Today, I want you to meet a very special person, a person who can make any building come alive, but in order to do so, you will have to come with me to one of my favorite places on campus.
Come with me to The Fresh Food Company, a new student dining facility (No, it is not a cafeteria that you and I remember from our college days).
As you reach the entrance, you are greeted by a bold splash of red. In fact the red is so bold that it forces you to check your clothes just to make sure you are wearing red today. The vibrancy of the place makes you feel like being a student again. After I treat you to a $7.50 for you (or $5 if it is Red Friday and you are wearing red), you arrive at a bright open space. As you glance from left to right, I tell you that there are nine stations–from international to vegetarian to a tempting salad bar–are staffed by chefs preparing food for you as you wait. No garlic? No problem! They will hold it for you. Vegan? Yes, indeed! What about dessert? Wait a minute and watch that timer on the oven get to zero. You will be rewarded with a melt-in-your-mouth chocolate chip cookie with no calories (at least you won’t care while you are eating it).
Now that the last bit of your cookie is gone, you focus on your surroundings and notice that hundreds of students are sitting around, studying, chatting and working on their laptops. They are in no rush to leave. It is the gathering place! “Impressive,” you say without effort.
And then you start to complain that you have eaten too much and that you would need a siesta. I smile because I know the feeling too well.
Now I take you to meet Ms. Dorothy. She stands behind the salad station, refilling items as fast as possible. In between she raises her head and smiles at everyone and talks to some when she gets a chance. She does the same when she sees us. Her soft voice is hard to hear over the noise, but it reaches our heart. She does not expect you to acknowledge her or return her greetings. She is there to give unconditionally.
A few weeks ago, I asked the manager if Ms. Dorothy could spare a few minutes of her time for me. I wanted to know the person behind the counter. She was hesitant but complied and came. When I pulled a chair next to me and asked her to sit down, she was really puzzled.
Once we got going, she told me that she has been working now for 51 years. She was proud to have raised five successful children. Her eyes lit up, especially when she spoke about students. “They are so special and I would do whatever I can for them,” she told me. “One time, a student came to give me $10 that I had loaned him 8 years back when he had no money for lunch. I didn’t take it ’cause he gave me the joy when he got his degree,” she said in such a casual way that I had to hold my heart. How can an institution not succeed when there are people like Ms. Dorothy making its success their daily business!
That day, we sat and chatted for 20 minutes and during that time, many people passed by, saying “Hi, Ms. Dorothy!” It was only as an after-thought that they would glance at me and say, “Hello to you, too.” While I was focused on learning about Ms. Dorothy, she was pulling her colleagues aside and introducing them to me and telling me how good they were.
Now back to today, I watch as Ms. Dorothy comes from behind the counter and says a polite “hello” to you. I step forward and steal a hug from her. I can use it today.
Thank you, Ms. Dorothy! No matter what anyone else says, I know that you and your colleagues are the reason why our dining facilities are inviting places. We build them, but you all make them come to life!
(PS: Ms. Dorothy is one of over 300 employees of Aramark at the University of Houston. The Fresh Food Company serves 4,800 meals per day, giving Ms. Dorothy a venue to reach out to so many.)