College caretaker felt invisible to students until one changed his life

By Petula Dvorak at Washington Post

A Washington-based Georgetown University student group called Unsung Heroes works to acknowledge campus employees such as caretakers, bus drivers and security guards. Petula Dvorak talks to the student who started it all.
Georgetown University business major Febin Bellamy, left, talks with caretaker Oneil Batchelor. Students raised US$2500 and got him catering gigs. Photo / Andy Hogg / Unsung Heroes
Georgetown University business major Febin Bellamy, left, talks with caretaker Oneil Batchelor. Students raised US$2500 and got him catering gigs. Photo / Andy Hogg / Unsung Heroes

Every night, they had the same routine.

The Georgetown University business student would settle in for his cram session - soft drink, chips, books lined up.

And the caretaker would come in to start his night shift - polishing each of the windows in the study room, moving amid all those books and chips and soft drinks. Invisible.

"There was this space, like ice separating us," said Oneil Batchelor, an immigrant from Jamaica now living in Washington, US. The caretaker worked around the students - many of them in their 20s like him, many with entrepreneurial ambitions like him - for nearly a decade before one of them finally broke that ice last year.

A nod one night. A hello the next.

And within weeks, Batchelor and the student, Febin Bellamy, were having long talks about being immigrants, about wanting to be entrepreneurs, about politics and history and music.

Bellamy even went to Batchelor's church and met his 6-year-old daughter.

After he formed that bond with the once-invisible worker, Bellamy couldn't stop noticing the others.

"Once you see it, you can't unsee it," the 22-year-old said.

The minimum-wage cafeteria workers dishing up food, the locker-room attendant scrubbing the stinkiest places, the maintenance man doing backbreaking work in the garden while students manoeuvre around him, heads bowed to their phones.

It's not just affluence, age and pedigree that create this yawning gap at a school where tuition and room and board run more than US$65,000 a year.

"Everybody's in their own world," Bellamy said. "A lot of students have good hearts and were raised right. It's just not always easy for them to get to know people around them."

Each of those workers has a story. Many of them are immigrants, and their collective histories of war and flight and families left behind offer a master class in geopolitics. No tuition needed.

Bellamy understands because these are his people. His family immigrated to the United States from India when he was five. When they got to New York, his mother worked as a nursing assistant and his father as a customer service rep while they were going to college at night and raising a family in the few hours left over.

Bellamy started at a community college and then transferred to Georgetown, in Washington as a junior. He knows the scrap and fight the folks fixing pipes and cleaning bathrooms have inside them.

So he had a brainstorm. What if he found a way to introduce the workers to the students? And that idea went from a class project in April to a fundraiser making real change today.

Students raised more than US$5000 for Umberto 'Suru' Ripai, a cashier at a campus dining hall, to visit his family in South Sudan for the first time in 45 years. Photo / Andy Hogg / Unsung Heroes
Students raised more than US$5000 for Umberto 'Suru' Ripai, a cashier at a campus dining hall, to visit his family in South Sudan for the first time in 45 years. Photo / Andy Hogg / Unsung Heroes

He did it in the language his peers understand: a Facebook page. He calls it Unsung Heroes, and he began posting little profiles of workers around campus.

Students learned that the guy who cleans the business school windows, Batchelor, left a place of little opportunity in Jamaica 20 years ago and dreams of opening his own jerk-chicken joint someday.

They learned that one of the cooks at the Leo O'Donovan Dining Hall, José Manzanares, saw family members killed in El Salvador's civil war and escaped when he was a teenager.

They realised that every time Memuna Tackie, the woman vacuuming the carpet at the stately Riggs Library, asked a question about an English word, they were helping the immigrant from Ghana study for her citizenship test.

The guy who runs the cash register at the dining hall? Umberto "Suru" Ripai hasn't seen his family in what is now South Sudan for 45 years.

And that crossing guard who smiles at all the students, even when they don't smile back? Anthony "Tracey" Smith's dad was killed on a pedestrian crossing. Smith decided he wanted to protect pedestrians, and that's why he took the job at Georgetown.

The stories got shared. And liked. And loved.

"I walk through campus now, and people are waving at me, saying hi all the time," Batchelor said.

It gets even better.

The students also learned about some of the hopes percolating, as windows are washed and floors are scrubbed. And they're helping.

Turns out that Batchelor really is a gifted cook. Students who read about him encouraged him to hold fundraisers serving his now-famous-on-campus chicken. They raised US$2500, got him catering gigs and helped him put up his own web page, Oneil's Famous Jerk.

"It's like the door has cracked open in front of me," he said. "And I can smell the air coming through. The inspiration."

That cafeteria cashier at Leo's? The same students who once silently handed their meal cards to Ripai just raised more than US$5,500 on a GoFundMe page for him to go to South Sudan to visit. That's enough money for two round-trip tickets. He's planning his journey now.

Smiling yet?

Bellamy hopes to expand Unsung Heroes to other campuses nationwide. A social entrepreneur, he calls it.

I call it awesome.

Talk about an antidote to the divisiveness and bile of this election season.

Say all you want about tax returns and emails and locker rooms. This is what makes America great, Americans.

- Washington Post

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