as part of ours and you can do the whole thing at once?” So this came about, and I now have twenty-six sites, all of whom serve the same type of children. In all of these centers nurses are full-time all the time. Doctors come, at least in the Kids First clinics, they are there at least twice a month, or if we have a local doctor in the town then he comes at least every week. But usually our medical directors go twice a month. And then we have therapists at all the clinics. The children get all the therapy they need while they’re there. Their medications are taken care of by the nurses. We have a number of tube-fed children that cannot get help anywhere else. Their parents cannot find care for them anywhere else. We have children with food allergies that are beyond anything like being allergic to one type of milk. We have some that there are so few foods that they are able to take that we have a four-person nutrition department that the primary purpose is to get special menus, and they work very hard to make those special menus as close to the regular menu that the other children are eating so that these kids don’t feel different. We’ve had great success with it. We are now seeing children entering high school that were at one time not thought to be able to go beyond the hospital.

JB: Do your clients live at the sites or are these day centers?

VB: This is day care. And the interesting thing to most people is if you walk into our sites, other than seeing maybe a strange chair or a wheelchair sitting there, you won’t be able to tell that these are different than other child care centers. We have the same playgrounds, with accessible equipment always. The children are there – we like them to be there at least five hours a day. We try to get parents to always agree to that. Some are there as many as eight or nine hours for parents who work. But again, they come in the morning; they have their breakfast. Some are transported and don’t get in until after breakfast is done, and for them there is a morning snack, which is the same as the breakfast except it’s done a little bit later. Full lunch at 11:30, and then snack – some of the clinics have it at 1:30 and some at 2:00. It depends on the area and when the children are going to be picked up. We go over and above the USDA requirements. For instance, we require an extra component at breakfast, because our nutritionists feel that that’s the most neglected meal at their homes. We have the same problems as every child center in getting parents to do the same thing they want us to do with the child in the clinic

JB: And USDA supports this with reimbursable meals?

VB: Yes. And that of course is my primary job. Now the other fifteen clinics other than Kids First, they all cook their own meals, so I deal with the production records with them. I train – go to the clinics and train. Some of the clinics are in extreme poverty areas in the Delta, which Mississippi knows about the same way, and it seems I’m there more than some of the other centers. But yes, we check all the menus, and our nutritionists as well as the state folks from CACFP; they of course check the menus also. And when I go I make sure that the correct things are being served, and I try to make suggestions, even though I’m not a nutritionist, I try to make suggestions as to what might look better, or what might work better for kids that don’t want to eat and so on. I’ve also gotten to some of these clinics and found that the kitchen was not satisfactory in any way, and a new kitchen or a different kitchen had to be done, and that was done. Just take care of the Food Program is now the primary thing I do, of all phases of it from the billing, the monitoring, and the sending out of the reimbursement. We are part of the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences and so consequently they send out the check, but everything else up to that, and the reimbursement, the breakdown, all of those kinds of things, I do for the other corporations that I deal with, and of course for my own.

JB: Who supplies the meals for your base organization? You said you don’t have kitchens.

VB: That’s a very good interesting thing to do. Because our clinics, and we’ve had a very interesting conversation with the USDA, I guess through the state anyway, they wanted to know why we couldn’t have one central kitchen and supply all of our clinics. Well, the farthest one is four hours away from Little Rock. And in all of these places for instance we like to have hospitals to be our vendors for the food because they have the capacity for special meals, which many of our kids have to have. And we have hospitals in the bigger towns, in Fort Smith, and the Lowell area, and the Fayetteville area, but in a small town like Pocahontas the hospital doesn’t have a cafeteria, and they don’t want to cook for other than their patients. So in Pocahontas the deli of the local grocery store does our food for our children. We have a restaurant in Warren that does the food. The smaller the town sometimes the harder it is to find a supplier. We just lost the hospital as a supplier in Pine Bluff, which is a pretty good sized town, and we had a terrible time finding someone that wanted to do it. And so we now have the Soul Food BBQ Restaurant doing the food in Pine Bluff, and they’ve been wonderful! They’ve only been servicing us for about three months – we have wonderful meals, but we love to tell people the Soul Food BBQ Restaurant does our meals. And we take a lot of kidding about it, but it works.

JB: Whatever works.

VB: It works, and that’s what it has had to be – whatever works wherever we are, and finally they get into it and they don’t want to not supply us. We don’t lose many now. They find it to be – they get their reimbursement regularly. They get paid. They stay with us in most cases.

