Beloved lunch lady in Dassel, Minn. readies for retirement after decades of mentoring kids

Doris listens along as a child explains her plans for the week in the lunch line.

When you think about those in a school who influence children the most, teachers probably come to mind first. But in one Minnesota school, there’s one staff member who the kids will remember long after the final bell rings.

"Did you have a nice break?"

The small talk in this school lunchroom is anything but small. What's happening is a very real connection.

"She just doesn't make food for them," explained teacher Matthew Whittaker. "She is their friend."

For 30 years, Doris Kyllonen has been nourishing the stomachs, the hearts, and the minds of kids at Dassel Elementary.

"I've learned from her that you have eye contact with kids," said Doris' coworker Mary Neu. "You connect with them; you call them by name."

She not only remembers who they are, but she also anticipates what they need.

"Oh, you got to have a banana. You don't have a vegetable, buddy," she said.

And in her own, unassuming way, she has turned lunchtime into an opportunity for kids to grow.

"I started putting a joke out there and it seemed to let kids talk and they were opening up and talking, even kids with autism," she said.

Doris has spent the last 30 years serving up food for kids while making a connection. (FOX 9)

"I think it's even easy for her to pick out personalities and see students who are maybe a little more at risk or really benefit from some of that extra encouragement," said Whittaker. "I've heard of a former student of mine that actually still has a note in his wallet to this day -- he's 22 -- that she wrote for him. And the confidence that she gave him."

Fourth-grade teacher Matthew Whittaker has seen Doris' kindness and commitment take many shapes over the years.

"There was a day I know I had a few students come late on a bus," said Whittaker.

"We saw that kitchen was all closed and breakfast was done," said fourth-grader Grant. "We just headed off to class."

"And not 10 seconds later," recalled Whittaker. "Doris walked in and was like 'hey you guys missed breakfast' and this morning I know the kitchen is closed, but come on down I'll find something for you."

"It'll be kind of different not seeing her face anymore," said student Brooklin.

The kids at Dassel Elementary say they are going to miss the daily interactions with Doris. (FOX 9)

Recently, the small talk in the lunchroom got a little more earnest with the kids learning Lunch Lady Doris is set to say goodbye and retire.

"I just know it's time," Doris explains.

Three decades of connections are coming to a close, but not without lots of gratitude and a promise to always stay connected.

"We've grown up with each other," she said. "I'm going to miss them," said Doris. "I'll miss them but I'll come to see them. The kitchen will always be open,"