The Cheshire school district recently recognized Highland Elementary School Paraeducator Valerie Overstreet for her heroism after performing the Heimlich maneuver on a sixth-grade student choking in the school’s cafeteria.
Overstreet, supervising another group of students at the time, noticed that a student had gotten up from their seat and was red in the face. Suspecting they were choking, she went over to the student and asked if they were OK, and when they weren’t able to give a reply, she performed the maneuver.
After a couple of rotations, she managed to dislodge the food stuck in their throat, quickly taking them to the nurse’s office afterward. The student was all right and had no lasting injuries.
Assistant Superintendent Marlene Silano came to the school to award Overstreet with a bouquet of flowers for her quick thinking in the moment.
“My adrenaline was — I did like 24,000 steps that day, I did not stop. I went home, took a four-mile walk. You don’t come down after that for a while,” Overstreet said. “I was just in the right place at the right time, I had the training, knew what to do, and did it.”
Overstreet is normally in the cafeteria during the sixth-grade lunch period. The student wasn’t a part of the group she was with at the time. They just happened to be sitting close to the table where Overstreet happened to be during the lunch period.
“I’m proud of Val for being able to step in and just jump into action. And knowing that many of the staff members have just that ability to jump in reassures me the kids are safe,” said Highland Elementary Principal Scott Jeffery. “We love the work she does, she’s so invested … What [she] demonstrated is so important that more and more people need those skills, especially with a large population. Time is of the essence in situations like that.”
Overstreet said the recognition has been exceptionally flattering, and she hopes to use her platform to highlight the importance of investing in further medical training for teachers.
“It’s very flattering and it’s very, very humbling and I appreciate it very much so. But if there’s a platform that I can use from this, it’s that we get hands-on training. We have training through an online program, which is great, we need that. But to actually be on the mannequins, doing the compressions … is really helpful,” Overstreet said. “I’m just hoping that we can get a platform, really, where everybody gets that hands-on physical training.”
Administrators, to exercise caution in the event of similar incidents, placed posters around the school giving other teachers instructions to follow the Heimlich maneuver. While all teachers take courses to prepare them for a number of emergencies, medical or otherwise, they hope in the future to do more hands-on training.
As a paraeducator, Overstreet works with students every day with specialized needs — including those with specific dietary needs due to their disabilities. With two children of her own with special needs, Overstreet has extensive firsthand knowledge about their care and is certified by the Red Cross to perform the Heimlich maneuver and administer first aid.
She began her tenure at Highland a year ago, though she has been in the field for 10 years, having gone to school to be an ABA therapist. She worked in a different field before returning to school, but wanted to pursue a career where she could more actively help people in her everyday life.
“I had a career before kids. And then I’m like, ‘That’s not really helping people. It’s not doing anything for people. It’s not people making people feel better and be better and more independent and more successful.’ So then I went into special ed. Both of my children have special ed services, and this is where I’m supposed to be,” said Overstreet.
“This is my gift and talent, working with individuals with special needs,” she said. “I’m a very friendly, open person working with anybody really, and making them feel good about themselves and bringing them up. I’m very positive. And that’s what I truly, truly believe, is to be the best and make other people feel good about themselves.”