Sophia Curtis was shopping at a Wichita grocery store recently when a young man walked up and gave her a hug.
“You’re the lunch lady,” he said.
That’s right, Curtis said, smiling. She tried to place his face but couldn’t at first. He told her he was a pre-schooler at Little Early Childhood Center when Curtis served lunch there more than 20 years ago.
“He said, ‘You don’t even know what that did for me, you serving me lunch,’ ” Curtis recalls.
“For me, I just served him lunch, you know? But he said, ‘You were kind and compassionate. You asked how my day was. I’ll always remember that.’ ”
Curtis has served lunch at Wichita schools for more than 30 years without missing a day of work. She was honored recently at a nutrition services meeting for three decades of perfect attendance, an accomplishment officials say is unmatched in the department.
Thirty straight years of chicken nuggets, cheeseburgers, tacos and spaghetti.
Thirty years of baked potatoes, dinner rolls, applesauce and baby carrots.
Thirty years of 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. shifts, hairnets and plastic gloves, working in the kitchen or out on the serving line, most of it at North High School near 13th and Waco.
That means she’s had a hand in serving about 4.2 million school lunches.
Ask her how she’s done it – no vacations, no sick days – and Curtis shakes her head.
“I don’t know if you’re gonna put this down, but Jesus,” she said.
“My faith in Jesus kept me going all them years, because even when my uncle died, I only took half a day. I didn’t take the whole day.
“I believe in giving 100 percent every day in everything I do.”
Curtis, 48, graduated from North High in 1985 and almost immediately started working part time in the cafeteria at Little Early Childhood Center. The lunchtime hours worked well with her primary passion: singing gospel music.
Decades later, she’s still serving lunch at North High and working evenings, weekends and special events at Bethel AME Church in Winfield.
“It’s interesting how time changes things, but it still seems the same, too, especially the kids,” she said.
“When you’re a lunch lady, you don’t just serve lunch. You are really the kids’ – I guess you could say mentor,” she said. “A lot of them come in, and I’ll talk to them and joke with them.
“One little boy come through, and when he doesn’t mess with me, I know something’s wrong,” she said. “I said, ‘What’s the matter, baby?’ I ask them, and they tell me. And you know it makes their day that you care about them.”
North High custodian Dwayne Walker said Curtis’ perseverance inspires students, supervisors and co-workers.
“Ever since I came over here, she’s been right here, faithful for the job, and she hasn’t missed a day,” Walker said. “And that’s incredible, you know what I’m saying? That’s amazing.”
At a recent in-service day, Curtis received a bouquet of roses and a standing ovation.
“I didn’t know I was so loved. It made me cry,” Curtis said. “To me, it’s like God giving me my flowers while I’m still living.
“It’s just good to be loved and respected and recognized.”
During her years of service, Curtis has witnessed countless changes in school cafeterias. Lunches went from high-calorie fast food to more nutritious dishes focused on fruits, vegetables and whole grains.
The district’s head chef now develops menus based on popular restaurant entrees, things like teriyaki chicken, Southwest salad, vegetarian Alfredo pasta and cheeze calzones.
Students flock to culinary arts labs to create menu items as part of a national competition. And new “build your own lunch” options in cafeterias have kids assembling their own taco, noodle, pasta and burger dishes.
But the kids?
“They still love pizza,” Curtis said, laughing. “Pizza is always going to be popular.”
Curtis is modest about her perfect attendance accomplishment, crediting her faith and a series of supportive supervisors and co-workers. She said she hopes her constant presence serves as inspiration for youngsters at North High and elsewhere.
“God takes the simple people and makes them into something,” she said.
“I tell them, ‘Whatever you do, you give your 100 percent best,’ whatever it is. I don’t care if it’s mopping the floors, you make sure you’re the best mopper you could ever be, or serving lunch or whatever.
“Life is what you make it, you know? Everybody has a chance to be somebody great if they take the chance and work hard.”