Thursday started like any other weekday for Shirley Hernandez. As she has for the last 47 years, the Kenmore Middle School lunch monitor arrived at 11:15 a.m. and kept a watchful eye as the school’s 650 sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders ate in the cafeteria.
But this school day ended on a special note for the 85-year-old woman when an award in her name was established to recognize two students who embody her qualities of kindness and respect.
“She’s one of the kindest, most genuine people I know,” said Tom Schwob, a guidance counselor who has known Hernandez for 32 years. “Without a doubt. She’s one in a million.”
Hernandez does more than just empty trays, wipe down tables and sweep up wrappers. The mother of four, grandmother of nine and great-grandmother of 10 acts as a beloved mediator, confidant and even surrogate grandmother to some.
She has a soft spot for the loners and children with special needs, staff say. Hernandez is known to buy – out of her own pocket – ice cream for students on their birthdays, Christmas presents anonymously for students who have little and bouquets of roses for graduating girls.
Students persuaded her to attend a dance last month and formed a circle around her while she slow-danced with a teacher.
“She is probably the one monitor that year after year, the kids just love,” said assistant principal Michael Haggerty. “They adore her.”
The admiration students have for her was evident in their outburst of cheers and chants of “Shirley!” when she approached the stage during an award ceremony in the school auditorium.
“I don’t know why they chose me for this, but I’m just so honored and so thrilled,” Hernandez said. “I think about it and I start crying and I think ‘What did I do? I do everything everybody else does.’ ”
The first annual “Shirley Hernandez Kindness Award” was given to 13-year-olds Joseph D’Ingillo and Sabrina Katus.
A plaque with their names will be placed in the school’s front lobby.
“She’s, like, funny and, like, she’s an awesome lunch lady,” said Joseph. “You can talk to her about anything.”
“She was always really nice and if you ever had a problem you could always talk to her about it,” added Sabrina.
Her longevity is even more remarkable given the scary setback she experienced two years ago.
She didn’t report to work on Jan. 28, 2011, which was highly unusual. Haggerty and Schwob went to her home and found blood in the snow on the driveway and on the door.
They found her in bed with a head injury suffered after slipping on ice while taking out garbage. They called an ambulance, and she was rushed to Kenmore Mercy Hospital.
Students and staff were devastated. They signed giant heart-shaped cards, which were delivered to her hospital room. She returned to work months later on May 3.
“It’s very touching to see how much the school appreciates and loves my mother,” said her son, Dennis, who attended the ceremony.
On Thursday – the last day of classes for this semester – she hugged students, posed for photos and signed yearbooks with a simple inscription, “I love you, Ms. Shirley.”
She said she “mopes” in the summer when school’s not in session and has no plans to quit.
“I came here so many years ago,” she said, “and I just don’t ever want to lose it.”