Note: This post is the third in a series of reflections from three Williams College students who worked with Forklift on “Served” for their Winter Study course in January 2017. Read the previous posts here and here.
On January 18th, I went to Eco Café and had the chance to share a meal with Karen and chat in more detail. I was curious to learn about her path to Williams, and why she has chosen to stay for so many years (she doesn’t know exactly how long, but told me that Eco Cafe is about 14 years old and she was in Baxter prior to its emergence). Before Williams, Karen actually worked at Jerry Byer’s (the associate manager of Paresky) restaurant – doing tasks such as wiping tables and moving chairs. Growing up, she said her father earned minimum wage, and so this position allowed her to financially assist her large family of 7 during difficult times. The restaurant eventually closed down, causing her to be laid off, and so Karen made her way to Williams after that.
Karen first worked in Baxter – prior to its renovation to become the Paresky Center in 2003. “It was beautiful,” Karen remembers, thinking back to the decorations (such as table cloths) and made-from-scratch meals that Baxter would frequently prepare. It also seemed to be a very overwhelming time, considering that usually between 650-700 students would dine on the South side (from the mailroom) and another 100-125 would eat on the North side – “I don’t know how we did it.” The days were also longer back then, with shifts 10:30am-7:30 pm being typical (and only a half hour break from 2-2:30 and a brief meal at 4). Karen really enjoyed the themed dinners which Baxter would cook for students every 3 weeks, something with which the other dining halls soon followed suit. “We had some great people back then,” Karen recounts, before going on to mention that Liz Thorton “made the absolute best bouquets.” She also says that Williams dining was more communal back then, but never quite specified as to why other than this comment about “some great people.”
Eventually, when Eco opened at Williams, they needed additional help, and so Karen chose to leave Baxter and help out at Eco. Her primary motivation for this move? “I love to serve coffee. Coffee is love.” I smiled at this comment and asked for an elucidation. She went on to say that, when growing up, her Grandma would serve coffee to anyone in their home, people from all backgrounds and walks of life, as an extension of her love. “So every time you serve coffee, is it like an extension of your Grandma’s love?” I asked, to which Karen smiled and nodded. She finds work at Eco to be fun. She sees Williams as a hospitable work environment, and as a way to escape some of the clutter at home (she said her house is full of clutter, which bothers her). Williams, she says with tears forming in her eyes, “it’s been awful good to me.”
When asked what has kept her coming back to Williams, Karen responded almost instantly: “the students.” After a pause, she continued: “We’re like a family here. We see each other every day.” Something about Karen’s energy is very motherly by nature, and the students seem to respond to her in this way. Likewise, the students are so meaningful to Karen, especially because of her son. She genuinely cares for them/us. In reflecting on the job, she also spoke of Ildi again: “I love my job, I love who I work with. I’ve always had a partner.” This made me smile.
Overall, this was a very powerful and moving conversation. I am amazed by Karen’s positive energy, amidst a powerful story of resilience which would move anyone with a semblance of a heart. This conversation only further proved just how incredible a person she is, someone who cares deeply about the students here, treating them like her own family. And that is a beautiful thing!
Written by Charley Wyser, Williams College Class of 2017