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How a Handshake Between a Georgetown Student and Janitor Started a Movement

A friendship prompted an effort to tell the stories of Georgetown's workers, and money raised is helping dreams come true.
Oneil Batchelor talks with student Febin Bellamy on the campus of Georgetown University.
Oneil Batchelor talks with student Febin Bellamy on the campus of Georgetown University.NBC News

WASHINGTON — Amidst the spectacular Gothic-style architecture that adorns the campus of Georgetown University, Oneil Batchelor often went unnoticed.

For nearly a decade, the Jamaican-born janitor quietly swept the floors at the university library largely out of sight to the school's undergraduates. Batchelor, who told NBC News that he came to the U.S. in pursuit of better educational opportunities, says he shared little in common with students who paid more in tuition than his yearly salary.

"We as employees sometimes, we feel invisible," said Batchelor.

That all changed one night in February 2015. Batchelor was working his usual shift when he recognized a student, Febin Bellamy, who he had greeted on several previous occasions. To his surprise, Bellamy extended his hand and struck up a conversation with him.

The two soon discovered they had much in common. Both were immigrants and both saw the prestigious Jesuit institution as a way to achieve their dreams. Batchelor shared with Bellamy his dream to open a restaurant, a hope he had for years but one which never came to fruition due to financial difficulties.

"He supported it," said Batchelor. "He said 'man, you know I'm going to do everything I can to help you'."

Bellamy started a Facebook page called "Unsung Heroes," which chronicled the stories of the workers who keep the university running — the janitors, cafeteria workers and others who each had their own story to share with a student body largely removed from them.

"There's kind of a wall between the students and the workers," Bellamy told NBC News. "But I wanted to use this opportunity to share this story to see that they're like us. The only difference is the color of their uniform."

For Bellamy, the page was a nod to the Jesuit tradition of service to others. His fellow students responded immediately.

The page raised $2,500 for Batchelor to jump start his catering business. It raised $5,000 to finance a trip for Umberto Ripai, a dining hall cashier who had not returned to visit his family in South Sudan for 45 years.

Ripai and Batchelor are two of the 20 campus workers the page has profiled so far. Bellamy says he hopes the idea — which has placed a national spotlight on the workers who labor on the nation's university campuses — can spread to other schools nationwide.

Batchelor says he hopes to open a restaurant serving Jamaican cuisine within the next few years. He says the attention his story has garnered has brought in a healthy stream of customers for his blossoming catering business.

"This is truly a blessing," Batchelor said. "My life will never be the same."

And all it took was a handshake.