Senior Febin Bellamy created Unsung Heroes to celebrate the often invisible workers who keep Georgetown University running. The campus community didn’t just notice; it took action.
By Mike Carlson
Photos by Gary Landsman
A college campus functions much like a small city. An army of gardeners, municipal workers, and public safety officers strives around the clock to make sure the infrastructure is sound and services are running smoothly. To the hundreds of Georgetown University workers, the campus is just as much of a home as it is to the students.
Yet Georgetown McDonough student Febin Bellamy (B’17) noticed that even though the workers and students shared this home, they rarely seemed to interact in a meaningful way. In February 2015, Oneil Batchelor, a member of the housekeeping staff, pushed his vacuum into a breakout room where Bellamy was studying. Batchelor gave the student a cursory greeting, expecting the invisible line between the two to remain firmly in place.
Bellamy decided to cross that line.
“When I first said ‘Hi,’ the type of reaction he had was real,” says Batchelor of this initial encounter. “It wasn’t just someone saying ‘Hi’ because I was a person cleaning up. We sparked up like that. There was a connection there.”
Days went by, and Batchelor ran into Bellamy more and more, usually in the middle of his 10:30 p.m. to 7 a.m. housecleaning shift. One night, Batchelor sat down, and the two men talked for three hours. They shared their mutual experiences as immigrants. Bellamy described moving to the United States from India when he was 5 years old. Batchelor talked about emigrating from Jamaica when he was 9. Batchelor learned how Bellamy worked a fast-food job to help support his family after his father suffered a stroke, and Batchelor shared his passion for cooking Jamaican food.
“It was interesting to hear some of his story being at Georgetown,” says Batchelor. “A lot of people at Georgetown, you think maybe their life is sweet, maybe it is perfect. But Febin had a story that is similar to mine.”
The inspiration went both ways. Bellamy decided he wanted to share the stories of the unseen individuals of Georgetown, the workers he described as “unrecognized.” A month after meeting Batchelor, Bellamy pitched it to other students as a group project in Associate Professor Jason Brennan’s class Moral Foundations of Market Society.
“I just started talking to more and more workers and creating these little profiles to show who they are as human beings,” says Bellamy. “We officially launched Unsung Heroes (new window) to the Georgetown University community in April 2016.”
Sometimes things happen and people unite and reach out and try to help. It made me look at people in our society differently.”
Unsung Heroes, now named The Unsung Heroes of Georgetown Chapter, is a student group devoted to recognizing and celebrating the cashiers, crossing guards, and other employees of the university. Batchelor was the first Unsung Hero, and his story led to more than just inspiration. It highlighted and helped lead to a business: Oneil’s Famous Jerk (new window).
Batchelor learned the art of Jamaican cooking from his father, cutting his teeth on rice and beans and then moving to brown stew chicken and finally being trusted to cook an iconic dish: jerk chicken. His version garnered such a following that Batchelor says the word “famous” was thrown around by long lines of people who would wait for his jerk chicken at backyard cookouts.
When the Unsung Heroes story broke, student organizations began to hire Batchelor to cater events. A crowdfunding campaign seeded him with $2,500 to grow his business, and students helped him build a website. A story in The Washington Post (new window) about Unsung Heroes secured him gigs outside of the Georgetown community.
“Last year was booming,” Batchelor says. “I knew we had good people in this world, but it was crazy. Sometimes things happen and people unite and reach out and try to help. That made me feel good. It made me look at people in our society differently.”
THE POWER OF PERSONAL STORIES
At its core, Unsung Heroes is about telling stories (new window). The voice and style of these stories make it similar to the website-turned-best-selling-book Humans of New York, which Bellamy cites as a major influence. And as with Humans of New York, the digital platform and the ability to leverage a community for action have helped make Unsung Heroes a success.
However, without the story, there is nothing — no retweets, no YouTube views, no army of Instagram followers. For Unsung Heroes, the stories at the core drive students to crowdfunding campaigns and inspire alumni to contact Bellamy to ask how they can help.
