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Mary Ellen Bena: The woman who brings Paly events to life

An afternoon filled with delicious tea, magnificent acting and enthusiastic kids. A sprawling display of donuts, fruits, cereals and other breakfast foods. An exquisite arrangement of magnolia leaves, blossomed flowers and other accents.

While many Paly students see the glorious aspects of events such as Paly’s “Beauty and the Beast” play, luncheons for staff and the grand opening of the Peery Center, what they don’t see are the individuals who plan for these occasions behind the scenes. One of the individuals who has a large impact on this planning process is Mary Ellen Bena, the Events and Activities Specialist at Paly.

As Events and Activities Specialist, Bena’s job has many different aspects, including, but not limited to, helping with the organization of events and preparation of food. Bena said her current role as Events and Activities Specialist stemmed from her love of cooking, which comes from her upbringing.

“I’m of Mexican descent, and when I was little, we used to have a lot of immediate and family activities that were centered around food. And up to this day, I would just really believe that the way to a person’s heart is through their tummy. So, here I am.”

Mary Ellen Bena

Growing up in Hollister, Calif., Bena joined the local 4-H Club in middle school, which is an organization that provides opportunities for hands-on projects to young people.

“It provides a lot of opportunities and personal growth and social growth, and it was a neat club,” Bena said. “There [were] two different components of it that I was involved with and [they were] cooking and sewing. So, I did a cooking demonstration, and I just thought this was neat.”

Bena’s cooking demonstration on biscuits as part of her 4-H experience got her to the state level, where she competed with other Californians her age. Bena ultimately placed first in her category and received a first place ribbon.

According to Bena, even before she started working at Paly, she was an active member of the community, helping with many food-related activities as well as other Parent Teacher Student Association (PTSA) work.

During this time, many staff members, such as Paly Principal’s Secretary Carolyn Benfield, took notice of Bena’s cheerful personality and eagerness to help.

“I’ve known Mary Ellen since she arrived as a parent when her daughter Angelina was a freshman,” Benfield said. “I was doing the back to school mailing out in the hallway and this cheerful, fun lady came in and lit up the room.Within 10 minutes, she was helping with the mailing.”

During her first job at Paly as secretary for the Special Education department, Bena would often bring in small treats to share. As people started to take notice of Bena’s passion for cooking, she began to receive more requests to help with events, usually ones that involved food.

Principal Kim Diorio also took notice of Bena’s passion for cooking and frequent involvement with activity planning.

About a year ago, Diorio reached out to Bena about filling a new position, Events and Activities Specialist, which Bena immediately accepted.

The creation of the new position also eased Benfield’s workload and allowed her to focus on her other duties as secretary. Before the Events and Activities Specialist position was created, the organization of all staff meetings, staff development days, leadership team meetings and social events were done by Benfield.

“Mary Ellen was always there to help, but it was a huge [amount of work] — you can imagine, even just providing bagels and cream cheese for 200 people at seven in the morning. So [it was great] to be able to focus my time on doing more of the support that my job is intended to be.”

Carolyn Benfield

Bena treasures the opportunity for creativity that her job provides, and strives to make every event special and connect with the attendees.

One instance where Bena demonstrated her creativity was a staff back-to-school breakfast, where she accented the table with small notes that corresponded with the food they were placed next to.

For example, the oranges were accompanied by a sign that read the words, “Orange you glad to be back at school?” and the donuts were paired with, “Keep calm and donut stress.”

Bena also applied her creativity to her work through transforming the staff bathrooms last summer to give each department’s bathroom a theme specific to the type of environment she thought would be fitting.

For example, the English department’s restroom was redecorated with an Audrey Hepburn theme, complete with Hepburn quotes and refurbished furniture.

“That’s important to me — making an ambience for you, making you feel good,” Bena said.

Bena makes creating a fitting atmosphere a priority in all the work she does.

Sometimes she sets the tone through decorations and interior design, such as the renovations in the bathroom. Another method of creating a mood is food. According to Benfield, food can play a role in transforming the atmosphere of special occasions in addition to more common events, such as staff meetings.

“Mary Ellen, Ms. Diorio and I [all] feel that having food and breaking bread together brings people together in a way that just having a meeting doesn’t,” Benfield said. “So even if it’s just putting some Safeway cookies out on a tray, we always want to have something just to warm the atmosphere and bring people together.”

Though Bena doesn’t always make the food herself, food is a central part of many events.

“Many times when I do events, some of it I will prepare the food, and some of it I won’t,” Bena said. “I will actually get caterers, or I’ll go and select a bakery that I want particular goods from that store or that bakery.”

Bena’s passion for cooking extends outside of her job as well. Although she has been cooking for many years, she is still constantly trying to expand her culinary knowledge.

She enjoys reading cooking magazines and saving recipes from them, taking cooking classes when she travels with her daughters and watching the Food Network.

Though Bena has her usual sources of knowledge, she said she gains additional cooking tips in unexpected moments as well. One instance was when Bena’s housekeeper noticed her cooking her mother’s traditional chili verde recipe, and suggested using pork skin instead.

Bena tested it and loved it, and now incorporates pork skin in many of her dishes.

“I do gain a lot from other people, tips, and that’s why it’s so much fun taking classes and extending your knowledge,” Bena said.

Overall, Bena’s work behind the scenes, incorporating organizational, culinary and design skills, has resulted in many outstanding events. Every occasion Bena works towards has the same goal: to make people feel recognized.

“It’s so much fun — I’m really enjoying it,” Bena said. “I’m honored that I was asked to take this role and be the Event and Activities Specialist. … My role is to make you feel special and to make them feel special. Gratification. It’s important that everyone be recognized.”

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