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Monday, Mar 4, 2024

Conversations with custodians

Lee Brouillard, on the job
Lee Brouillard, on the job

The door to the Custodial Office on the basement level of Forest Residence hall was open when I walked past. I was drawn in after noticing posters and a colorful lei covering the walls. Soon after, the custodian working the hall entered, and I was enthusiastically greeted by a woman named Lee Brouillard.

Brouillard has been a Middlebury dining services staff member since 2012 and recently joined the custodial services team. She encouraged me to follow her as she went through her 11 a.m. routine, walking me through which towel to use when cleaning the toilet, and which to use when cleaning the mirrors.

Lee Brouillard animatedly uses her blue towel to clean the toilet.

Blue, toilets. Yellow, mirrors. 

Lee Brouillard cleans the sink surfaces with her yellow towel.

Brouillard was already five hours into her day when I met up with her — she started at 6 a.m. Other custodians had started two hours earlier. Some shifts during Covid-19 had been moved to the early-morning hours to reduce interaction between students and custodial staff, meaning a start time of 4 a.m. was the new normal for some.

Photo of Sandra Laird, provided by Sandra Laird

Sandra Laird is one of these early-morning workers, a long-time staff member at the college with seven years of experience on the custodial team.

“We have to be the eyes of the building,” she told me. This means not only cleaning, but frequently checking for things that are missing and broken, checking fire extinguishers and changing light bulbs, and just being there for students who need help. 

After twenty-one total years of experience as a Middlebury staff member, Laird’s favorite building to work in has been Munroe Hall. She likes the movement of the students and interactions she has had with faculty members.

Liza Rheaume, another long-time staff member, started working for the college thirty-four years ago when her mother-in-law got her the job. She grew up here, attended Middlebury Union High School and eventually moved to Vergennes where her husband’s job was located.

IMG_0998 (1).jpeg
Liza Rheaume, on lunch break in Chateau basement lounge

“The first building I ever was in was FIC (the Freeman International Center),” she said. “[The custodial job] looked a lot different then. We weren’t teams. The FIC was the only space I was in.” Now, her team of six works at the FIC, Atwater, Chateau, Wright Theatre, Sunderland and Warner Hall. Teams rotate between buildings everyday. 

Rheaume commented on the persistent challenges Covid-19 has raised for custodial staffing and college staffing in general. Since the pandemic, the custodial staff have been asked to do extra work, despite a significant shortage in staff and decreased competitiveness in pay. 

“In the past year, … it has been hard for them to hire a lot of people,” she said. “A lot of places around town have been offering more starting money, and Middlebury’s pay isn’t like it used to be. This used to be the place to work …. they still have great benefits, but some things have gone away.”

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Notes Rheaume prepared for our lunch conversation.

As she sat with me on the lower-level of Chateau during her lunch break, referencing the notes she had taken in response to a few of my questions, she reflected on the family-like bond she had created with her teammates. 

“They share the same experiences,” she said. “I enjoy immensely working with the people that I work with.” 

While Rheaume plans on retiring in the next few years, she explained that focusing on being a caregiver to her 86-year-old mother was the only thing that would take her away from the job earlier.

The custodial closet in the basement of Forest, carefully decorated.

Sitting around the break room table in the Ross complex, Cindy Webb and Lynn Eisler-Lebeau shared with me how their relationships with students are one of the most rewarding parts of their jobs. Webb has worked for Middlebury for 12 years, and Eisler-Lebeau has worked for 23 years. 

Lei and posters neighboring cleaning supplies in the Forest basement custodial closet.

“I can remember, the first time I had my own floor … the first group of freshmen, I knew every single one of them. I knew their names, I knew where they were from, I knew what they were interested in,” Webb said.

“It was a good community,” she added. “I do what I do for students.” She described that despite receiving gratitude from some students, it has been harder to create lasting connections since the pandemic and the accompanying shift in schedules. 

Webb commented that earlier shifts to reduce interaction between students and custodial staff during Covid-19 could have set a precedent for the lack of student-custodial relationships within buildings. Eisler-Lebeau saw this change in relationships as potentially stemming from short-staffing. 

“I don’t know them by name like I used to,” Eisler-Lebeau said. “If you were to ask me a bunch of these students' names now, I couldn’t tell you because we don’t have as much time as we used to. … We are so short-handed.”

A student thank you card in upstairs Forest custodial closet.

Some staff also described how winter weather conditions can make it difficult to reach campus. “The winter challenges getting to work. Many of us live farther off campus and have to drive a distance to get here. I have one team member that drives all the way from Castleton — it can be a treacherous drive, but we do it,” Rheaume said.

Once on campus, staff have faced other challenges this winter: cleaning up salt residue used on sidewalks and dealing with recent incidents of vandalism. 

Within the last month, glass and dining hall dishes were smashed all the way down the sidewalk near Atwater. Vandalism in the Ross complex and frequent displacement of dining hall dishes has left custodians with a significant amount of extra work. 

“We deal with a lot of aftermath from parties,” said Sierra Lane, an employee of five years and a team liaison. Lane’s father was also a Middlebury staff member, and she came to Middlebury after leaving her previous job to find one that treated its employees better.

Sierra Lane, Custodial Liaison, on break.

“A lot of students say thank you, which is really nice and goes a long way. I’m not totally used to it, but I’ll be pulling trash, and they’ll say, ‘thank you,’ and it means a lot,” Lane said. 

Lane has a positive outlook on her job when faced with frustrating situations. “If I see something negative, it usually is going to happen again,” she said. “I try to tell myself, ‘Well, I’ve dealt with this before, but what am I going to do this time?’”

Search for more staff will continue, evident on the summer schedule.

Getting the chance to hear the stories of a few custodians on campus illuminated how essential the custodial staff is to student life. Having these conversations made it evident that the custodial staff are the backbone of the campus and have such a direct impact on student life. As custodians continue to have challenges with short-staffing and extended hours, a simple hello and thank you is more powerful than ever. 

I want to thank Sandra Laird, Liza Rheaume, Cindy Webb, Lynn Eisler-Lebeau, Sierra Lane, and Lee Brouillard for their willingness to share their stories, and the Middlebury custodial staff for all the work they do to care for students and the College. 

Annalise Johnson

Hello! My name is Annalise Johnson (I use she/her pronouns) and I am an Online Editor in the class of 2025. I am an Environmental Justice Major from Minnesota, and have a love for the Boundary Waters, Bob Dylan, and all things running, climbing, and snow-related. Here in Middlebury/VT, I run on the cross country team and work for A Revolutionary Press.