Melissa Bonifas, Blue Hill High School, Nebraska
Melissa Bonifas’ excitement for career and technical education comes from her background in agriculture. She grew up on a farm where her dad also owned a welding business. She saw first-hand the safety procedures that were instilled in employees, as well as her and her siblings.
“Safety was always the most important aspect of [my father’s] business, as he never wanted anyone who worked for him to get hurt or suffer unnecessarily,” Bonifas said. “I fell in love with the idea that I could teach the next generations about agriculture.”
Many of Bonifas’ students have their first experience in a welding shop at Blue Hill High School; therefore, safety is her number one concern for her classes. At the beginning of the school year, students learn about general shop safety and must pass a safety exam. Their safety and health education continues throughout the year as they learn safety principles for each type of welding process. Bonifas insists that students demonstrate to her the correct procedure to use each machine before they are allowed to use it by themselves.
“It has always been my mission to provide educational opportunities for students to learn how to work safely, and to learn how to operate equipment in a safe manner,” she said.
Bonifas invites people from the agriculture industry into the classroom to share their expertise with her students. It is an opportunity for them to get a glimpse of "real world" issues that face the technical industry, she said. For the past two years, she has had a representative from Walter present a grinder safety course to the welding classes. After the course, each student receives a certificate with the credits they earned. Additional training from outside sources with their OSHA 10-Hour credential adds value to their experiences in the shop and to their level of success in the future, she said.
“I try to use real world situations. I grew up in a welding shop and I’ve seen what can happen when you are careless, but also how devastating that can be for the other people involved,” Bonifas said. “A big notion in my mind is to keep them in touch with how serious this is and actively engaged in their own safety from day one.”
Bonifas has worked tirelessly with her school to replace older equipment, invest in personal protective equipment and make sure that her students have access to glasses, leather gloves, leather welding jackets and additional equipment. Last year, Blue Hill High School remodeled her classroom and invested in new torches and a MIG welder for the agriculture shop. Bonifas is proud that her students and program are valued by the community so much that her shop is now a safer place for her students than ever before giving them access to a variety of tools and gear at their disposal.
Every year in September, Bonifas’ students research safety for the home shop and farm and create posters that are shared around the school. Her students create and teach a farm safety program for the elementary students that involve topics about grain bins, chemicals, livestock, ATVs, fire, and shop safety. Students love sharing their expertise with younger children, and it is very rewarding to see that they have truly bought into the importance of safety in all aspects of agriculture, she said.
“Every student worker should have access to safety education not only from the school but from every employer,” Bonifas said. “Machinery and equipment can be replaced, but there is absolutely no replacement for a human life.”