Marisela Barrera, cafeteria staff employee at Rancier Middle School, gets a hug Thursday from sixth-grader Amber Sales. At right is Rancier Principal Amanda Silkett.

A veteran school cafeteria worker known for her love of children heroically sprang to action last week to save a sixth-grader from choking during lunchtime.

Marisela Barrera has worked in the Rancier Middle School cafeteria for 15 years. She and her husband have raised five sons, all who attended Rancier and graduated from Killeen High School.

On Sept. 27 during sixth-grade lunch, Barrera was emptying the contents of used trays into a trash can when she saw a child jumping around near a corner of the cafeteria.

“I wasn’t sure at first,” the worker said. “I wondered if she was playing. Then I could see she was asking for help. I ran over to her and stood her right here.”

As Barrera told the story, she walked from place to place, showing how she brought sixth-grader Amber Sales to a place where she knew other school staff members could see what was happening.

The seasoned school staff member took the struggling sixth-grader, performed the Heimlich maneuver three times and then hit the girl’s back, dislodging a piece of food.

On Thursday, Killeen ISD school nutrition director Steve Murphy thanked Barrera for her calm, cool action that he said saved the girl’s life.

“I was eating too fast and I was choking,” Sales said, recalling the frightening experience of a week ago. “She helped me.”

Murphy and KISD chief financial officer Megan Bradley gave Barrera a framed certificate, a lapel pin and a bouquet of flowers. Sales gave her a big hug.

The school district’s nutrition services employees receive training in the Heimlich maneuver and other first aid every year.

“We are delighted Marisela did the Heimlich maneuver and it was a total success and she saved a girl’s life,” Murphy said.

Rancier Principal Amanda Silkett said the incident showed the heart of a committed employee who loves children.

“It’s powerful,” she said. “It goes to show what our staff is willing to do. It’s very touching. She takes her job seriously and this is a shining example of who she is as a person. She was calm and she relied on her training.”

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