At 10:30 p.m. on September 28, the evening quiet has begun to settle over campus. Students, having returned to their residence halls and apartments from academic buildings where they spent their days, are typing essays, having late-night conversations with friends or getting ready for bed. But the college’s night cleaning crew, responsible for cleaning all 22 academic buildings between 11:00 p.m. and 7:30 a.m., is just about to get started. And so am I: for the next few hours, I will be meeting and reporting on one of the most important, if largely unseen, groups of people on campus.
I make my way to Chase Service Center, east of the main campus on College Ave., which houses the offices of night crew supervisor Ziggy Abay and her assistant, Freddie Washington. They start their shifts at 11:00 p.m. but often arrive early, as on this night, to get ahead of the night’s work.
Abay, who will be my guide around campus, is small in stature but not in personality. With her hair pulled back into a slick, functional ponytail, she spends her nights traversing campus, joking with her 32-person team while keeping them in line.
Abay took a part-time job at Wheaton in 2010, on top of her other job as a supervisor at General Electric’s department of consumer finance. Her father was ill, leading her to search for extra work. Abay said Wheaton is “completely different” from secular environments where she has worked.
“It’s not only the people,” she said. “I know I’m serving God, so that makes my job easy.”
After two years, Abay left her other job to work at Wheaton full time because of how much she enjoyed the Christian atmosphere. One year later, the supervisor position opened up. “I applied, and God is good. I got the position,” she told me.
At the time, Abay, who is originally from Tigray, Ethiopia, had two young children, who are now in high school in Wheaton. Balancing motherhood and working nights wasn’t always easy, “but when you believe in something and enjoy what you are doing, you don’t focus on the negative aspects,” she said.
Abay makes sure her team has everything that they need to clean their respective buildings. She assigns people to different buildings and tasks. Throughout the night, she will receive countless phone calls from members of the crew asking for more medium-sized gloves or more window cleaning cloths. She either brings the supplies herself or delegates the task to someone else. But above all she is a friend to her staff.
“I learn a lot from people every day,” she said. “People share their problems, I share mine, and we pray together. It’s such a blessing. I don’t look at myself as a supervisor; I’m a friend.”
Abay struggled with the emptiness of the campus in the weeks when students were learning remotely. “The college was so empty, and so were our hearts,” she said. “If there were no students, we wouldn’t have jobs. Seeing students makes my job easy. I just love seeing [students] around.”
An empty campus hasn’t been the only effect of the pandemic on Wheaton’s night cleaning crew. The team, which normally consists of 40 employees, is down to 32 because of the ongoing labor shortage, which requires everyone to pull some extra weight. The team is situated within the Custodial Services department, headed by Jason Marriott.
At the height of COVID-19, the cleaning crew’s workload increased because they were responsible for sanitizing protocols on top of their normal cleaning duties. According to Abay, because of the take-out system in Saga, the garbage load “easily quadrupled.”
“My team is made up of good Christian people that are happy to serve,” said Abay, “so that makes picking up the slack much easier.”
One of those people is Freddie Washington, the assistant night crew supervisor, who is going on his 20th year at Wheaton. Wearing a gray uniform shirt with “Freddie” stitched in white across the chest, he sits down at the conference room table after Abay introduces us. He applied to Wheaton in 2002, recommended by another employee. “The rest is history,” Washington joked.
According to a study by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in general, Americans stay at their jobs for an average of just over four years. The night crew is made up of a number of employees who have been at Wheaton for even longer than Washington. “The night crew is a family,” he said. “You never leave your family.”
Washington also likes the job because he is able to work with his hands.
“I’m not an electrician, but sometimes one of our vacuums will break down so I get in there and monkey around and get it running again. It feels good to achieve something.”
With the ongoing nationwide labor shortage, which has also affected Wheaton’s Bon Appétit staff, Washington is having to help clean on top of his supervising duties. “It’s not only us,” he explains. “I think everyone is having some problems getting people. As long as we keep our expectations attainable, we will be alright. Just keep running the race.”
After I spoke with Washington, he returned to his office to start work for the night. Abay drives me in a white, Wheaton-owned van to Chrouser Sports Complex. She never goes more than a few minutes without getting a call from a member of her team who needed her advice. With her phone tucked under her chin, she walks me into Chrouser, where I meet night crew employee Ben Firestone, who takes off his clunky over-the-ear headphones and sits down with me on the floor of the second-floor Chrouser dance studio. “Step into my office,” he jokes.
Firestone grew up in Bolingbrook and started working at Wheaton in 2014 after his two businesses, which focused on cleaning and mortgages, went bankrupt in the 2008 recession. With six children and one left to put through college, Firestone was intrigued by the education benefit of working here. After seven years, Wheaton covers tuition for the children of employees admitted to the college.
For five years, Firestone worked at Wheaton as well as driving for Lyft in order to cover the cost of living in the Wheaton area. Despite these challenges, he says he enjoys working in Wheaton’s faith-centered environment.
