The kids call her Ms. Lola, and she is the kind of person they never forget.
And how could they? If you walked into her cafeteria, you would hear the music that kids themselves have selected. Maybe you would see Ms. Lola using Google Translate with a new student who just arrived from the Middle East, or just checking in on someone having a rough day.
Ms. Lola is the kitchen operator at Palmetto Elementary in Fontana, California, but she is much more than that. She often runs into former students, now married and with children, who remember the joy and sometimes solace of having a loving space in the cafeteria.
“It's so nice when you see that you have made a difference in kids’ lives,” she shared.
Since the beginning of the coronavirus crisis, Ms. Lola has witnessed firsthand the challenges families and kids have faced.
Once, a woman and her two young kids arrived 15 minutes late to Ms. Lola's drive-up food distribution site.
“The lady started crying and couldn’t stop apologizing. She said, ‘I am so sorry, but I am going through a lot. I lost my job today, and my husband is hospitalized with COVID.’ Then her little 7-year-old girl unbuckled her seatbelt and hugged her mom to console her,” Ms. Lola recalled with teary eyes.
“It's been very difficult to see parents suffering,” she added, recalling this story and the long lines of cars that would form even before she started working at 5 a.m. “I needed to be here for the kids."
Kids are back to school, but the impact of the crisis continues. And summer represents a scary time for many children.
Michael is now a fifth grader. Ms. Lola says he used to be very happy and talkative before the pandemic, but since then he has become quiet and doesn’t seem like himself anymore.
“He just told me, ‘I don’t want summer to start. I am scared because I am not gonna come here no more. I just wish I could be here forever.’ He is going to middle school, and probably feels safe here,” said Ms. Lola.
Kids like Michael inspire her to continue in spite of the challenges. Even with a compromised immune system, Ms. Lola is there for kids. She has adapted to constantly changing procedures for serving food, long hours and the emotional weight of witnessing families in crisis.
"We do not consider ourselves heroes. We consider ourselves soldiers, going to the front lines to protect our kids,” she says.
And she is ready to continue serving meals this summer. Ms. Lola knows her kids will be there, smiling and saying thanks.
The tears turn to a smile on her face as she remembers the countless times kids come over to meal distributions and say they want to stay and help, or the times they hold up signs in their car windows expressing deep gratitude for the food. Her staff has received donuts, pizza and dozens of letters from kids.
“My heart is full of joy,” she says. “You can feel the gratitude in their hearts.”
This summer 1 in 6 kids in the US could be living in hunger. At No Kid Hungry, we want to ensure all children and teens can have the food they need this summer. That’s why we're sharing our Free Meal Finder Map and our textline, where families can send the word “FOOD” or “COMIDA” to 877-877 to find free meals near them, like the ones offered by Ms. Lola.
The Fontana Unified School District has served over 17 million meals since the beginning of the pandemic. Ms. Lola knows the impact all of her hard work has on the lives of kids.
“Feeding kids is not just feeding kids,” she said. “I just want everybody to know that being a lunch lady is not easy. It takes more than two hands and a body to become one.”