As Deborah Paige walked into an upstairs room at the Rams Head Dining Hall packed with adoring UNC-Chapel Hill students, she quietly said she didn’t like surprises.
The life-changing gift those students had waiting for the longtime Carolina Dining Services employee on Wednesday afternoon might have her rethinking that.
“Oh, thank you!” she screamed as she pulled a check for $5,000 out of an envelope. “Now I can get my car fixed and go home.”
Ms. Deborah, as the students call her, hasn’t been able to go home much since her car broke down just before Thanksgiving. She lives in Snow Camp, N.C., about 40 minutes west of campus. Because repairs to her car are costly, she’s been staying in Chapel Hill with her daughter and taking a bus to work, only returning home to see her husband on the weekends.
“We really wanted to be able to provide for her and help her out,” senior Caitlin Ball said.
Ball worked to organize an online fundraiser for Ms. Deborah after Ball’s friend, sophomore Sarah Adams, learned of the car trouble late last week.
They raised the $1,650 needed to fix the car within a couple of days. They now hope to crowdsource a total of $79,000 to help Ms. Deborah pay off other debt.
“She’s very encouraging, she’s always positive, no matter what she’s going through – which turns out to be a lot,” Ball said. “It’s easy to feel lonely on a college campus, especially as a freshman or sophomore. … She definitely helps to relieve that. She’s a light in that.”
Ms. Deborah, who works as a cashier in the Rams Head Dining Hall, is in her 39th year working at UNC. Her Carolina Dining Services and Aramark coworkers were in on the surprise and had a cake waiting for her and the students at the check presentation.
“It just makes me know that my work is not in vain,” Ms. Deborah said as she surveyed the room of about 40 students. “I just treat people like I want to be treated. I opened up to these guys, and they’re like my babies away from home.”
Ball says the fundraising efforts will continue “until we get there.” UNC students, alumni and even complete strangers have been making donations.
“It’s incredibly encouraging to see the support of students and the whole community,” Ball said.
As for Ms. Deborah, once the shock of the surprise wore off she was left with one feeling.
“I just felt love,” she said.