View images of Vikings Director of Food Service Operations Geji McKinney-Banks receiving the Lifetime Achievement Award by St. Paul???s High School for Recording Arts.
SAINT PAUL, Minn. –Geji McKinney-Banks' cooking speaks for itself, but her story reaches far beyond the kitchen.
McKinney-Banks, Vikings Director of Food Service Operations, received recognition Saturday for the ways she has impacted a variety of communities – youth, music and the Minnesota Vikings – when she was given a Lifetime Achievement Award by St. Paul's **High School for Recording Arts**.
"I'm honored to be the recipient of an award from this one-of-a-kind school," McKinney-Banks told Vikings.com. "I enjoy giving back and speaking with youth, and it was an honor to be recognized for doing something that I'm passionate about."
McKinney-Banks' family and friends attended the dinner, including her older brother, who was even more excited than she was.
"Lamar has Down syndrome. He just kept hugging me and hugging me," McKinney-Banks said, smiling. "He understood and was so proud of me. He had tears in his eyes. That was the highlight of my evening."
The award ceremony took place during the school's second annual spring gala, with an "Our Bridge to the Future" theme. More than 250 people attended the event that raised money for the High School for Recording Arts and its students, 30 percent of which are currently or have recently been homeless. The school's mission is to provide youth the opportunity to achieve a high school diploma through the exploration and operation of the music business and other creative endeavors.
HSRA Founder and recording artist David "T.C." Ellis identified McKinney-Banks as a deserving recipient of the award after she and Vikings quarterback Teddy Bridgewater came and spoke to students in January. McKinney-Banks' message to the students centered on hope. She encouraged them to value their education, make smart decisions and pursue their dreams whole-heartedly.
"[Geji] embodies all the qualities we would like the young women who attend our high school to possess," said Todd Barnes, HSRA Director of Development. "[She is a] classy, dignified, accomplished, thoughtful professional who thinks enough to reach back and share her success with the entire community.
"We applaud Geji for her gracious, tenacious spirit and all she has shared with our students and entire school," Barnes added. "Geji is a class-act, and we are so proud of her."
McKinney-Banks' desire to support students and make a difference come naturally to her, and she was surprised when she received a letter in the mail asking her to accept the Lifetime Achievement Award.
My first thought was, 'Me?' " McKinney-Banks said. "I'm just working. I'm just doing my job. I never thought any kids were looking up to me or anybody was watching. I'm just doing my job, and I don't feel like I'm doing anything so grand."
In addition to offering encouragement, McKinney-Banks shared her own story with the HSRA students. A Minnesota native, her musical gifts were first noticed by her mother when McKinney-Banks was singing the jingle from a Mountain Dew commercial as a toddler. At just 2 years old, she first executed pitch variation nearly perfectly.
What started out as a hobby and school activity soon became McKinney-Banks' passion. Before she knew it, she went from winning talent shows to singing backup vocals The Truth Band, a group formed by Prince with T.C. Ellis, and participating in studio sessions at Paisley Park.
Despite her passion for music, McKinney-Banks decided in the late '90s that she was ready for a transition.
"I wasn't loving it like I used to," McKinney-Banks said. "So I went to my second love, food service, which I actually love way better [than performing] now."
McKinney-Banks began working for the Vikings in 1994, initially starting on salad bar prep and gradually working her way up to Director of Food Service Operations. During that process, she went back to school as a first-generation college student and earned two degrees: an A.A. in culinary arts and a B.A. in culinary management. McKinney-Banks is the only African-American woman in the NFL to hold her respective position.
"Geji has become a cornerstone of the Minnesota Vikings franchise," said Vikings Chief Operating Officer Kevin Warren. "The role that she plays not only as a chef but also as a friend, advisor, confidant and leader is absolutely amazing. Every person that comes in contact with Geji will talk about her effervescent personality, her loyalty to being a leader, her hard work, her focus on being a professional at all times and most of all, her attention to detail.
"As an organization, we are excited to have one of our Minnesota Vikings family members receive such an honor that has been long overdue," Warren added. "I think it reiterates that every person she touches – or has touched – along her journey is positively impacted by her. We'd just like to salute her on this great award."
McKinney-Banks said her main goal was to share her story so that students who come from all different backgrounds and hardships can relate to her and know that anything is possible if they make good choices in their lives. Following the event, one young student approached McKinney-Banks and told her she hopes to one day be a fashion designer.
"I told her she can do it," McKinney-Banks said. "I want to tell them, 'I'm one of you,' " McKinney-Banks added. "That's what this is all about."