by Abe Asher
In what has been a difficult year for OES, the last few weeks have been particularly upsetting in a much less public way.
The school’s Bon Appetit Dining Hall team, which has experienced a difficult several years in its own right, has been dealing with two absences.
Sergio Arrang, who suffered a serious ear injury from a dog attack, will return to work just before or after Spring Break.
But Suzy Roberts, who has worked here since Bon Appetit started at OES in 2007, suffered a heart attack and is in the hospital in serious condition.
“We feel helpless. We’re really raw. It’s hard to put it into words, really. When you work with someone for so long you spend more time with them here than you do at home. They become your family,” said Kelly Cowing, OES’ Dining Hall director.
Suzy’s condition is grave. “She has a brain infection. She’s had two heart attacks, so she’s non-responsive. She’s not in a coma, but she’s incoherent. They’re just trying to keep her comfortable. We don’t know the prognosis,” said Kelly.
A thin woman with long gray hair — often smiling — Suzy was familiar to many on campus through her work in the Lower School. She also used to run the after-school snack program, before vending machines rendered that service unnecessary.
I know Suzy reasonably well, and have always been extremely fond of her. We’d chat from time to time, and, just a few months ago, she pulled me aside at lunch to compliment me on my writing.
“She really looks out for students. She’s a spoiler. She likes to give them what they want, and break the rules. More than one dessert, things like that,” said Lindsey Lang, a longtime Dining Hall employee and close friend of Suzy’s.
She told me about how Suzy was known to buy cleaning supplies personally and bring them in to use at school, and how, every holiday season, she’d wear antlers and bring in treats.
“Suzy loves working here. If just a little bit of the love of love she puts in the OES community could come back to her in prayers, it would mean so much,” said Kelly.
Aside from working long days at OES, Suzy was also the main caretaker for her 92-year-old mom, and her brother. And if that wasn’t enough, Suzy had also been dealing with several other health issues and working through chemotherapy. Through it all, her quiet positivity was truly heroic.
“It sounds like one of her brothers is at the hospital with her every single day. They’re really concerned with her. They want to make sure that she’s comfortable and pain-free right now,” said Kelly.
Sergio, thankfully, is at home and recovering well. He’s in just his first year at OES, but he’s already left a mark.
“Sergio is one of the most positive people I’ve met,” said Lindsey. “I ask him how he’s doing, and every day, he says, “Perfect!” It’s always, “Perfect!”
Suzy and Sergio aren’t the only employees out right now. “One of our dishwashers who had been here for 15 years took a leave of absence last March for stomach cancer and hasn’t been back,” Kelly said.
As a result of these absences, and others still, the Bon Appetit staff has been stretched incredibly thin — and their job in the Dining Hall isn’t an easy one to begin with.
“Food service is brutal. We’re on our feet all day. And there are a lot of rules and regulations that we have to follow — especially since we’re serving children and young adults,” Kelly said.
Responsible for — at a minimum — three meals each day, the average week for Bon Appetit at OES includes 598 hours for hourly staff and another 120 hours for the salaried staff. Many days extend over ten hours for certain employees.
Said Kelly, “We’ve got a lot of overtime going on right now.” Bon Appetit has just made a new hire, and food service — which everyone who has eaten an average American school lunch will tell you is terrific — has been and will go on uninterrupted.
The overall attitude amongst the team — one of dogged service — is extremely impressive. Said Kelly, “Yes it’s hard work, and yes we’re down people, but we enjoy being a part of the OES community. That makes it a little bit easier.”
What can people do to help the Dining Hall staff?
“The biggest thing for Middle and Upper School is leaving things behind on the tables. It takes us about two hours total to clean up after your lunch is over. We don’t eat until about 1:30 or 2:00,” Kelly said.”
Said Lindsey, “Having patience is big. They [Students] feel like they have to wait to in line a little longer, but we try to get everyone through as quickly as possible.”
“Being informative is helpful. If there’s a spill, or the milk is out, or the juice is out, it’s really helpful if you inform somebody, because we don’t have enough employees on the floor.”
“We don’t always get to the tables after Middle School. If you have to sit at a dirty table, we apologize, but we’ll get to them eventually,” Kelly added.
There are cards for Sergio and Suzy that will be available to sign on Monday. Care packages are being worked on as well. In the meantime, despite everything, the show goes on in the Dining Hall.
“We still have a business to run,” Kelly said.
“There are no excuses, regardless of how short-staffed we are. We work as a team, and do what we need to do.”