Published April 23, 2020
As a cleaner for the past 13 years in Capen Hall and nearby spaces, Alex Otero has built an identity as a caring, positive figure, bonding with students and staff alike, asking about their families, offering up what an admirer called “a healthy dose of perspective.”
So when Otero ─ who loves talking food ─ started chatting in pre-coronavirus days with Mara Huber about students not having home-cooked meals, Huber, associate dean for undergraduate research and experiential learning, did what she has done before: suggested Otero put his good intentions toward collaborating on a cookbook project for UB’s Experiential Learning Network (ELN) Project Portal, a site listing projects students can join for experience and digital badges
Then came COVID-19. Faculty, staff and students scattered to their homes to escape the virus. Distance learning took over the university experience. Otero’s ambitions for a written cookbook with recipes and stories from his UB community to benefit Blue Table, the UB student food pantry, hit a roadblock.
But true collaborations cannot be extinguished. Huber reached out to Otero and together they re-imagined an interactive edition of their cookbook, expanding the possibilities at the same time.
“It’s like I always tell the students,” says Otero, 48. “Either you make a plan for life, or life itself will make a plan for you. But you have to look at life like a highway. You can make a wrong turn. You can turn back. You don’t have to go straight forward.
“You can switch it a little and make it happen.”
For Huber, it wasn’t about distanced learning as much as being “virtually engaged.” So now, instead of just building a physical cookbook, those interested in helping can build an interactive, virtual cookbook with videos, cooking sessions via Zoom and Webex, incorporating more images with these community recipes, and more.
“Who knows what happens when people embrace technology?” says Huber. “That’s the beauty of this. Anyone can engage in this project. Our students are all over the world. They bring their diverse location and cultures and ideas, so it’s exciting. These projects really come alive through students.”
Otero and Huber are now inviting students to take part in the new, updated virtual “From My Kitchen to Your Table” project. Otero hopes to add to his family recipes he had selected for his original cookbook ─ two of which are featured here ─ with recipes and stories students gather online. At the same time, it’s a great opportunity for students to find connections at a time they need them.
“Some of the students are bored at home,” Otero says. “This will give them something to do. Also, it will be an opportunity to get in contact with people who are in the same situation as they are in right now. I believe if we are capable of doing this cookbook and putting this all together, it will teach the kids there is always an option.
“You can switch things a little and still make it happen.”
The spirit of the project remains the same.
“It’s about community,” says Huber. “The cookbook was a way to get it started, to share stories and memories and recipes. But the idea is about food. Not just any food, but home-cooked food, nourishing food, and then the sense of community that comes with sharing and caring for others.”
Although UB students have dispersed and are working remotely from their homes and computers all over the world, Huber says they are still a community.
“This sense of identity will help sustain us as we get through the next few months and move back to some semblance of normalcy,” she says. “I think this project is more important than ever as it reminds us of the importance of connecting around shared experiences, culture and caring for others.
“And the best projects are personal.”
Eventually, Otero hopes to incorporate his original vision with this new interactive, virtual model: raising money for Blue Table, donating and buying quality cooking equipment students can borrow ─ all while nurturing a community around cooking, eating, and engaging in the cultural and social aspects of food.
“I’ve been saying for a long time that we have to be better human beings and we have to learn how to fall in love with life again,” Otero says. “A lot of people take for granted so many things, I look at my kids (he has six, ages 14 to 35), and I will do whatever I have to do for them to be OK.”
Otero says UB students, whether they live away from home while on campus or feel isolated because of this semester’s separation, need to feel comfortable and welcomed.
“That’s one of the things I always say,” he says. “If my kids were in this situation, how would I want someone to treat them?”
Alex really is just an awesome guy. I'm proud to call him a friend. Glad he's getting some recognition.