For the last 18 years, Ybett Ramos has worked her day job as a nurse, and more recently a nursing supervisor, at St. Barnabas Hospital.
For the past eight years, with her husband Tony, her stepchildren and as many as 200 volunteers “from the neighborhood,” she has worked her weekend job, preparing and serving lunches in the hopes of “spreading love and appreciation” to New York City firefighters.
Following the tragic loss of 343 firefighters on September 11, 2001, the Ramos family searched for a way to express their appreciation of the sacrifices firefighters made then and continue to make on behalf of New Yorkers. They came up with what they considered an appropriate and novel response – serving sumptuous lunches to firehouses throughout the Bronx. Only once they finished with the Bronx, they decided to push on by also catering meals at firehouses throughout Manhattan, Queens, Staten Island and Brooklyn.
In all, the family spent eight years serving Sunday meals to firefighters (the day of the week, Ybett said, when the firefighters traditionally order takeout food) at each of the city’s 220 firehouses. Starting on November 5, 2001, and hosting lunches at three firehouses on Sundays (on those weekends when Ybett was not working at the hospital), they completed their amazing odyssey on November 15, 2009.
“We never really questioned why we were doing this,” said Ybett. “I met so many wonderful people and made so many friends. It was a lot of work, but I never regretted it for a second.”
And work it was – coordinating over 200 meals didn’t happen by chance. Husband Tony, who for many years owned the Collectors Galaxy in Morris Park, would do the leg work of going to each firehouse, introducing himself, and making arrangements for the elaborate lunches. He personally recruited some 200 volunteers to help prepare the meals, although much of the burden fell on Ybett.
Typically, this would mean spending her Fridays shopping and picking up everything she planned to cook. Saturdays were reserved for chopping, cutting, smashing, dicing, mixing, seasoning and preparing her dishes. Sundays at 4 a.m. she would rise to start cooking. By 11 a.m., she would begin to pack their van with the trays for departure to the firehouses for lunches at 1, 3 and 5 p.m.
“Everyone had a job to do,” said Ybett, who would also prepare the menus. “My girls (Jizelle and Jeanette, who are now in their 20s) would make the ribbons that we all wore to honor the firefighters, some volunteers would cook food and others would bring soda or paper goods.”
The Ramos family never had any connection with firefighters before. Yet, according to Ybett, she found them to be a special breed.
“The camaraderie [the firemen] have for each other is remarkable, you never see this in any other job,” she said. “We found them to be so down to earth and easy going and appreciative.”
While Ybett spent most of her time in the kitchens at the firehouses, her husband often would talk with the firefighters.
“My husband is very easy to talk to and even though it wasn’t like he was there to interview people, some wanted to talk and they would tell their stories of what happened and where they were on 9/11, and who was lost,” she said. “At times, it got very emotional, but it was always very comfortable. It became like visiting the homes of family.”
Over the period, Ybett estimates that she and her team prepared 1800 trays of food. This included 250 trays of garlic infused roast pork shoulders (her specialty), 200 trays of homemade meat loafs, 250 trays of cornbread, 200 trays of hot and spicy chicken, 200 trays of maduros (fried sweet plantains), 50 trays of assorted pasta dishes, 4,000 handmade empanadas, and mounds of turkey, meatballs and salads.
All costs were absorbed by the family and the volunteers, more than two dozen of whom worked side-by-side with the Ramoses for most of the eight years. Several local retailers also contributed, like Conti’s Bakery which donated cakes and Ann Art Florist which provided flowers.
“Our volunteers were first-hand witnesses to all that went on and their dedication and love helped us throughout the tough times,” said Ybett, which included Tony being hospitalized after an illness and closing his business in 2007.
Her colleagues at St. Barnabas Hospital say they were not surprised by the herculean task completed by Ybett and her family.
“If anyone could pull off something like this it would be Ybett,” said Cathy Graham, senior vice president, director of Nursing. “She’s a dynamo and an extremely dedicated individual. When she puts her mind to something, it gets done.”