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Billy McHale's benefit dinner to help longtime server with terminal cancer
If you’ve sat in Ginger Kelpszas’s section at Billy McHale’s before, chances are she’s already served you before you even got inside the restaurant.
“Half the time I see my customers in the parking lot and I get their drinks ready,” Kelpszas said. “When you wait on someone for 26 years, you know what they want.”
The longtime server said her main mission is to treat guests like she did her beloved late father.
“I’d kiss the top of their heads,” she recalled, laughing. “Every once in a while you’d get a crabby one and I’d say, ‘There’s a shrink out in the lobby there.’ I never let anyone leave upset. You can always replace bad food but not bad service.”
But after 26 years of serving customers during what she considers the best job of her life, Kelpszas recently stopped working at Billy McHale’s as she battles stage four lung cancer.
Now her customers and coworkers are rallying behind her. Billy McHale’s will host a benefit spaghetti dinner on Jan. 6 to help Kelpszas with her medical bills and other financial needs.
“I’m in awe,” said Kelpszas, who is 59. “I feel like, how do I deserve this? Why is it me that’s getting such a huge thing done for me? The only thing I can think of is they love me as much as I love them.”
She says she plans to attend the dinner to thank her customers, but it won’t be easy.
“That night is going to be very hard on me because I don’t get to see them now, it’s like losing my family,” she said, crying. “I’ve cried so many times, I’m so in love with them. You love these people and not seeing them now is so hard for me. I’m grieving losing my job and I’m grieving that. One thousand times I want to thank them for being in my life for so many years.”
One of those customers she is thankful for is Donna App, who Kelpszas met more than 20 years ago.
“I met her at Billy McHale’s just from going in to eat and she was often our food server and then we’d begin to request her, then they just seated us in her section,” said App, noting the two are now good friends. “Ginger is a super sweet gal. When it comes to work, she was the best food server I have ever seen. Whether you are a first time customer or somebody she had known for years, she treated everyone like they were her No. 1 priority.”
App said Kelpszas was also there for her when she was diagnosed with multiple myeloma, a cancer of the plasma cells.
“I’ve been battling cancer for the past year and a couple times when I was in to see her at work I got phone calls that weren’t always good news and she could sense that or see it in my tears,” App said. “She was super sweet and right there with a hug and so supportive when I was first going through this. So the fact that now she has cancer and we’re going through this together really means a lot to me.”
She said when Kelpszas was diagnosed with stage four lung cancer in October, she told App she was scared.
“I got that,” App said.
Kelpszas said she served more than 60 regulars, including Betty Mayner, who she calls “moms.”
“I really got acquainted with her after my husband passed away,” said Mayner, who plans to attend the benefit dinner. “I was going to Billy McHale’s and getting lunch. We just kind of clicked and became good friends.”
Mayner said when Kelpszas meets someone for the first time, “She gives that big happy smile of hers and her eyes just dance when she does it. I think that’s how she hooks people.”
However, when Kelpszas says no, “You’d better listen because she’s not going to say it a second time,” laughed Mayner. “We’re a lot alike that way.”
Sometimes, Kelpszas told her friend she “needs a mom today,” Mayner said. Other times, she addressed Mayner as “Betty Boop and I’ll say, ‘Oh, you need something?’ My husband called me that and after he passed away I missed being called that.”
Mayner said she’s also had illnesses off and on and Kelpszas called her if she didn’t show up for lunch to find out what was wrong and what she could do to help.
When she found out Kelpszas has cancer, she said they both cried. And while she says it isn’t the same at Billy McHale’s without her friend, she still enjoys seeing Kelpszas’s granddaughter, Olivia, who is a hostess. Olivia is the third generation of Kelpszas’s family to work at the restaurant.
“Her granddaughter says, ‘Oh, hi moms,’ and I say, ‘Oh, another one calling me that.’ Her granddaughter is just like her,” Mayner noted.
Jim Ross, who co-owns Billy McHale’s, has worked with Kelpszas for nearly 20 years.
“I’m not underestimating if I told you that 50 or 60 a people a week come in to see her and sit in her section,” said Ross. “A lot of the older folks who come in, she takes the time to listen and understand what it is that they have to say about their family and friends.”
Every year, she also made her regular customers and co-workers handmade Christmas presents, including ornaments, stockings, snowmen and angels, he noted.
Ross and some of his employees came up with the idea for a spaghetti dinner to help Kelpszas and repay her for her kindness.
“Ginger is a wonderful employee who has really taken care of everybody a lot,” said Ross, whose father died of cancer. “She’s been here so long she’s seen two generations of customers grow up and I just want to do something to give back to her in her time of need.”
Kelpszas said one of her fondest memories of working at Billy McHale’s was joking around with Ross.
“Jim would come around the corner and say Ginger and I’d slide through the ceiling,” Kelpszas laughed. “He would scare me just to laugh at me. For 20 years I’ve tried to get him and I could never scare him.”
She also said the two have “fought, we’ve clawed but we’ve always laughed at each other. What drives him nuts is that I’m always chitchatting and he wants me to get the food out.”
But Kelpszas, who considers Ross one of her dearest friends, said her biggest concern is that she hopes her customers will continue to support the restaurant.
“Sometimes if my customers don’t see my car there, they will leave and I don’t want that,” she said. “That’s my main goal – please keep supporting Jim.”
Kelpszas looks forward to spending as much time as she can with her three children and four grandchildren.
Although her cancer has spread to her brain and kidney, she said doctors discovered a mutation gene that may help to prolong her life some.
“So [doctors] are not worried about me yet. It gives me a lot of hope,” Kelpszas added.
She is also hopeful that her days serving customers are not over.
“I pray that there’s a heaven,” she said. “And I want to be a waitress when I get there.”
A benefit dinner for Ginger Kelpszas will be held from 6-9 p.m. Monday, Jan. 6 at Billy McHale’s, 1800 S. 320th St., Federal Way.
Dinner costs $12 per person and includes garlic bread and choice of spaghetti and marinara or spaghetti and meatballs. The event will include a raffle with various prizes, including gift certificates to Billy McHale’s and other local businesses, framed photography and a personalized cake, to name a few.
For information, contact Billy McHale’s at (253) 839-4200.