Parkhurst cashier extends personal kindness to students

Debbie Panuto has two grown sons who’ve been on their own for years. This Italian mom misses having them at home. But as the morning cashier at Hoernemann Refectory, she inherited several hundred other “kids” who – as their “mom” away from home – she also misses right now.

“I just love my job because I get to see all the students. I get to talk to every one of them, and you know how I love to talk,” says Debbie, who joined the Parkhurst Dining team two years ago.

She greets each student with a hearty, warm “Hello, Sweetheart … enjoy your breakfast and stay safe” or a similar welcome. But with the university currently under quarantine, some of the students are isolating in their residences and having meals delivered, rather than dining in person at Hoernemann. She knows they are lonely, maybe even worried.

She wanted those students to know how much she missed seeing them on a daily basis, so she took pen to lunch bag.

“Chef Rob (Fehle) suggested that I write notes on their lunch bags, and I thought, ‘How neat!’ My point is, I just miss them so much. This world is crazy and I know they’re scared. I just wanted them to know,” Debbie says.

Earlier this week, Debbie wrote individual messages on lunch bags delivered to 110 students under strict quarantine. She wrote during down times during her 6:30-2:30 a.m. shift; it took her about two hours to complete all the messages. Each one was a little different, but all included “I miss you, love Debbie” and hugs and kisses images.

She may never know how much that personal touch was appreciated. But one student took a photo of her message, emailed it to her mom, who contacted President Rob Huntington to express her own appreciation for the extra ways Heidelberg cares for its students.

“I just remember when my son went to college, I hoped there was someone loving there to take care of him when I couldn’t,” says Debbie, noting that she absolutely loves paying it forward and being that mom-figure to Heidelberg students.

Encouraged by Stephanie Wilt, director of board operations for Parkhurst at Heidelberg, Debbie has also entered the Twitter-sphere, posting a short daily clip for students that offers encouragement and a joke. “I almost jumped in her arms when she said, ‘Do you want to do this?’” Students love them, so she plans to continue tweeting until the quarantine is lifted.

“I’ve told a lot of the students, when this is over, I’m going to open up a hugging booth,” Debbie says.

Spoken like only a mom could!




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