Lappi ‘passionate about making a difference in students’ lives’

Robin Lappi, a paraprofessional at Penn Cambria Middle School, sorts items collected as part of the Panther Closet program, which aims to distribute goods to disadvantaged students.

GALLITZIN — Dozens of students moved past the closed door of a supply closet in Penn Cambria Middle School as they made their way to class on a mid-January afternoon.

Most of them likely were unaware of what was behind the door, but Robin Lappi, a district paraprofessional, would soon reach out and turn its knob, revealing stacks of backpacks and clothing.

Those items were donated as part of the Panther Closet program, which is in place to ensure they are available for students in need.

Lappi is the president of Penn Cambria’s Education Support Personnel Association union, which heads the Panther Closet, as well as a number of other charitable programs.

“Robin is an extremely caring person who is passionate about making a difference in all students’ lives,” district Superintendent William Marshall said. “Her commitment to all students is contagious.”

Lappi, 54, is a 19-year district employee, but last month she admitted she would not have predicted a career within the educational system.

A Cherry Tree native, Lappi graduated from Northern Cambria High School before working jobs in retail, cosmetology and floristry.

Now, Lappi continues her passion for creativity by working weekends at a popular Altoona crafting store.

“I love to craft,” she said.

But Lappi also has another passion — the students.

“We have to take care of our students because, if they come here and they’re hungry and they don’t have what they need, what are we going to get out of them?” she said.

Lappi and her family moved to Gallitzin in the early 1990s, and a job with the Penn Cambria School District followed.

Eventually, she was elected as the Education Support Personnel Association’s president, a role she has held for 12 years. Through that role — and with the help of a long list of union officers — she was able to spearhead a number of charitable programs.

Chief among them, she said, is Panther Closet, a program that allows clothing and other goods to be distributed to students who lack the necessities.

“When you work here, you see the kids’ needs,” Lappi said.

When those disadvantaged students are identified, Lappi said she or one of her colleagues in a different building approaches them discreetly to offer support.

“We do it very privately,” Lappi said. “We don’t embarrass any kids.”

Lappi said she has seen the positive benefits of the program, and both students and parents have approached organizers to offer thanks.

“There are a lot of really grateful kids. We even got a thank you from a parent,” Lappi said, explaining Panther Closet organizers often try to remain anonymous even to students’ guardians. “We got a thank you from one parent who figured it out.”

Lappi is a parent, too. She and her husband of 33 years, Joseph, have three adult children: Rhonda, Shelly and Todd.

Last month, Lappi listed numerous other charitable programs that her union has developed.

Last week, Marshall applauded Lappi’s work.

“The programs Robin has helped initiate at Penn Cambria have allowed our most needy students to have one less thing to worry about,” he said. “The students continue to be our No. 1 priority. I admire our union leaders and our membership. They value and appreciate the positive impact they have on their students.”

Similarly, Lappi said the programs would not be a reality without district leaders’ support.

“There are a lot of districts that do not communicate and do not get along well with the school board,” Lappi said. “We have a super wonderful, great relationship with our school board and our superintendent.”

Lappi said she anticipates that relationship and the charitable programs will continue — even after her union leadership has ended.

“This won’t stop when I’m not president,” she said. “We are going to fill the needs of our kids.”

Mirror Staff Writer Sean Sauro is at 946-7535.