JB: What are some of the biggest challenges you face in getting your job done?

VB: Getting consistency from all of the clinics – no matter how many times you train, or you talk. I had an experience in one of the clinics for instance, wonderful cook in one of the clinics, but I don’t think she had too much education, formal education. And she was wonderful with the children, but it was very difficult in getting her to understand what she HAD to write down, that she must document certain things. And there were four areas that she was having problems with and it took four trips to get her to – she learned one thing at a time. And I learned that after the first time when I tried to get all four across, and it didn’t work. But now her records are just the way they ought to be. It took time, but that’s also the way our kids are. They learn differently. They just do. We see these kids come in and they are considered developmentally delayed maybe, because they haven’t had the stimulation that they needed. Within weeks in this clinic we see them learning, we see them going. It’s so exciting. And when they get to the schools – we have quite a transition program where they go to the school before they’re going to transition to it. In their last classroom before they go they have trays, and we have the food on the counter and they tell us what they want to have. We try to transition them to all they’re going to have at the school. The school teachers tell us they can usually tell when a child has come from one of our programs, because they are well prepared and they have just learned from the very beginning. It’s great.

JB: Once they transition into going to school do they then come back to you at all?

VB: No, not at all. We don’t have any afterschool care. We strictly have the preschool up to age five. Occasionally you have children up to age six. They can stay one extra year if they really need to, but in most cases they go on. But we follow them. We of course are part of the university and we are always after data and keeping track, so at regular intervals we try to get in touch with the children or with the families, to see where they are, how they’re doing. There’s one child that we now have been following for a number of years, that when I first saw her she had been a premature baby. She was not expected to live, but she had already made it to three months, and she came to our clinic. And when I first saw her, her bed was tilted at an angle for her breathing. She had tubes in too many places. Her parents were young teenagers themselves. They did not want a feeding tube because they felt that would label her as something different, that would, I think, it would show that there was really something wrong with her. And our nutritionist talked and finally got this done. She had problems with her hearing from the birth. There were problems with her eyesight from the birth. All of these things were treated while she was there. She was with us until she was five. She’s now going into high school. What vision she has has been taken care of, and she still has vision. Her hearing – she still has a little bit of that because it was not neglected. It was seen from the very beginning. She now of course no longer is tube fed. She’s totally able to do everything a young teenage child can do. She puts me into tears when I hear about her because it’s just an extreme example of what good preschool care, that one to five age, that it’s so vital. They just don’t start at school age. You’ve got to get them going a lot earlier than that. And I know that food is the biggest thing for a lot of our kids- we learn that very early when they come into the clinic – they only learn to graze. They don’t know what it is to sit at a table, and in a lot of cases they don’t want to sit at the table. They immediately want to grab something from their plate and go play. And this takes patience and time and eventually with the example of other kids doing with their eating way, and with the teachers sitting there with them and encouraging them it happens. And then there’s the thing about what every teacher has is getting the kids to eat – whether they will eat this fruit. A lot of them have never had fruit in their lives. Fruit is just not something that parents spend money on. I had an ‘aha’ moment while we were in the meeting this morning. We talked about pears. One woman said the first time the kids see pears they think they’re potatoes, because they’re the little cut up white things. That’s not the way potatoes come; they’re not going to eat those anyway. And I had an ‘aha’ moment. Maybe what we need to do with fruit the first few times we serve it is actually put the fruit itself, a pear, an apple, on the table and try to get them to associate what they’re going to eat and maybe it would work. I don’t know, but it’s something I would like to see them try when I get back. But I know I’ve had kids actually eat carrots, but won’t eat the fruit, because they simply don’t know what it is, and it’s an odd taste. So we’ve learned a lot, we’ve learned a lot. One of my corporations that has five clinics has a central kitchen. And their clinics are all within about three quarters of an hour of each other, and they cook at the central kitchen and then they deliver to these other centers. So they are coming up with these innovative ideas, and I love the snacks they have. The children get three things. They get celery sticks and carrot sticks and broccoli stems, and they get a little container of dip. And the teachers have gotten the children to view the broccoli as trees, and they get eaten. It’s wonderful. They are eating things they won’t eat – if you cook the broccoli they’re not going to eat it, but give it to them that way, and hey, that’s the way I like it too, so it’s very interesting. It’s been an eye opener all the way around.

JB: Have you experienced any major changes as you’ve gone through your position?

