Food service director finds recipe for happiness at Sacred Heart in Ottawa
by Jessica Langdon
OTTAWA — Move over new-crayon smell.
There’s another aroma in town that means school is back in session.
The smell of baking bread wafts through the halls of Sacred Heart School in Ottawa, signaling to the kindergartners through fifth-graders that it’s almost lunchtime.
They can thank food service director Carolyn Vrbas for that.
Just a few years ago, Vrbas, 72, wouldn’t have guessed this job would be on the menu for her, but friends saw that she brought just the right ingredients to the table.
At the top of the list: more than two decades of preparing school lunches.
When Vrbas moved to Ottawa from Hays in 2007, the longtime school cook was certain her years of serving lunch to schoolchildren were over.
And that was true.
For exactly three days.
Because the same day Vrbas was moving into her apartment, the woman who was then Sacred Heart’s food service director was moving her aunt into the same complex.
Vrbas’ daughter-in-law introduced the two women.
“When she heard ‘school cook,’ her ears perked up,” said Vrbas. “I lived here three days, and she gave me a call.”
That led to Vrbas lending an occasional hand during the first year. She later helped out about once a week, usually when the menu featured fresh bread — her specialty.
And then the previous food service director retired.
The position was open for the 2011-2012 school year.
“I have every confidence you could handle the job,” Diane Chapman, then-principal at Sacred Heart, assured Vrbas.
Vrbas proved that to be true. She never missed a day.
On the few days of true winter weather in 2012, Chapman drove Vrbas to school herself to keep her safe.
Her role here is a vital one — and it goes far beyond her famous handmade wheat rolls.
Vrbas arrives hours before lunchtime every day.
She carefully counts servings, mixes ingredients and times the dishes just right.
Regular diners her first year on the job included three of her granddaughters — Rachel, Monica and Miranda.
Now in sixth-grade, Rachel has moved on to her new school, but Monica is a fourth-grader at Sacred Heart and Miranda just a first-grader.
“It’s nice that the kids get to see Grandma here at school almost every day,” said Rick Vrbas, the girls’ dad.
Still, he’s not sure who benefits more from this arrangement — his kids or his mom.
Vrbas and her husband Ray raised three children, now all grown.
Rick fondly remembers the family dinners of fried chicken with mashed potatoes and gravy.
Now that Vrbas prepares school lunches — with different ingredients and recipes, of course, to feed close to 100 — some of those traditional menus are still the biggest hits.
“I really like the chicken, mashed potatoes and gravy,” said Monica. She likes the hamburgers, too, especially if Vrbas has made the buns.
Behind the scenes — often at home — Vrbas does her own homework: planning menus and documenting the servings of protein, grains, vegetables and fruits.
She makes sure the food meets state guidelines, and does it all with love, said Natalie Wrobel, who took the reins this year as Sacred Heart’s principal when Chapman moved to Topeka’s Most Pure Heart of Mary School as resource team coordinator.
“She puts every ounce of love into her food,” Wrobel said. “And she cares so much about the kids.”
“I’d like to keep her around for 100 years — or more,” she added.