Jenna Kunze
The Haines custodian, Natasha Fitzpatrick, in her office.

Haines custodian Natasha Fitzpatrick is unfazed by most things-even middle school boys’ bathrooms, which she regards as one of the less pleasant parts of her daily cleaning routine at the Haines Borough School.

“A lot of ’em just don’t flush,” Fitzpatrick said as she breezed through her initial appraisal of the work day-what she calls “assessing the damage”- sweeping through the elementary wing of the Haines School with a wheeling garbage can. “I pick up papers off the floor, push chairs in, push clothing aside so people don’t trip on it.”

Earlier this month, Fitzpatrick was named among the first quarter-finalists in a nationwide contest recognizing school custodians.

“I’ve never won anything, never been recognized for cleaning of all things,” Fitzpatrick said. “But when the kids surprised me-oh my goodness, I was so overwhelmed. That was super touching.”

To notify her of the prize, the whole school gathered in the hallway to congratulate Fitzpatrick, who thought she was on her way to clean up a big mess in the girls’ bathroom.

District administrative assistant Ashley Sage nominated Fitzpatrick for “(coming) in early, (staying) late, and (doing) the job that nobody else wants to do.”

Sage added that Fitzpatrick keeps her eyes open for environmental and kid-friendly products, treats students like her own children, and even once volunteered to chaperone the track team’s state competition in Anchorage when the group was shorthanded.

Since 2008, Fitzpatrick has worked as the K-8 custodian disinfecting surfaces, flushing toilets, vacuuming, sweeping and mopping up messes, but she’s currently filling the vacant custodial position in the high school, as well.

Though Fitzpatrick is currently the lone janitor, she’s not always doing her job solo. Middle school science teacher Jordan Baumgartner began coordinating with his eighth-grade class to help lessen Fitzpatrick’s workload a few times a week.

“The eighth-graders saw how much she has to do everyday, and they wanted to help out,” Baumgartner said. “They all assigned themselves a different chore. Like four people will vacuum, two are in charge of the library.”

“I think it’s important to help her because she’s done and is doing so much for us,” said Sophia Sutcliffe Diaz. “Natasha is so much more than just the school custodian. I speak for all of Haines school when I say that we are very grateful to have her as our school custodian and our friend.”

The key to Fitzpatrick’s success is locked away in the custodial closet in the elementary school hallway, a small room that’s covered wall-to-ceiling in notes, drawings and photos gifted to Fitzpatrick from students over the years.

“My most favorite part of my day is going in there and just thinking ‘oh’,” Fitzpatrick said. “This is what the kids do for me, and I’ve kept every little thing. I think a lot of all the children here. I’ve got a lot of respect for them, which I’ve gotten in return.”

The “Custodians Are Key” contest was launched in September by Tennant, a company that makes cleaning products. Fitzpatrick was awarded a $500 gift card-which she said will go towards purchasing a new vehicle- and will be placed in the running for a $15,000 prize package among 11 other finalists in May. The grand prize winner will receive $5,000 personally, and $10,000 for their school.