By Blake Sharp
A bird fluttered down from the tree to the wooden table in the back courtyard of Branner. Rafael stopped talking to smile at the bird. He told me how much he now appreciates the chirping birds and towering oak and palm trees.
“I never used to hear the birds, but now I pay more attention to nature,” Rafael said. Rafael Velazquez has been a chef at the Branner dining hall for 12 years and at Stanford for over 20. This year, he was nominated by the women’s soccer team and won the Amy J. Blue Award, an award given to Stanford employees who show exemplary service to the Stanford community.
Every morning, he greets student athletes at breakfast with a beaming smile as he cooks up omelette after omelette. He explained that his favorite part of the job is connecting with students, whether that entails practicing spanish with them or congratulating them on their latest victories.
His relationship with the students, especially those on the women’s soccer team, was most obvious when Rafael had to take time off earlier this year. The soccer team and eventually other teams wondered what had happened and whom they could ask to find out. Upon his return, Rafael shared that he had been diagnosed with grade three lymphoma and took the time off for immunotherapy to treat the tumors. After five weeks of treatment, the cancer has been reduced to just a small tumor in his stomach.
Rafael described the immunotherapy as exhausting and especially hard on his body. There were days when he couldn’t talk, eat or even stand up. The doctors recommended that he take several more months for recovery. Instead of adhering to bed rest, he chose to change his lifestyle to get back to work faster. He started a vegetarian diet, purchasing organic food and drinking more water daily. Rafael also said he has found a deeper appreciation for nature and the world around him, and tries to enjoy the chirping birds and waving palms.
“I need to stay strong for my kids, and I love my job and miss seeing the students every day,” Rafael said. “I need to stay active. While I am at work, I can forget about the cancer and just focus on the people in front of me.”
The women’s soccer team recognized his dedication, kindness and hard work, so they nominated him for the Amy J. Blue Award. The ceremony took place on May 15 in Lagunita Courtyard. Rafael was accompanied by his wife, daughter and son. His daughter is a senior in high school and will attend Whittier College next year.
People from all over the Stanford community attended the ceremony to honor the deserving employees. The audience sat under the branches of an expansive oak tree, facing the honorees and their families. Following a tribute speech to Amy J. Blue, the namesake of the award, Marc Tessier Lavigne announced that over 500 letters had been sent in to recommend 140 employees deserving of the award. He then introduced each of the winners.
Sam Tran, a sophomore on the women’s soccer team, gave a flattering and inspiring speech about Rafael’s positivity and passion, and how much he was missed during his time off. Rafael then proceeded to thank each of the sports teams (especially the women’s soccer team), the people who got him to where he is today and his family. The ceremony concluded with a deafening round of applause, and every audience member seemed to leave with a greater appreciation for the recipients and for each member of Stanford’s community.
Over his 20 years as a chef at Stanford, Rafael has worked in Arrillaga, the TriDelt house and now has spent the last twelve years at Branner. Rafael said his favorite part of the job is connecting with the students whom he cooks for and being as accommodating as possible. He said he also enjoys trying new recipes from students and colleagues. Some of his favorite dishes to make are posole, street tacos, Indian food or any recipe a student brings him. Now that he’s vegetarian, Rafael said he has enjoyed experimenting with new ingredients and dishes to make new veggie versions of his favorites.
Rafael feels stronger and is thankful for the Stanford students, who he said over and over again are his favorite part of the job. As the bird flew off our table, Rafael smiled again and reiterated just how grateful he is to be here. All I could think is how grateful Stanford is to have him.
Contact Blake Sharp at blakesharp ‘at’ stanford.edu.