From fashion to FLIK: Valarie Daphinis’s path to HM


Mia Calzolaio and Liliana Greyf

“They call me silly lady because I always have something funny to say,” Catering Attendant FLIK staff member Valarie Daphinis said. She prepares and serves lunch in the cafeteria, and she earned the nickname from her coworkers. “When I say something funny, they are always laughing at me. I have a good time at work — I can’t complain.”

Upon first arriving in the U.S., Daphinis attended school to learn English; however, after three months, she decided to start working instead. “It was not easy for me, because everybody speaks English,” she said. “I don’t speak English after three months. But I have to go back to work.”

Daphinis’ first job in America was as a cashier at Burger King, where she remained for five years. Then, her coworker gave her an application to work at FLIK, which would allow her to work at Horace Mann. She took the advice and applied, and has worked at the school for the past seven years. She served lunch at the fried food station until Director of the School’s FLIK Dining Services Brenda Cohn offered her a promotion.

After that, Daphinis was moved to the deli station, where she made sandwiches for the students. Daphinis was excited for the promotion, but she was also nervous. Because Daphinis does not speak perfect English — she was born in Port-au-Prince, Haiti and immigrated to New York when she was 22 — she was unable to differentiate between the different cheeses that students asked for. “This is my worst day ever,” she said. “I don’t know the name of the cheese, I don’t know the name of the bread — I don’t even know what the utensils are called.”

Soon, Daphinis distinguished the provolone from the mozzarella. Only a few months into her role at the deli station, Cohn told her she had once again exceeded expectations. Daphinis then began to work as a caterer, helping to ensure that after-school events ran smoothly. 

At first, Daphinis was nervous. “‘I don’t speak English, Brenda; I can’t do it,’” she told Cohn. But Cohn told her not to make excuses, so Daphinis began the new job. She has worked as a caterer ever since.

Because all after-school events are canceled due to the pandemic this year, Daphinis now prepares lunches and hands them out to students. She does not mind the change, as it allows her to spend more time with her coworkers, whom she refers to as her “second family,” she said.

Each week, Daphinis spends 40 hours at her job. As a result, she has established close relationships with all of her coworkers. When she has a problem she does not know how to fix, she talks to Head Cashier Adriana De La Rosa. “[De La Rosa] says, ‘Do this, do that Valerie and then you’re going to get it,’” she said. “To be honest with you, Adriana is like a second mother to me.” 

Daphinis’ relationship with her coworkers also allows her to practice her English. When her speech is incorrect, her coworkers correct her. “It’s helpful because I want to learn more,” she said. “I’m open to learning.” 

She considers her job to be “a fun thing to do everyday,” she said. “Right now, I feel that all those kids, I feel like they’re my friends, my kids.”

Once, Daphinis encountered a student who recognized her outside of school. “I was in Macy’s shopping and then he saw me. I didn’t even know him,” she said. “And he came and talked to me and said, ‘Hi, Valerie!’ I got so shocked.”

When she is not working, Daphinis has many other hobbies with which she fills her time. Whenever she has the chance, she loves to travel. Her favorite place she has traveled to is California, where she went to a wax museum and a military cemetery. She is always looking for something that will spark her interest, she said. “That’s my goal — I always want to see something to make me laugh.” 

Recently, Daphinis visited one of her cousins at his home in Paris. She loved the city and is already dreaming of returning, she said. “Because we speak French, and I speak French and Creole, I do want to go back there.”

Besides Paris, Daphinis’ family lives all over the world: her cousins reside in various parts of the United States and France, and her siblings and parents live in Haiti. She is close with all of them, something she attributes to Haitian culture. “You have to be close with your family, your aunt and your uncle — everybody is really close,” she said.

Daphinis grew up in a big family, and she has a younger brother and a younger sister. When she was young, she took on a motherly role around the house, cooking and cleaning in her free time. She attended a private Catholic school and enjoyed playing soccer and socializing with her friends despite her shyness. However, her real passion when she was young was designing clothing, she said. 

Although she had no formal training until after high school, Daphnis always enjoyed creating her own styles by reworking her old clothing at home. “I messed up all my clothes to try to do new clothes, and then it was bad,” she said. “My mom always said, ‘Why you mess up that clothes?’” 

After high school, Daphinis studied fashion at a professional school in her hometown, but she changed her mind after a few years. “I was so passionate with it, and then when I turned 21, I don’t like it [anymore],” she said. 

Daphinis dropped out of fashion school and started working as a cashier at her mother’s corner store. When she was 22, she married one of her former high school classmates, whom she met when she was 15. In 2007, her husband decided to come to the United States, and Daphinis came with him.

Now, Daphinis has new hobbies in her new home. When Daphinis returns home after school, she often turns on her television — her favorite channel is TLC because she loves documentaries. She also enjoys Doctor Who and other television series, which help her learn English.

In her free time, she also speaks on the phone with her family members. Daphinis and her mother are very close, she said. “Every day if I don’t call her after nine o’clock, she calls me.” 

Soon, Daphinis plans to visit her family members in Haiti. “Every year in my family, we all have to be together — one day a year,” she said. On her grandmother’s birthday, everyone comes together to celebrate. “When everybody’s on vacation we just go over there, stay in grandma’s house all day, and have fun,” she said.