Hands behind the U: Cleaner keeps Residence Halls looking nice

As students leave the Sage Point Residence Halls early morning heading to class after a weekend reprieve, a woman walks along pushing a cart full of cleaning products, ready to start her day.

Ofelia Ortega moved to Salt Lake City from Zacatecas, Mexico, five years ago and has worked as a custodian at the U for the past three years. Known by fellow custodians and supervisor as a “strong worker,” Ortega cleans all four floors in two of the Sage Point buildings every day.

Ortega begins by cleaning out the entrance way and emptying the hallways and elevators of trash that students have left.

“Sometimes I find soda spilled all over the elevator and ceilings — all sticky and dirty,” Ortega said, pointing at the stained elevator sides.

Moving through her arduous tasks without complaints, she dons her white gloves and picks up discarded cigarettes left by careless students who missed the ashtray by a few feet.

Students walk in and out of the building as she vacuums the floors, stepping around the figure in blue jeans with a backpack, Hoover going from kitchen to hallways. She vacuums, sweeps and mops the floors with precision and care, smiling while continuing her work in a deliberate fashion.

“The work is not so hard, it is similar to what I do when I get home to my three kids and husband,” said Ortega who has two daughters and a 3-year-old son.

Occasionally they come in to bring her lunch during her 30-minute break — moments she treasures above the arduous tasks ahead of her.

“Ofelia is a very hard worker. She gets her work done every day,” said Patricia Ruiz, Ortega’s supervisor. “I’ve never had a complaint about her.”

Ortega and fellow custodians work year round and clean up the rooms after students leave for the summer.

“Most of the custodians can only clean six rooms a day, they are so messy,” Ruiz says.

Over the summer, students had knocked over a candy dispenser and broke the glass.

“I guess they didn’t have a dollar on them,” she said, laughing and shaking her head over student misbehavior.

Ortega takes the previously soda-stained elevator up to the next floor and into one of the student kitchens, where she finds a microwave exploded with popcorn grease and reeking of burnt cookies.

She said these students remind her of her own children at home.

Ortega, 23, is not much older than the incoming freshmen, yet she is full of worldly experience. She continues to learn English and enjoys being a young mother, she said.

While wiping the tall glass windows, she pointed to the lipstick marks on the windows where some students kissed the sanitized glass and laughed at this behavior.

“I don’t know why they would want to kiss the windows, but my children try painting the walls — I imagine it’s no different,” she said.

Pushing her cart along the hallway, Ortega pauses in front of the bathrooms and enters with no trepidation.

She rolls up her sleeves and begins picking up trash and leftover toilet paper from the floor. Bathrooms aren’t difficult because students use their own, but she’s had to clean up urine in the elevators. Her friend had found feces in a microwave, she said, wrinkling her nose.

Ortega cleans the first two floors by noon. She rests and eats lunch that her husband and two girls.

Ortega’s lunch break ends as students continue to enter and leave at will, walking around the woman who keeps their halls clean and floors mopped.

She pauses in front of the third floor kitchen and points to a student’s door.

“Every once in a while we find condoms placed over the doorknobs with lotion over it — we don’t really know why,” Ortega said.

She bends down to pick up Sponge Bob gummy wrappers and to pick off remains of gum stepped into the floor.

For students who live in Residence Halls for the first time, having a clean dormitory environment is similar to home where parents usually pick up after children.

“I see her cleaning sometimes, though I don’t always notice — I mostly feel it’s like having my mom here to an extent,” said Brandon Craft, a freshman film major who lives at Sage Point.

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Tyler Cobb

Ofelia Ortega cleans an entry door to the dorms at Sage Point early Tuesday morning. Ortega cleans all four floors of two Sage Point buildings every day.