Swift’s Attic Hosts Family-Style Benefit Dinner
Uchiko server needs help with medical bills after tragic accident
By Gracie Salem, 12:34PM, Wed. Jan. 15
On July 23 of last year, Uchiko server Leah Ortiz and her boyfriend Shane Rogers left Hopdoddy on Anderson Lane, jumped on his motorcycle, and headed north on Mopac to meet friends at Austin Park and Pizza. It was going to be a silly, innocent night of video games and hanging out with friends.
When an SUV merged into their lane, not seeing them, Shane, a skilled and lifelong motorcycle driver, had no choice but to veer away from the oncoming car. It threw them up and over curbs, skidding into the middle of the road. Leah remembers everything. Shane remembers nothing.
Most people don’t realize that those who work in the service industry rarely have health insurance. Restaurants have not been required to offer it to employees, and few do. Most servers go without coverage and simply hope for the best. That was the case with both Leah and Shane, a manager in the detail shop at the Finish Line Car Wash on Bee Caves. He fractured six vertebrae and broke his neck. Leah was cared for by a skin wounds specialty team at Brackenridge Hospital, underwent reconstructive surgery on her hand, and endured hours and hours of therapy.
Their medical bills now total more than $140,000. And while both still had jobs to return to the financial burden they face is nearly impossible to grasp. “I don’t like to think about it,” Leah says. “I just needed to start working again just to pay my regular bills, much less worry about [the medical bills].”
In steps her longtime friend and fellow Uchiko server Sharon Bright. Those who know her well call her Sharona. The two have been fast friends since meeting on the job at Castle Hill. They moved together to the Steeping Room in the Domain and then eventually got jobs together at Uchiko.
Immediately following the accident, Sharona organized a food train to bring meals to their couple's apartment, as neither were able even to drive to get groceries. She also set up a GoFundMe account for Leah so that any donations could be easily accessed. Donations came quickly enough to cover those first weeks of being at home healing and unable to work. In August, the Uchi/Uchiko group directed the funds to Leah from a private dinner auction through the Texas Wine and Food Foundation and Tour de Vin and one of the restaurant’s investors simply wrote a sizable check. It allowed the young couple to recuperate and not lose everything. “They were so overwhelmed,” says Sharona.
“People ask me how I can come to work and put a smile on my face,” Leah says of her day-to day-struggles now. “But there is no other way to do it.”
While both Leah and Shane are back to work, there is still the matter of the enormous medical debt. So what began as an idea for a small benefit dinner in the private room at Uchiko has grown into a full-fledged event at Swift’s Attic this Sunday night. Sharona approached Philip and Callie Speer with the idea as well as upper management at Uchi and Uchiko, and the overall response, according to Sharona, was “'Absolutely, but we can make it bigger.'”
It should be quite a dinner indeed. Modeled on the family meals served before shift at restaurants, the evening will feature some of Austin’s most talented chefs, including Kyle McKinney of Barley Swine, Erica Waksmunski from Congress, Jason Stude of Second Bar + Kitchen, Mat Clouser and Callie Speer of Swift’s Attic, Jeramie Robison from Uchi, and Page Pressley and Andrew Lewis from Uchiko. Countless Uchiko employees have pitched in, from getting wine donations to working as servers at the event. It is truly an example of our restaurant community at its very best.
“This whole experience has left me speechless. I never knew I had touched these people’s lives, too,” says Leah.“
Even those who don’t know Leah and Shane – a bright, hard-working couple who knew each other at Covington Middle School and still seem too young to have gone through what they have – will surely find this evening unforgettable. Has there ever been a better reason to treat yourself to dinner?
Tickets are available through Austin Food for Life’s website at austinfoodforlife.org/events and are $100. All proceeds directly benefit Leah Ortiz. It is this Sunday, Jan. 19 at 7pm at Swift’s Attic (315 Congress).