Carol Bunjes doesn't like the limelight - but she was recently in front of it. The dedicated and well-liked cook at St. Mary's School was recognized by Governor Tom Vilsack at the School Support Staff Appreciation Ceremony last Saturday along with several other school employees from across the state.
"I was thrilled," she said. "I've been here 14 years and I know I'm appreciated here but this was special."
She was nominated by someone at the school (who hasn't stepped up to admit it) for the award. "That someone went above and beyond to show that appreciation."
Carol received a letter saying she would be recognized at the ceremony. She admitted that she was quite surprised but wasn't sure why she was selected. "I held on to the letter for quite a while. Finally I decided to show it to the secretary who told me I needed to show it to Mrs. (Rose) Davis. The look on her face when I showed it to her made me think that she must have been the one that nominated me; but I'm not sure. It could have been a student, an administrator or a co-worker." She wishes she knew who it was so she could personally thank him or her.
The honored school workers were invited to the State Capitol. Each had the opportunity to meet the governor and spend a few moments with him. "I was nervous at first, wondering what he might ask me. But the other state employees there made me feel very welcome. When it was my turn to go into his office, he shook my hand, gave me a pat on the back and told me to 'keep feeding the Iowa children.' He gave each of us a red rose before we left." She had her picture taken with him and received an appreciation award "for services rendered at St. Mary's."
The announcement was made about Carol's recognition at the student's awards ceremony - she received a standing ovation. That, she pointed out, is the way the students at St. Mary's are - so appreciative.
The Alta woman ran a day care out of her home prior to taking over the job as food services director; she watched nine children each day. She was made aware of the position but wasn't sure if she could do it. "I knew I liked to cook and I love to be around kids but it seemed a little overwhelming."
That skepticism soon disappeared as she dived into her job and loved it from the start.
"Food director is only a title. We have two other cooks - Laurie Wilson and Maxine Lullman. The three of us are quite a team. Every task they do, I do. I just have more duties like planning the menus, purchasing food, doing the required bookwork for the state. It's a loaded job but if I didn't like it I wouldn't be here."
With the school being K-12, it is always fun to watch the kids grow. Last year's seniors were kind of special (though all of the students are) as they were served by Carol and her staff from kindergarten all the way through. "All the kids are like my own. When they graduate, it's like a part of me leaving." But she always knows that a new group of kids, shy and hardly able to see over the counter, will join the school in the fall. It's interesting, she said, to see them get over that shyness, grow and even see their appetites increase.
Carol admitted that it was difficult to learn to cook for the some 250 students. But she has learned to "quanticize" and now feels comfortable bringing in her favorite recipes from home to prepare at the school. "The kids are sometimes my guinea pigs." She makes a point of "chit chatting" with the students while they're sitting down eating and asks for comments about the food. Majority often rules and if enough of the kids say they don't care for a meal, she doesn't make it again. Goulash is one thing she has taken off the menu because of all the waste there was.
"We only serve something once a month that way everyday is a variety," she said. "I take a lot of pride in our kitchen. I won't put out a meal that I wouldn't consume." Nutritional meals are stressed to a great degree - even the new popular ala carte meals available to the students.
The preparation does take more time, but the appreciation is noticed. "We're always crunching the clock but we have a smile for all the kids when they go through that line."
Carol began cooking as a child and had two grandmothers who were head cooks for nursing homes. She credits Alta School cook Jennie Walsh for sharing secrets. "She has been a constant encouragement for me," she added.
She enjoys the kids and is thrilled to have them visit her even after they have graduated from St. Mary's. "That makes me feel like I was more than just that person downstairs cooking. We hear many thank yous."
St. Mary's principal Rose Davis complimented Carol for her dedication to the school. "Carol has a giving spirit that drives her all the time to do good things for all the people around her. That generosity reaches out to peers, teachers and most of all, the students.
"The standing ovation she received from the students is a testament to the warmth the student body has towards her."