Within moments of meeting Kristi McBrayer of rural Ellsworth, I knew she had a sunny-side up attitude – and a thing for chickens.
Kristi, a cook at the OSF St. Joseph Hospital Medical Center cafeteria, smiled at me across the serving buffet.
“Everybody calls me ‘the chicken lady,’” she said, handing me a cheese omelet. She was wearing a chicken charm necklace and a red apron with hens printed on it.
“I love chickens!” she said.
That might explain the 3-foot-tall chicken statuette standing outside the cafeteria door. It was dressed as a nurse, complete with surgical mask and foot coverings, and wearing an official-looking name badge that read “Chicken.”
I couldn’t help but smile back at Kristi as she enthusiastically greeted every person in line. She knew nearly everyone’s name, and in many cases, their food order, too.
We were at the Bloomington hospital because my stepfather had been admitted the night before. (He’s fine now and at home.) My mom and I had “slept” in chairs next to his hospital bed and were in dire need of coffee.
In the cafeteria, mom and I took a gander at the many chicken decorations lining the walls and shelves. There were chicken puzzles, hen and rooster figurines and even colored drawings of chickens by local school kids.
“It’s nice here,” I said.
Kristi’s cheery disposition, the cozy feel of the cafeteria and the tastiness of the food made us feel better. For a few moments, the worry and stress of having a sick loved one in the hospital lessened a bit. We had found a safe haven of comfort.
Unwilling to leave my stepdad’s side, mom slept in the hospital chair for several days. To stretch our legs (and fill our tummies), we took several walks to the cafeteria.
The moment we entered, we always heard a happy welcome.
“Hello, Susan! Hello, Susan’s mom!” Kristi shouted.
Kristi, and her co-worker, Mary Cseve, both cook, serve and run the cash register.
“We go together like peanut butter and jelly,” said Mary.
After a few days, the chickens started to grow on us. I took mom’s photo with the chicken statuette, now dressed as a patrol officer. Officer Chicken was offering cock-a-doodle-do’s and cock-a-doodle-don’ts on nutrition.
“We have lots of costumes for Chicken,” said Kristi. Mom and I cackled like a couple of hens.
What began Kristi’s passion for chickens? Years ago, when her daughter, Ashley, was a student at Tri-Valley, Ashley's class observed eggs in an incubator. When the eggs hatched, and the chicks grew, Ashley asked if she could bring the birds home to their rural residence.
“That was the original six,” says Kristi, who eventually bought and adopted many more. The flock grew to as many as 70 birds, but is smaller now, due to the unfortunate visits of a neighborhood fox. Like a mother hen, Kristi showed us several photos of her brood.
“There are the dirty birds, the pretty birds, the ‘McNuggets’ and the prince (the rooster),” she explained.
Eileen Wallace, director of food services for St. Joseph, says Kristi’s enthusiasm is a bright spot for many of the cafeteria diners. “She’s always happy.”
“It’s important in any setting for people to be recognized and treated well, but it’s particularly important in a hospital,” she said.
We weren’t the only ones enjoying the atmosphere and food. Many employees take advantage of the cafeteria. And why not? The food was yummy, the service was fast and fun and the price was… dare I say it… chicken feed.
Our family’s stay at St. Joseph has since finished, but I may swing by the cafeteria to see “the chicken lady.” It isn’t every day someone makes you feel so special. And that really is something to crow about.