URBANA — Whether they know her from Clark-Lindsey Village or other venues, everyone who knows Melinda Jenkins knows she can cook.
For all but five of her 40 years at the Urbana retirement community, Jenkins has worked in or run the kitchen from 5:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. She makes breakfast and lunch for Clark-Lindsey’s residents, and if they’re lucky, she’ll make the staff her Swedish meatballs, roast turkey or meatloaf.
For years, she’d head home and cook for her husband and four daughters, who are all grown now.
“She cooks here and she cooks at home,” said Christina Johnson, Jenkins’ daughter. “She never stops being Mom.”
Last week, Jenkins was recognized with a reception in honor of her four decades at Clark-Lindsey, which had opened a year before she arrived.
While she works in the kitchen, where she goes out of her way to make special-order meals in addition to a daily menu, her job isn’t limited to providing food.
“Everything is about the residents,” Jenkins said. “Whatever they need and whatever it takes to be happy, that’s what we do. I work in the dietary department, but if they want to go to their room, we take them to their room. If they want something, I’ll get it.
“If I’m not able to get it, I will find someone to make sure they get it. I don’t want them to think I’ve ignored them,” she said. “We treat them like they’re our granny or our grandfather. Once you do that, you can never go wrong.”
Director of Food Service Jason Rice, who began working with Jenkins 27 years ago, thinks that empathy is what’s kept her motivated during 40 years of early mornings.
“Melinda sees the same residents day in and day out, so she gets to know them. It’s not just a job — basically, it’s like you go in and you’re going to cook for your friends,” Rice said. “And they count on her. When you know people are counting on you and you consider them your friends, it’s way easier to get up at 4:30 in the morning. It’s way easier to drive in when it’s pitch black out.
“She’s super dedicated,” he added. “She’s the type of person who you know is going to take care of everything she’s got to take care of.”
During a ceremony Friday, Jenkins’ other passion was on display as the crowd encouraged her to sing while resident Jan Impey played the piano. Impey, whose mother was the second resident who signed up to live at Clark-Lindsey, was one of many who had a parent living at Clark-Lindsey while Jenkins worked there. She’s even served a few residents whose grandparents lived there.
Rice said it’s uncommon for people in the food-service industry to work more than a few years at the same job. It can be stressful, greasy and difficult work.
But to those who know her best, it’s no surprise she’s spent nearly her entire adult life at Clark-Lindsey.
“My mom has a lovely personality,” Johnson said. “She’s a caregiver wherever she’s at. ... Even when she’s not cooking, she prays for people. This is her job, but when she leaves her job, she never really leaves it.
“She worries about the people here, the residents. The staff members are her extended family. She loves this place.”