Donna Colello, head custodian at Ocean Avenue Elementary School in Portland, is the only custodian from the Northeast and one of two women in the running for a national Custodian of the Year award. (Courtesy Donna Colello)
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Donna Colello has spent the last year working to keep elementary school students safe from COVID-19. But the pandemic is far from the only hardship she has faced during her 25-year career.

Colello, 51, is head custodian at Ocean Avenue Elementary School in Portland and is one of 10 finalists in Cintas Corp.’s national Custodian of the Year Contest. She is one of only two women, and the only candidate from the Northeast, to make it to the final round of the competition.

Cintas is a company that provides organizations with items like uniforms and restroom supplies.

If Colello wins, she will receive a $10,000 prize, and Ocean Avenue Elementary School will receive a $5,000 credit towards products or services from Cintas or Rubbermaid, to be determined by the companies. The winning school will also receive a training package from The Worldwide Cleaning Industry Association valued at $20,000.

Voting is open to the public until April 16 at custodianoftheyear.com

Thank-you cards addressed to Donna Colello from the students of Ocean Avenue Elementary School. (Courtesy Donna Colello)

Just for making the top 10, each finalist will also receive a $1,000 check and tuition to an industry association training event valued at $1,500. 

For that reason, Colello said in an interview last week, she feels like she has already won. 

She has also come a long way since her first custodian job in the School Department at the former Marada Adams School on Munjoy Hill, where she started in 1996. 

Colello had worked as a chef, but after becoming a single mother to her daughter, she took on the custodian role and has been working in different schools in the city ever since. She has been the head custodian at Ocean Avenue for the past four years.

A survivor of both domestic abuse and cancer, Colello said she finds it difficult to answer people when they ask her how she has managed to persevere.

“We’ve had some pretty stressful times but we’ve pushed through it all,” she said. “My daughter was the center of my world and still is.”

She also managed to obtain a bachelor’s degree in health over the course of six years, while working full-time and being a single parent. She would not have been able to do so without her daughter, she said, who encouraged her during the times she said she would “sit in tears” over the schoolwork she had to complete.

Colello’s daughter has also now earned a bachelor’s degree from a culinary school.

Donna Colello, center, with Ocean Avenue Elementary School team members Brian Sayward, left, and Patrick Dakin wearing cleaning gear designed to protect them against COVID-19. (Courtesy Donna Colello)

Support from the School Department over the years, where administrators “knew her struggles,” Colello said, has also been instrumental, as well as from her current and former coworkers.

“My crew here is just like family, and at every other school I’ve ever worked with they’ve been family,” she said.

Last summer, she and several of the School Department’s other most experienced custodians developed COVID-19 cleaning protocols for the schools, which included researching the necessary chemicals, equipment, and distancing measures. The work resulted in a 15-page document.

The Cintas website describes Colello as “one of the most respected, hardworking custodians in Portland, Maine,” and that she works “tirelessly every day” and “always brings a smile to all.”

“Donna is an integral part of the Ocean Avenue Community and is the one that staff and students rely on the most,” it states.

Colello said she had never heard of the contest until she received an email about it earlier this year, but that she considers it “quite the honor” to have been nominated. 

She received nominations from several of her colleagues, including Ocean Avenue Principal Beverly Stevens. Colello’s daughter also wrote a nomination, but would not reveal what she wrote.

“She said ‘when they read my nomination, you’ve got this, mom,’” Colello said, “’because there’s not going to be a dry eye in the house.’”

Making Portland Work is an occasional series about people who do their jobs, day in and day out, in good times and bad. They’re the unsung heroes we see and depend on every day. Do you know someone we should include? Let us know at [email protected].