She calls it her drive-thru miracle.
Valerie LaChapelle knows about drive-thrus. She works the early shift at the McDonald’s at 1185 S. Vista Ave. She arrives at 4 a.m., helps with the prep work until 7 a.m. and works the drive-thru window through breakfast and lunch.
LaChapelle has become something of an institution there. She knows many of her customers by name, and it’s not uncommon for customers to bring token gifts to thank her for making their days with her friendly service. That can include buying breakfast for customers who forget their wallets or are a little short.
“Ninety-nine percent of them come back later and pay me back,” she said.
She wasn’t prepared, however, for the payback from a customer whose identity she doesn’t even know.
Before we get to that, some background:
LaChapelle is 55. She was 52 when she started working at the drive-thru, significantly older than the average McDonald’s employee.
“It’s a good place for young people to work,” she said, “but I wasn’t worried about being older. I needed a job.”
She’d had previous experience in the restaurant business, but it was interrupted.
By five years in prison. Methamphetamines.
She didn’t have to tell me that, but, as she put it, “I want to be up front about that right from the start. I made some very bad mistakes, but whatever I did in my past brought me here, and here is good.”
After being released from prison, she was determined to make the most of a new start. Drug free since 2004, she economized by living at the City Light Women’s and Children’s Shelter for seven months while saving money to pay her fines and restitution. She also spent time at a halfway house run by the Whitney Friends Church.
“They taught me how to forgive myself for what I’d done.”
When she started looking for a job, she applied at just three businesses.
“I looked at some other places,” she said, “but I didn’t feel comfortable with the way the employees interacted, so I didn’t apply there. I had lunch here at McDonald’s and liked the environment. I watched the way the employees worked together and the way things flowed. They worked hard, but they had a good time doing it. I decided this was the place I wanted to work for a long time.”
In addition to becoming a fixture at the drive-thru window, she worked at a pizza restaurant and cleaned her church. She didn’t work three jobs for the fun of it; she did it in part because she was saving money for something.
“Bad teeth run in my family,” she said. “And meth didn’t help. I really needed to get my teeth fixed. I only had eight left on top. When I smiled, I’d always put my hand in front of my mouth.”
A big problem for a woman who smiles as much as she does.
“The dental work was going to be really expensive. That’s one of the reasons I was working three jobs.”
Last fall, a remarkable thing happened. She was having an ordinary day at work when she received an extraordinary visit from a McDonald’s executive.
“He said I must have really made someone’s day because he’d gotten a call from one of my customers who wanted to do something for me.”
The customer, who asked to remain anonymous, had offered to pay for her dental work. She estimates the cost at $6,000 to $8,000.
“I cried like a little baby when he told me that someone wanted to do that,” she said. “I told Nicole I had to go outside.”
That would be Nicole Petersen, her manager.
“Nicole thought something was wrong and came outside to ask me what it was. When I told her what had happened, she started crying, too.”
At first, LaChapelle was hesitant to accept the offer.
“I didn’t want to be a welfare case. But I asked someone I respect, and he said if the person was willing to make the offer I should be willing to accept.
“ … I was kind of embarrassed when I went to the dentist’s office, but the people there have just been wonderful. The whole thing has been like a miracle from God.”
When she offered to give the dentist, Dr. Devlin Stampfli, $1,000 she’d saved for the dental work, he declined.
Dr. Michael Bailey did the oral surgery for free.
Petersen says that, given LaChapelle’s impact on customers, the anonymous offer wasn’t entirely surprising:
“People love her. They come from all over just to go through the drive-thru when she’s working. They come all the way from Meridian. She knows their names and always has a big smile for them. Kids really love her. She wears a red clown nose and does other goofy things for them. I’ve never had so many customer compliments on an employee.”
Lana McCullough, a regular breakfast customer, says LaChapelle never fails to brighten her mornings:
“At first I was unsure why. Valerie has obviously lived life’s ups and downs, so one day I asked her about her endless enthusiasm in what could be seen as a repetitive, boring job. She said, ‘I choose to make every day a happy day’ and flashed that familiar, sweet smile. Her attitude is infectious.”
The dental work will take another six months to be finished, but the temporary plates she has now are a big improvement.
“I’m not putting my hand in front of my face any more. People are telling me I’m beautiful.”
No argument. Not only has she overcome her struggle with addiction, she’s proof that you don’t have to make a big salary or have a fancy title to be a success. You can do it at a drive-thru window.
If there is beauty in overcoming adversity and making the most of what you have, she’s one of the most successful people you could hope to meet.
Tim Woodward’s column appears every other Sunday and is posted on www.woodwardblog.com the following Mondays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.