VB: Since I’ve been with Kids First, and that’s twenty years now, since I’ve been with them not really, because our nutritionists are so on top of it. Again, we are different in having an entire nutrition department. And every child in the Kids First portion, every child has a nutritional evaluation when they come in, and so they’ve taken care. The one thing we’ve seen a lot is lots more allergies, special diets, weird things –

JB: Why do you think that is? Do you have any idea?

VB: Some of it, for instance autistic children, we have more and more autistic children. And the parents have gone online and read about some of these strange things that people advocate for children with autism, and they want us to follow those. In some cases we are willing, provided the parent is actually doing it at home. But what we’ve found in a lot of cases, they want us to follow these regimens, but when the child gets home it’s not followed. And so that’s the kind of commitment that we want to get from the parents. If they want us to follow a special diet it has to be followed at home also – or at least we do the best we can to get them to follow that. But yes, in that respect it has changed. Where we used to have one or two special things, particularly milk was always a special thing, but now we have many, many more. Peanuts have just become a major issue. We’ve always known there’s a peanut allergy, but we have such a thing to where you cannot even bring a candy bar with peanuts in it into that clinic. There is one clinic where the child is so allergic to it that the smell of peanuts will bring out problems. And they are treating the child, trying to get him to –

JB: Desensitize him?

VB: Yes, I guess. I know they’re working with him. Again, it’s out of my area. I just know it’s there. And then we have lots of kids that at three or four years old are still on formula, and so that’s a challenge for me with USDA, with the CACFP because we have to still keep production records on those children because they are on formula, even though they are sometimes given the entire menu, at least they are served the menu, but they still have to have formula of some kind. And sometimes the rigidity of the rules with CACFP, which comes from USDA, and I know, but we have to be innovative to use those. Where a child is tube fed, but he’s learning to swallow, he’s encouraged to drink as much as he can and what he doesn’t drink will be tube fed. Well, how do you bill that? So these are things we’ve had to learn.

JB: How many children do you serve?

VB: Total overall I bill for about 3,000 children, but the Kids First program, which I’m most familiar with, we have about 1,000. We’re just reaching a hundred in some of our clinics. A few have gone over. But then in the smaller towns we don’t have more than fifty or sixty, so probably 1,000 would be the maximum, and then the other people.

JB: And you’re spread throughout the state of Arkansas?

VB: Throughout the state, yes, and all the towns that we’re in are very glad we’re there. Several years ago we had a problem where we weren’t doing too well in two of the smaller towns. We simple weren’t getting enough children. Our marketing was not good enough and they didn’t know who we were. And we considered closing those two clinics and when that word got out that we might do that, there was an outpouring of support and suddenly everybody knew about us. And now both clinics are open and doing well. And next month we will move our last clinic, the one in Little Rock, will move to a new building. That is the last one in the state that doesn’t have their own new building built specifically for Kids First. Always before, we were in strange little buildings that we could make work.

JB: What advice would you give someone who was considering a career doing something similar to what you are doing?

VB: Be willing to multitask and be willing to do what it takes. I don’t know whether you can give advice. I think in almost any position you learn as you go. You may have the education that says you know what you’re doing, but you learn as you go. And so I think be open for any information, be open to anything you hear about, and be willing to try. And get advice from the best people going, which we get from right here.

JB: The Institute?

VB: Yes. It’s just wonderful. I’m just so pleased with being part of the kind of thing that happened in these two days. The Institute invited us to try to get ideas about how they need to get the message out, how it would be easier to get the message out; what would work for us, what we really needed, what kind of training that our folks really needed that they might be able to provide. And I think they got a lot of good ideas. We were a diverse group I think, representing most every kind of entity that is involved with child nutrition, everything from USDA representative, to state agencies, to providers, to provider with special needs, with home daycare agencies. So we got viewpoints from so many places, and you really learn that though we are so diverse, we’re all the same. We all have the same problems and we need training. It’s one of our biggest challenges, to be able to get the right kind of training for the folks that we need. And I think we had some pretty good suggestions and I learned a lot that I want to try personally. And then the last hour was just fun. We were thinking up possible new names for the Institute, thinking about how they could get people to their booths when they were exhibiting at conferences, and we had a lot of fun with it. It was good, just a real exchange of ideas.

JB: Anything else you’d like to add today?

VB: I’ve been in the field a lot of years, one I never expected to be in. And I’ve enjoyed it. I’m well past retirement age, but I’m not retiring. I love what I do. I think I make a difference, and as long as I’m able I want to continue to work at the things that I KNOW are benefiting these kids. That’s really where I am.

JB: Thank you so much for your time.

VB: Thank you.