A peek into the life of WHS' lunch ladies
Walking into Woodbury High School during the lunch hour, you immediately notice the music playing throughout the cafeteria and soon after you're greeted by a group of smiling, and dancing lunch ladies, ready to serve up the day's menu.
"What do you want today sweetie," said Val Chichila, one of the WHS lunch ladies. "Love you and have a great day."
As you look around you can't help but notice the sea of smiling faces sitting in the cafeteria enjoying their lunches.
"I shouldn't say this but we have the best lunch ladies in the district," WHS Principal Linda Plante said. "They are so connected with our students - it's just amazing - and there's so many different ways you can see that."
The life of a lunch lady
A typical day for the WHS lunch ladies begins at 6:45 a.m. when kitchen manager Mary Panek and her assistant head into the kitchen to prepare breakfast for the day.
Shortly after breakfast is served at 8 a.m., the rest of the cafeteria staff - 12 in total - head into the kitchen to get ready for the day's lunch.
"Once we hit the back door it's 'Yay, fun times,'" Chichila said. "We want to be making sure it's a great product for students because if it wasn't for them we would not be here."
Panek said the kitchen staff typically starts preparing for lunch several hours in advance since they have to get 1,800 students in and out of lunch in only an hour and 10 minutes.
Panek said the cafeteria staff serves between 900 and 1,000 meals every day, which is roughly double what it was last year.
In between lunch times, the cafeteria staff can be seen stocking and preparing other food items.
After lunchtime has come and gone, it's time for cleanup.
"Some days we all look like we're running around like chickens with our heads cut off," Panek said. "By the time we're done with lunches we're all like 'Phew, we made it through that day,'" she said.
Making WHS lunchtime fun
Serving lunch to students is one thing, but the WHS cafeteria staff takes their job one step further by trying to make lunchtime as enjoyable as it can be.
"When you say people go above and beyond, those ladies do," Plante said. "The lunch ladies here are so connected to the staff and to the students."
In addition to the music and the dancing, the WHS lunch ladies also make the effort to get to know every student who walks through the cafeteria.
"Our lunch ladies have talked to students about their lunch choices to make sure they're eating properly," Plante said, "and they talk to them about their life."
Additionally, the lunch ladies can often be found at WHS football games.
Panek said she and the rest of the WHS lunch ladies strive to make lunchtime as enjoyable as possible.
"We want to make lunch fun because that is what it's for," she said. "It's a time away from their studies, so we want them to enjoy their food."
Panek said she has to give credit where credit is due, though, on why lunchtime at WHS is such a memorable experience.
"Our biggest asset is Val (Chichila) - she really makes lunch fun for kids," she said. "Val is our mascot."
Chichila has been working in the WHS cafeteria for the past 26 years. She said the highlight of her day is interacting with the students at lunchtime.
"I just enjoy working with children - I just think it's so rewarding," she said. "It keeps us young."
Chichila said she loves making lunchtime enjoyable for students because she loves seeing their smiling faces.
"I just hate the thought of even retiring," she said with a tear in her eye. "I wish I could go another 26 years - I feel very blessed to be here."
Also, if she can have any part in making their day better, why wouldn't she take advantage of the opportunity?
"If we can make them happy, or make whatever situation they're in easier for them, it makes me feel great," she said. "We're not only just a lunch lady - we're someone to support them if they have tough times."
Plante said WHS wouldn't be the same without its lunch ladies.
"Every one of them approaches kids like they are they're own kids," she said. "They're part of the fiber of Woodbury High School."