On a typical weekday, Wendy Simmons wakes up at 5:30 a.m., packs a lunch and journeys 30 minutes to The University of Alabama. She walks under the shade of the quad’s overhanging oaks, where the UA grounds crew began working before the rising sun had even begun to peek through the leaves. She clocks in no later than 7 a.m., and gathers the team.
It is a team of mothers and grandfathers, of chefs and athletes, of dreamers and motivators. They are a uniquely diverse family of artists, musicians, teachers and farmers, a family of grit and dedication, with a thorough passion and deep love for the university. This is no ordinary family. This is UA’s family. This is Custodial Services.
“We want to take care of our students the same way we would want other people to care of our children and grandchildren,” said Custodial Services Supervisor Wendy Simmons. “My group and I know what we do helps the students live a little better, and gives them time to study and enjoy themselves. In return, we love knowing that what we do is appreciated by our students, even if they don’t always consciously think about it.”
Simmons has worked as a supervisor for 20 years now, and has quickly observed the dynamic of the team beyond the basic tasks of cleaning and inspection of campus. Over time, she has further identified a unique relational energy between staff and students at UA, an energy that seems to develop lifetime friendships, an energy which may not ordinarily take place on every campus, an energy that represents the intentional dynamic of UA as a whole.
“My staff really do care about the students personally and get to know many of them pretty well,” Simmons said. “Sometimes, students turn to building custodians to discuss some of the things that are causing them stress or ask questions or just as a friendly face saying good morning as they leave for class. It seems to make everyone’s day a little better.”
Director of the Custodial Services department, Suzanne Craft, has worked in her role for more than 10 years and has noticed a similar sense of community between staff and students throughout campus.
“Students see and interact with the staff almost every day, and eventually they begin to feel like neighbors and friends,” Craft said. “I have seen it happen many times over the years, and I believe it helps create a sense of belonging and community, a sense for the students that they are being cared for, and that this truly is their home away from home. As a result, they help create a feeling that this little corner of the world is a nice place to be for a while, and a place to return to in the future.
In response, Craft and students alike receive continuous inspiration from the custodial crew they now call family. Whether it be through a cleaned classroom or a casual conversation, the staff ’s actions speak volumes both within and beyond campus in more than powerful ways.
“The custodial team is an integral part of the daily life on campus. The most obvious impact they make is keeping the interior campus spaces clean and orderly, but they also play a significant role in making the campus a comfortable, safe and healthy environment,” Craft said. “I’m really proud to be associated with such a hardworking and dedicated group of people, I’m inspired every day by their commitment to the UA community and consistently high quality of work.”
Among the individuals directly impacted by the custodial staff is Dr. Shane Sharpe, Dean of the Honors College, who not only recognizes the hard-working staff, but has also established lifelong relationships with a few of them.
“These individuals are a vital part of UA faculty and staff and they do a fantastic job day in and day out helping us keep the facilities maintained and presentable for our students, faculty, staff and visitors,” Sharpe said. “Our custodial staff do an excellent job of that, and we truly hope they know how appreciative we are of their work.”
As a result, Sharpe feels the UA custodial crew has created a sort of “butterfly effect” in the notable work they complete throughout campus, encouraging students and community members alike to treat the University with just as much respect and care as they do their own homes.
“I do think that when things are kept up and clean, people tend to treat the campus with more respect as well, and we feel a sense of pride and ownership in keeping it up,” Sharpe said. “We are one family at UA, we all have a job to do, and we all want to do it in an excellent manner. The energy between the students and staff therefore creates a unique sense of camaraderie and teamwork.”
Sharpe also believes the UA custodial department goes beyond their duties on campus and plays a pivotal role in the University’s recruitment of students.
“We always say, ‘If you can just get them on campus, they’ll see how great our school really is,’ and our custodial crew plays that vital role, they keep campus in a remarkable condition and visiting families see that, and their children decide to go here,” Sharpe said. “We’re over 50 percent out-of state students now, and we want to make them feel at home at UA when they’re far from their original homes and families.” Just like many UA students, Sharpe has had the opportunity to get to know members of staff beyond the work they do on campus, and is extremely thankful for these influential relationships existing throughout and beyond campus.
“I’ve been here 26 years and I’ve met a fantastic group of folks,” Sharpe said. “It’s fun to see them outside their work environment as well, because you see these people in a different role, and you realize people have personal lives, and this is just a part of it, everything we do to help each other out, that’s part of being a well functioning team.”
Among these individuals Sharpe had the pleasure to interact with was a woman by the name of Rose, who similarly left a long-lasting relationship on his experience both on and off the UA campus.
“I was gassing up at a Mapco a while back and I ran into a woman who used to work in the same building as me named Rose,” Sharpe said. “It was so good to see her and catch up, and I’m not sure we would’ve spoken to one another if we hadn’t known each other through UA first, and it was so great to catch up and see how proud
she is of the grandkids she now has. I’m so thankful for relationships like these that students seem to experience as well.”
As students, advisers and deans realize the UA custodial family goes beyond the usual routine, it becomes clear the team is more than willing to help out any community member, any student, and anybody in need, even if that’s a little bird.
“One of my favorite memories at work involves an animal rescue,” Wendy Simmons said. “Several years ago, two custodians called me to report that they found an injured bird immediately outside the building, near a bike rack.”
Though this kind of campus aid was a bit out of Simmons’ usual routine, like many other members of UA staff, she rushed to the scene without hesitation.
“I went outside and discovered that the bird was a hawk and appeared to have a broken wing. We called for help and within an hour the Wildlife Rescue Center sent a wildlife specialist to take the hawk back with them,” Simmons said. “They rehabbed his broken wing and released him when he was ready to get back to a place where he could thrive. We were thrilled that we could help this little guy.”
Whether it’s a student’s stress or a bird’s broken wing, the UA custodial staff hopes to get everyone to a place where they can thrive. At UA, they go above and beyond to keep every building clean, and every student at ease—one sweep and one smile at a time.