The kitchen at Denny International Middle School in West Seattle is decked out with strings of twinkling colored lights.
There’s even a “lunch lady chandelier” fashioned out of strands of lights hanging from the bottom of a fan. It’s the work of Doree Fazio-Young, acting kitchen manager at Denny. She has close cropped gray hair, a big laugh, and a catchy nickname: Lunch Lady Doree.
The lights are just one part of her carefully planned out month-by-month decoration scheme. September is dolphins month in honor of the school mascot. January is Seahawks.
“And June is Aloha June. We do a whole Hawaiian thing with shirts, sunglasses and suns all over the place, and the kids know when it’s happy June that it’s almost time to be out for the summer,” Fazio-Young said.
But this June is going to feel a lot different than normal.
Everything changed on March 11. Fazio-Young remembers the exact moment when they all found out that Seattle schools would close the next day because of the coronavirus. The initial closure was for two weeks, but Gov. Jay Inslee has since canceled in-person instruction statewide for the rest of the school year.
“All of a sudden everything stops. We went, 'School’s closed? They’re closing us?’” she said. “The kids immediately got excited. They were on summer break. They were done, la la la, dancing around all happy. And I just stood there.”
But she said some kids turned to her and asked quietly, “How are we going to get food?”
That's a concern for a lot of students at Denny. More than two-thirds of them qualify for free or reduced price meals. It's one of the highest rates in the school district.
Fazio-Young grew up five blocks away from here and attended Denny in the 1970s. She grew up surrounded by lots of family, and doesn't remember ever seeing homelessness or the kind of poverty she now encounters every day in her job. When school is in regular session, she opens the cafeteria door at 6 a.m. so a handful of homeless students can come inside.
“I’ll give them cocoa. They know they can come in and have their breakfast right away if they want,” she said. “Or they can just sit here and be warm.”
In this way, Fazio-Young is more than a lunch lady. She won't admit it, but she's kind of a de facto social worker and counselor. She remembers one girl who wanted to keep living with her father even though they were homeless and he was struggling with alcoholism.
“She’d tell us, 'It was nice last night so we spent the night in Roxhill Park,’” she said. “Or, 'Oh, it was a little stormy, so we have kind of a little shelter we built down here.’ We never really saw it, but she would tell us and you could tell. She had everything she owned on her back.”
Fazio-Young originally took the job because it synched up with her two sons' school schedules and she got summers off. But they're grown up and Fazio-Young has stayed on. She said that's because she cares so much about the kids, even though there's been heartbreak.
This past fall, an eighth-grade boy died suddenly. Fazio-Young was close to him. They talked every day.
“Ever since then I kept a rose, a single rose in the kitchen, and it had his name. So the kids had a place to come. They could talk to the rose. They could look at the rose. They could yell at the rose if they wanted to,” she said. “And his brother would come in and say, 'Thank you so much, Ms. Doree, for putting that flower there.’”
She had a plan for honoring the boy at the promotion ceremony for eighth-graders moving up to high school. It's an example of the way schools are a centering force, especially for kids experiencing trauma.
“Me and his brother and Mr. Clark, my principal, had it all planned. We were going to take this rose all beautifully wrapped and lay it on an empty chair, so that his family could come and be there for his promotion, even though he wasn’t there,” she said. “They could come and they could be there. It was kind of like a final thing for them, too.”
These are the kinds of heart-wrenching experiences familiar to people who work in schools.
And now everyone is going through a difficult time because of the pandemic. Parents and students are stressed and worried.
Doree Fazio-Young is focused on what she knows best — keeping kids fed. On a recent morning, she was busy in the kitchen unloading big bags of vegetables.
“Oh look, peapods! The kids love those,” she said.
She and the other workers here distribute about 600 breakfasts and lunches a day. And Fazio-Young brings some assistance from home — her husband, DuWayne Young, volunteers each day to help her get the food ready. He worked for the school district for 48 years, most recently as the head custodian at Chief Sealth International High School before retiring a few years ago.
For him and his wife, working in the schools is a calling. Young's son, his granddaughter and daughter-in-law are all custodians for the Seattle school district.
“Yeah, it’s a family affair,” Fazio-Young said, with a laugh.
So maybe it's natural that Fazio-Young sees the students as part of her family. And even though she's 60 years old, which health officials say puts her at higher risk for the novel coronavirus, she chose to keep working amid the pandemic. The district offered up to 10 days’ worth of COVID-19 paid leave to employees in high-risk categories and then if they wanted to stay home longer than that, they could use accrued sick, vacation and personal time.
“I’m Lunch Lady Doree. I don’t think about, 'Doree, you should stay home because you’re in the group,’” she said. “No. No. This is what I do.”
She said she feels safe at work. Custodians disinfect every night. She and her coworkers put the roast beef and turkey sandwiches, cereal, fruit, milk and other items out on tables and stand at a distance. And they wash their hands all the time.
But this pandemic has made her look at her job in a new way.
“If there’s ever a natural disaster, an earthquake, whatever, God forbid. Yeah, I’ll have to be here, giving out sandwiches in rubble,” she said, laughing. “Let me crawl over this boulder here. Here’s your sandwich, honey!”
She's joking, but she said it's true that she feels happy to know that in a time of crisis, she is able to help fill the most basic human need.
“Did I realize I was essential? No, I didn’t," she said. "Now I know.”