A student once approached Vonda Reynolds with an odd question: Did Vonda want a cat?
“No,” Vonda said, confused, and continued cleaning the common rooms and restrooms of the former Mary Lyons Hall.
Vonda, a building and grounds assistant, later found out the student’s boyfriend had given her a kitten for her birthday. The cat was not allowed in the dorm, and the student had until 6 p.m. the next day to get rid of it.
Resident assistants had called local animal shelters. None would take the cat.
Later in the day, Vonda ran into the student again. This time, the girl was in tears.
It was midterm week, and the student couldn’t study for exams because she had yet to find a home for the cat.
She begged Vonda to help: She knew no one in the building, but Vonda knew everyone.
It was a good point.
“I’ll see you at five o’clock,” Vonda said.
Vonda already had two cats and didn’t need another, but she showed up at 5 p.m. anyway to pick up the cat. She gave it to her niece, who named the cat Whalen and still shares pictures of the cat with the student.
Vonda’s friend and fellow building and grounds assistant, Helen Hackney, has her own story of helping a student find a new home for a pet— in her case, the student’s dad wouldn’t let him keep it at home while the student was away in college.
As Vonda says, she and Helen “are some good housekeepers.” They don’t have to take care of displaced pets or students, but they find themselves doing it anyway.
Vonda and Helen are in a unique position to come across students, their messes and the occasional odd request. They are fairy godmothers with Cinderella’s job, cleaning the restrooms and common areas of their assigned building for the year while occasionally tending to students’ emotional needs.
When Vonda first started working at Miami, she had been instructed not to interact with students. The university’s stance on this has flipped back-and-forth over the years since.
However, Vonda tends to develop bonds with the few students she sees most regularly in Stonebridge Hall, like the pre-med major who practically lived in a study room inside the basement of Stonebridge Hall last year.
Vonda would pass the study room around the time that students started waking up for their 8:30 a.m. classes and see the student through the glass, still working after huddling over her laptop and books all night. The student perked up when she saw Vonda, and they would chat.
This year, Vonda sees Melina Slye, a sophomore studying psychology and neuroscience, most often.
During the first week of classes this semester, Melina ran into Vonda almost every day around 10 a.m. before Melina added an 8:30 course to her schedule.
“I notice I don’t see her as much and I think, ‘I wonder how Vonda’s doing,’” Melina said.
But they still chat when Vonda runs into Melina in common rooms, typically when Melina is doing statistics homework. Vonda hopes to meet Melina’s mother, who visits often.
Building and grounds assistants don’t expect most students to remember them after they move into a different hall or an apartment the next year.
But sometimes they do remember.
That was the case for Vonda’s mother, Barb Mitchell, who also worked at Miami. Greg Abbas hadn’t yet earned his doctorate in 1991. He was pursuing a bachelor’s degree in chemistry and assisted with biochemistry research in Hughes Hall. Two doors away from the lab where Greg often worked late nights, Barb Mitchell could be found relaxing in the staff break room for a quick break during her night shift cleaning Hughes.
Greg juggled his classes, extracurriculars and research, but didn’t have a lot of time for a social life. He had been craving social interaction when he first struck up a conversation with Barb and her coworker in the staff break room.
It became habit to stop by and talk about his classes, her work, their families, their travels, their friends — everything about their lives outside of Hughes Hall.
Barb kept asking about why Greg didn’t have a girlfriend, and for a long time he deflected the question. Eventually, he told her why: He’s gay.
Greg said it was difficult to come out to most people in the ’90s, but had a feeling that telling Barb would be fine.
“She needed to know. She deserved to know,” Greg said.
At first Barb was surprised, then confused. Like Greg did before he realized he was gay, Barb had “perceptions and misconceptions” about gay people. Eventually, she came to a conclusion.
“She said, ‘I don’t care what ya are, I just love who ya are,’” Greg said. “That’s just who Barb is.”
After Greg graduated and left for medical school, he and Barb stayed in touch. She visited him once during his residency in Lexington, Ky., and he caught up with her in Hamilton, Ohio, for a chat over a meal in town.
