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Lunch lady serves up a daily helping of love

by Joe Bollig

KANSAS CITY, Kan. — After 41 years as cafeteria director at Holy Name School here, Mary Lou Reyes is more than a little protective of her turf.

Early one morning many years ago, she arrived at the school to see shattered glass on the floor. Someone had broken in.

So Reyes did what any sleuthing lunch lady would do when all alone in a dark building early in the morning.

She grabbed a big kitchen knife and walked the school halls, investigating.

“Of course, in hindsight, she shouldn’t have done that,” said Lori Petesch, a seventh- and eighth-grade teacher who has worked at Holy Name for 30 years. “But she knew the students would be showing up any time.

“And she had to make sure the school was safe.”

That’s how much Mary Lou Reyes loves this school.

A legend

Reyes is legendary at Holy Name, woven into the fabric of this blue-collar community.

She grew up in the Argentine neighborhood near here and is a parishioner at Holy Name Church. Her husband Louis was a custodian at the school for 15 years and still volunteers to help her in the mornings. They raised four children and sent them to Holy Name.

“She’s a huge part of the community,” said Amanda Vega-Mavec, principal of Holy Name. “She knows so many of the children because she knows their parents and grandparents. They know she’s part of the community.”

“She just doesn’t come in, do her job and leave,” the principal continued. “She’s aware of what they’re going through, not just what’s on their plate.”

For many of the students, Reyes is more than the lunch lady. Sometimes, a child who is no relation at all will call her “Aunt Mary Lou” or “Grandma.”

“A lot of times, I’ll see [the students] when I’m out shopping, and they’ll run up to me saying ‘Mary Lou, Mary Lou!’ and want a hug,” she said.

“There’s a little girl who tells me every morning, ‘Mary Lou, I like your food.’ And I say ‘Thank you, honey.’ It shows by her tray,” she continued. “Usually when kids have a clean tray, I’ll tell them that they’ve done a good job. It makes me happy.”

A tight ship

Reyes started here as a cafeteria volunteer until the serving director quit in the middle of the school year.

“[Then-pastor] Father Frank Krische asked me why I hadn’t applied for the job, and I told him I didn’t drive,” said Reyes.

So Father Krische offered to drive her to work until she got her license.

Learning how to cook for a school and run a kitchen was a different challenge entirely. Reyes learned to cook at the school, using recipes from state-regulated cookbooks.

After many years, Reyes knows which recipes her students like best, like her famous taco salad. Unfortunately, not all lunches are that popular.

“My kids do not like the new menu regulations,” confided Reyes. “Whole grain bread and all that nasty stuff. Everything has to be whole grain — the snacks, cereal and even the coating on the chicken nuggets.

“They’re kind of getting used to it, because they don’t have any choice.”

And after four decades on the job, Reyes has what the military calls “command presence.” It is an air of authority, professionalism and integrity that one projects.

The sign on the cafeteria freezer says it all: “Two Choices for Lunch . . .  1. Take it. 2. Leave it.”

Reyes and her assistant Elizabeth Alaniz run a tight, tidy ship. They cook close to the count, producing little excess food. Leftovers in the trash is money down the drain, and a little school like Holy Name can’t afford it.

“Sometimes, I have to holler at the kids — we both do,” said Reyes. “If they’re not behaving at the table, I get after them [and] say, ‘Don’t do that,’ or ‘Get up’ if they lay on the bench.”

“With the big kids,” she continued, “I go back there and tell them, ‘Look, your mother doesn’t work here.  When your mother starts working here, you can leave the biggest mess you want. I’m not cleaning up after you. You’re old enough to clean up after yourself.’”

Above and beyond

Reyes keeps a close eye out on the children, and not just for misbehaving. Since she sees them every day, she knows if something is wrong.

“I’ll ask them ‘Are you OK?’ If they want to talk to me, fine,” she said. “If they don’t want to talk to me, that’s up to them. I don’t get real nosy.”

One particular student latched onto Mary Lou after witnessing the deaths of both parents in one day.

“[The student] was a wreck,” said Petesch. “We always try to find an adult in the building who the kids feel comfortable talking to. This little girl latched onto Mary Lou.”

Reyes also notices if students or teachers are going hungry.

“I started back in 1986,” said Petesch. “I was fresh out of college and can remember gathering around the kitchen counter the first thing in the morning with the other teachers. Mary Lou would ask us if we needed breakfast. She was always making sure we had eaten.”

“She was also like this with the students,” Petesch continued. “If a student came to school but didn’t go through the breakfast line, she’d ask them if they had eaten breakfast. If they hadn’t, she’d take care of them. No one would start the day with an empty stomach, even if the money came out of her own pocket.”

More than a job

For Reyes, Holy Name is more than a job. It’s her community, her parish, her friends and her family.

There was a time many years ago when the school was struggling. Morale was low and supplies were short. When the teachers arrived in the morning, they would find that Reyes had prepared little CARE packages for them. The packages would have candy bars, staplers, paper and all other sorts of badly needed classroom supplies.

During the years her husband was janitor, Reyes would often end her day on her hands and knees, helping him scrub floors and clean bathrooms.

“She prided herself on the fact that when visitors toured the school they would always comment on how clean the school was and that the floors looked like you could eat off of them,” said Petesch. “You could just see the pride she had in our school.”

Now, at age 75, she’s just about ready to give up the job.

But she’ll never give up the love.

She will always be part of Holy Name School.

“It’s going to be hard to come back in the fall and not have her in the kitchen,” said Jennifer Starcke, who has taught kindergarten at Holy Name for 20 years. “Before school ends for the summer, she walks around and gives everyone hugs. When she comes back in the fall, she gives everyone hugs.

“It’s not going to be the same without her.”

About the author

Joe Bollig

Joe has been with The Leaven since 1993. He has a bachelor’s degree in communications and a master’s degree in journalism. Before entering print journalism he worked in commercial radio. He has worked for the St. Joseph (Mo.) News-Press and Sun Publications in Overland Park. During his journalistic career he has covered beats including police, fire, business, features, general assignment and religion. While at The Leaven he has been a writer, photographer and videographer. He has won or shared several Catholic Press Association awards, as well as Archbishop Edward T. O’Meara awards for mission coverage. He graduated with a certification in catechesis from a two-year distance learning program offered by the Maryvale Institute for Catechesis, Theology, Philosophy and Religious Education at Old Oscott, Great Barr, in Birmingham, England.

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