“I like working here because of the [students],” he said. “There’s no way I would do this stuff working at a secular school. No way, not a prayer.” Firestone is also grateful for his team. “My boss Ziggy is the best person you will ever work for,” Firestone claims. “She knows her authority and you don’t mess around with her. She is all about people.”
Firestone said he loves to share the gospel at every opportunity. He described Lyft as the perfect job to do this. “They can’t jump out of the moving car,” he jokes. But Wheaton’s Christian environment doesn’t mean that he has any less opportunity to evangelize. Firestone recounts the experience of helping save a 70 year old contractor who removed the asbestos from Wyngarden a few years ago. “I explained the gospel to him and he got saved. He had never heard the gospel before. Everyone had just been telling him to go to church.”
I part ways with Firestone and wander the dark halls of Chrouser looking for Abay. I find her, talking on the phone, and she leads me to the Chrouser lobby where I met George Yang, the next member of the cleaning crew I’m speaking to. Yang has been at Wheaton since 1982.
Yang, short and stocky, is what some might call no nonsense. His demeanor is one of diligence and efficiency. Yang is assigned to clean Chrouser Sports Complex, he vacuums all of the carpets, takes out the trash, cleans the bathrooms and exercise equipment.
His family fled from Laos to Thailand during the Cold War. They stayed in a refugee camp almost five years until they were able to come to the United States. At the time, there were few immigrants in the Wheaton area. Arriving in 1980, Yang took English classes at a school in the area and learned about an open position at Wheaton from his sponsor.
After a few years on the night crew, Yang switched to the day shift, but eventually came back to night crew. “During the day you have to rush because there are a lot of students. At night you get to work all by yourself.” At this point, his children were grown and he was able to sleep better during the day.
In Yang’s early years at Wheaton he enjoyed working with two other men who were also refugees. Eventually they moved to Wisconsin to live near relatives. But Yang stayed on. In his nearly 40 years at Wheaton, he has seen night crew management, professors and friends come and go. “I don’t like to let the change bother me,” he said. “I just do my job the best I can. When the time comes, I will go.”
Hopping back into the Wheaton van around 12:30 a.m., Abay and I head to Anderson Commons, where I speak with Bill Gunderson, another longtime Wheaton employee, who started working at the college in December 1985.
“That November was the cloudiest month in Chicago history, and I was unemployed,” said Gunderson. “That was a rough time, so I was just so happy to get back to work.”
On first glance, one might mistake Gunderson for being a goofy jokester, but his thoughtful demeanor soon becomes apparent as he peers through his round glasses. Many years on Wheaton’s campus have given him insight.
While some night crew employees do specialized work like waxing floors or shampooing carpets, most members of the night crew are assigned to their own building. Gunderson is currently responsible for Edman Chapel but has worked at almost every other building through the decades. Before I spoke with him, Abay had pulled Gunderson from Edman to help vacuum the dining hall because someone was out sick.
According to Gunderson, COVID has caused major rifts in the way the cleaning crew operates. Last year, instead of one building, Gunderson was responsible for Edman, Pierce Chapel and McAllister Hall. As room capacities moved classrooms to unconventional spaces, the areas that needed cleaning expanded. With classes being held in so many unusual locations, to help with social distancing, the cleaning crew was responsible for cleaning a lot more rooms.
“The night crew is a lonely existence,” Gunderson says. “Knowing that you are serving the Lord makes it easier.” And yet certain habits of students make the night crew’s job harder.
“Don’t bring coffee into the chapel,” Gunderson said. “You’re going to kick it over and it’s off to the races. The coffee runs all the way down to the stage and I have to spot clean it.”
When he is not working, Gunderson enjoys spending time outside. In 1989, he took seven months off work to hike the Appalachian Trail. He completed the trail, from Georgia to Maine, in seven months.
Shortly after I finish speaking with Gunderson, Abay receives a call about two students who were in the Visitor Center which had closed at 5:00. We make our way there, but we don’t get to bust anyone. The students left before we arrived. When she receives a call like this one, Abay prefers to ask the students to leave without involving public safety, “Kids are kids and I’m sure they weren’t doing anything, I don’t want them to get into trouble.”
We then walked across the Saga-O to the Wheaton College Campus Store, where Abay cleans the bathrooms and sweeps the floors to help out the members of her team who are responsible for more than one building. She sprays down door handles, faucets and stall locks, cleans the mirrors and the toilets and sweeps the floors—all responsibilities that aren’t normally part of her job. She had it down to a science—she is done in 10 minutes.
After the bathrooms were sparkling, Abay drives me back to Fischer at 1:30 a.m. In the car, she tells me that I was welcome to come to dinner at her home anytime. I asked if she made traditional Ethiopian food.
“I do! I will make you some!” Abay insists. Humbled, I thanked her for letting me be a part of her night and walk groggily back to my room, while the night crew works on to greet the new day with a clean campus.
A few nights later, I’m studying in Lower Beamer when I get a call from Abay asking to meet me outside. She had brought me a large plate of traditional Ethiopian injera, a spongy flatbread, with a large container of misir wot, a spiced red lentil stew. True to form, Abay had not only shown up to campus ready to work, but had also taken the time to be a friend.
Wheaton College, IL