School Nurse Creates Healthy, Fun and Life-Changing Programs

July 25, 2014 | Written By:

Kay Stukenborg’s story

Above, a drawing from Kay Stukenborg's student-created cookbook of budget-friendly meals.

This spring, HSC was proud to announce the winners of our first-ever School Nurse Leadership Award. It’s an award that acknowledges the tireless commitments that school nurses make, created in partnership with School Health magazine and Maico Diagnostics. The five winners and four honorable mentions selected from across the country represent school nurses who are blazing new trails in their field, reimagining the role that school nurses play in school health and wellness, students’ academic success and the health of the larger community. In this blog, we speak with winner Kay Stukenborg about her accomplishments as a school nurse.


Kay Stukenborg, RN, BSN, MSA, remembers when she first began as a school nurse in Kettering, Ohio at John F. Kennedy Elementary School. She’d come from years as a cardiac nurse, and turning her attention to the school community was eye-opening. “When I started 15 years ago, I would see all these kids who were overweight,” she says, “and I was kind of stunned by that.”

At the same time, Kay immediately saw all the benefits of school nursing in Kettering. She recalls: “I looked at the community as a circle, and everyone is interconnected… you all work together for that community to thrive.”

With that in mind, Kay began pioneering some of the many programs that would make her an invaluable asset to the area. For example, her Heart Healthy Day brings in a mobile “Heart Bus” and educators from the YMCA. Each grade then has special activities to learn about heart health, fun ways to be physical, and nutrition.

“If you learn those heart-healthy habits when you’re young you have a better chance of not being an overweight adult,” she says.

Sending critical, consistent messages

Kay’s school has a very diverse population, with 32 countries and 28 language groups represented. Many live in low-income housing, and over half receive free and reduced-price lunch. Research shows that low-income students are more vulnerable to chronic health problems, and building consistent healthy habits is critical to students’ lifelong health.

With consistent, healthy messages in mind, Kay’s Budget-Friendly Foods program connects schools with homes, changing students’ eating habits and promoting creativity in the kitchen. It was designed for students who receive free groceries on Fridays to ensure they don’t go hungry over the weekend. With Kay’s program, students learn to prepare their own easy meals, which can be made without a stove.

The project has helped engage students — and their families — in healthier eating. She tells the story of one boy with a troubled home life, who was inspired to go home and make yogurt parfaits for his entire family. The next morning, she says, “he came in and gave me the biggest hug and said, ‘Nurse Kay, thanks for caring about me.’ To me, that’s what school nursing is”

But the project didn’t stop there. Students began drawing pictures to go with the recipes they made, forming the beginnings of a cookbook. With the $300 proceeds from cookbook sales, Kay started another program promoting good manners at mealtime, preparing students to enter the real world with confidence and healthy habits.

Working together for student health

Under Kay’s leadership, the idea of school nursing has expanded way beyond Band-Aids. Other special programs in Kettering have included a Mobile Eye Unit, which checked for vision problems, and a Mobile Dental Unit, for oral health. Not to mention — lessons in street safety, proper hydration, bike helmets and much more. Recently she added a walk-a-thon to the school’s wellness activities, inviting local “celebrities” such as the librarian and the mayor to participate. Kay says: “School nurses do a lot, and really we can make a difference.”

It’s about engaging kids in the mission of staying healthy, creating healthy habits for a lifetime. And most importantly, it’s about working together as a school community.

“This all has to start with teamwork,” Kay says. “You have one person who comes up with that idea, but I have to have other individuals working with me to make that idea a reality.”

Some of her programs have even been in place for more than a decade, creating consistent messages and forging long-lasting community partnerships. Her school’s principal says: “The important theme is her ability to identify needs of her students, have an idea for change and try to improve and make a difference in these kids’ lives.”

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