Greg became Dr. Abbas, while Barb retired in 1995 and later became a grandmother.
As years went by, they heard less and less from each other, but still stay in contact through holiday cards, text messaging and Facebook likes.
Once, Vonda went Uptown to eat with a friend, and students bombarded their table to say hello.
A woman who didn’t know Vonda and her friend approached them, asking if they were famous.
“Oh, honey, we ain’t nobody. We’re just housekeepers,” Vonda said.
The woman laughed. Vonda asked who she was. The woman mentioned her sister had attended Miami.
To the woman’s surprise, Vonda immediately named the woman’s sister, who had lived in a dorm Vonda had worked in years ago.
Most people just want to do their job, collect their paycheck and go home. It’s an understandable mindset.
But Vonda and Helen sometimes can’t help but reach out to students — if not to hear their deepest secret, then at least to say hi. That connection helps the day go by more quickly.
Sometimes students don’t return their greetings until midway through the school year, but that doesn’t deter them.
“I like my job, first of all. But if I came in here every day and did not interact with anybody, it would be horrible,” Helen said.
Helen has worked the morning shift in Beechwoods Hall for three years. Before that, she exclusively worked the night shift for 10 years — cleaning in Bell Tower Place, then in Shriver Hall and Armstrong Student Center.
Vonda has worked in various residence halls. For a time, she cleaned academic buildings but switched back to residence halls so she could spend more time with her son, who was young at the time but is now 16 years old.
Residents of Stonebridge Hall see Vonda regularly, while residents of Beechwoods Hall see Helen on a daily basis. It’s rare for students to see them sitting, but what students do notice is that Vonda is short, and Helen is tall. Vonda’s hair courses in waves down the sides of her head, while Helen’s flows straight. As fullfledged adults who’ve earned jobs and wrinkles, they are easy to tell apart from students.
Both Vonda and Helen have seen their fair share of messes: Eggs stuck to the kitchenette ceiling. Furniture carried out onto the lawn. Beer cans in urinals. Furniture turned upside down. A wad of spit on the floor every day for a week until Helen sent a picture to her boss, who sent out an email and the spitting stopped.
Sometimes Vonda and Helen find students in messes that are not part of the job description and are not so easy to clean up. This is where they sometimes step in as fairy godmother.
Helen once came across a student who was crying, distraught, overwhelmed. Helen asked her if she was OK, and the student said she was dealing with something her parents did. Helen stepped in: “Parents make mistakes. We don’t get a handbook for parenting.” Helen’s words calmed her.
Vonda remembers a Mary Lyons Hall RA from her first year working on campus. The RA always had her door open — sometimes with desserts — and waited for Vonda to come around the corner.
One day, Vonda ran into the RA, who was tearful and red-faced. Vonda consoled her — “This moment will pass. This moment will not last.” It was just what the girl needed when she didn’t have her family around.
When it was time for students to move out at the end of Vonda’s first year, the mother of the Mary Lyons RA was in surgery and not able to help move the student out of the dorm. Vonda pulled up her own truck to the building and helped the RA load up her belongings.
She had already met the girl’s parents by the time Vonda attended her graduation party. Vonda couldn’t stop crying when she left Miami.
Then, on social media, Vonda watched the former RA move to Texas and unfold into full-fledged adulthood. The RA became a schoolteacher, got married and had kids, a future she could not have imagined when Vonda had run into her when she was just a tearful college student.
Sometimes, Helen and Vonda’s acts of kindness fall short of fairy godmother status. They worry about students who keep to themselves, but they can only do so much.
Vonda remembers when her colleagues who worked the night shift had to clean out and pack up the room of a student who’d died unexpectedly, then wait for a parent to pick up his things.
And Helen recalls working at Bell Tower Place six years ago, when workers could get a free meal after working a certain number of hours per night. One of her coworkers was a student who heavily relied on that free meal to get by. Sometimes when the student hadn’t eaten anything that day, Helen would pay for a meal for her.
After her junior year, the student was forced to leave Miami — she could no longer afford to attend college.
Students inevitably leave Miami. Helen and Vonda remain.