Umberto “Suru” Ripai, a cashier at the Leo O’Donovan dining hall, is a prime example of the brushfire potential of a personal story. Ripai has manned a station at the Georgetown University eatery for more than 20 years, coming face to face with countless students in that time. Bellamy introduced Ripai in his second installment of Unsung Heroes. When the Georgetown community learned this familiar face had not been home to see his family in South Sudan in 45 years, the response from students and alumni was tremendous.
“We had no intention to promote a crowdfunding campaign, but it just happened. The students wanted to know how they could give back,” Bellamy says. “It was that personal connection.”
The Georgetown community raised $5,000 for Ripai to travel to South Sudan, to visit his nephew and cousin. Ripai has since delayed the trip because he is uncertain about the current U.S. administration’s immigration policies, but Unsung Heroes has created an account to hold the money for him.
We are aided at Georgetown by our Jesuit mission, but absent that, there are other students around the country and world who do not want to just exist in the world — they want to impact the world.”
—Patricia (Louison) Grant, Interim Senior Associate Dean for Undergraduate Programs
For Patricia (Louison) Grant, the interim senior associate dean for undergraduate programs at McDonough, this kind of response is a pure example of the Jesuit principle “women and men for others.”
“It is one of the often cited and quoted principles,” Grant says. “It is the one that any student on campus would know. It is because of that very simple and core principle of service to all mankind that you can easily see how an effort of this type would virally spread. It is a recognition of humanity in everyone and the core interest in seeing people achieve their dreams and live a happy and fulfilled life.”
Grant met Bellamy in the summer of 2014. As a transfer student, he had joined a program called B.U.I.L.D. (Business Undergraduates Invested in Leadership Development) aimed at acculturating new students to the concepts and vocabulary of business. She was impressed at his enthusiasm for connecting within the Georgetown McDonough community and his passion for contributing. Grant sees his spirit as indicative of Bellamy’s peer group, and a good sign when it comes to forecasting the spread of Unsung Heroes to other schools, including non-Jesuit institutions.
“The millennials get this bad rap that they are self-interested and not focused on how they can make an impact on the world,” Grant says. “I think it is quite the opposite. We are aided at Georgetown by our Jesuit mission, but absent that, there are other students around the country and world who do not want to just exist in the world — they want to impact the world.”
THE UNSUNG HEROES OF GOOGLE
The next step for Unsung Heroes is to spread to other campuses. Bellamy wants to build on the momentum of national attention, including appearances in Upworthy (new window) and on NBC Nightly News with Lester Holt (new window).
Bellamy and a team of five fellow students have developed bylaws, a constitution, and a detailed handbook that describes how to run a chapter, approach workers, and conduct interviews. So far, more than 40 colleges have reached out to him. After careful vetting, he has begun working with 10 campuses, including Notre Dame, University of Southern California, New York University, and Brown University. Seven more colleges are being considered. The goal is to have 20 chapters by the end of the spring 2017 semester and 50 chapters by the end of the fall term.
And just as the organization at Georgetown McDonough has evolved through crowdfunding and student action, the end goal of Unsung Heroes is going to morph into something more substantial than sharing stories.
“We are going to create something very similar to Make-A-Wish, to help two or three workers per campus, per semester, achieve their dreams,” Bellamy says. “We will figure out whose dreams we can achieve and do crowdfunding campaigns to help them.”
After he graduates in May, Bellamy plans on developing Unsung Heroes full time. He eventually wants to expand into corporate America, recognizing employees who go above and beyond the call of duty.
“Not only will we have the Unsung Heroes of the campuses, but we are going to partner with companies,” Bellamy says. “Who are the Unsung Heroes of Google, for example? We will work with companies to create video campaigns, to promote their culture and show that they care about their employees. We will highlight the workers of that company, to tell their stories and where they come from.”
Making dreams come true is hard work, and the job is never truly finished. Case in point: Oneil’s Famous Jerk. After 30 Unsung Heroes, Bellamy still spends part of his week helping Batchelor with the fledgling business, exploring options for a restaurant location or a way to get the brand into mass market outlets such as Wal-Mart. Showing appreciation for the unrecognized and unappreciated doesn’t have an expiration date, but that seems to suit Bellamy.
“I think he will never leave Unsung Heroes behind,” says Grant. “It is so much a part of who he is.”
Published in Georgetown Business magazine, Spring 2017