“It was new to St. John’s and new to us,” says Ashok Kumar, a full-time shahbaz at St. John’s Penfield Green House Homes,” of his earliest impressions of the model when it was first being introduced to St. John’s. Beginning his career with St. John’s in 2008, Ashok had already been working at St. John’s Home on the Reservoir 6 neighborhood as a certified nursing assistant (CNA) for almost two years when he volunteered to work per diem for what at the time, was an unfamiliar, new assignment, to be a shahbaz in the new homes being built in Penfield. This past February, the Penfield homes had their 10-year anniversary and Ashok prides himself for being there from the beginning.
Ashok still recalls fondly his training from that beginning period of time when he was preparing to be a shahbaz. “I learned a lot,” says Ashok, who shared a funny story to demonstrate how impactful this training was on both his work and home life. According to Ashok, in his culture, the women within a family unit did all the cooking. However, as a shahbaz, Ashok was expected to prepare meals for the elders in the home; therefore, culinary lessons were a part of his training. Ashok admits “I did not know anything about cooking.” That quickly changed and soon Ashok would be overtly demonstrating his cooking “prowess,” by correcting his wife Joginder’s food preparation practices at home. She said to me, ‘what do you know about the food?’ when I expressed concern about the way she was handling some greens on the stove,” chuckles Ashok (who, by the way, has been happily married to Joginder for 22 years this year). Though once teased by his colleagues regarding his inability to “flip a pancake,” “I can do pretty good now,” says Ashok. (And, if you are wondering, Ashok does have a signature dish–it’s “Mac and Cheese.”)
Learning how to work as a team was another part of the training that still rings true for Ashok even now, 10 years later. According to Ashok, they learned how to not only work together in everyday tasks, but also how to have critical conversations and collaborate to solve problems. Different from the requirements of his position at 150 Highland, Ashok says that they were told that every shahbaz had to be able to do every job within the house and that “we all were going to have a role here.”
As is frequently a way that future staff members first learn about opportunities at St. John’s, Ashok had an aunt who worked at St. John’s for over 20 years that convinced him to apply back in 2008. Ashok had been working in a similar role as a CNA at another facility. According to Ashok, who had a family to take care of, the benefits and compensation were a major factor in his decision. However, Ashok is quick to point out that they are not the reason he has stayed all these years.
“For me, spending a little extra time with them (the residents) asking how they are doing and sharing how I am doing,” says Ashok, is a part of the job he values. “I like most the interaction with my elders.” From sharing news about his children, Sahaj, who is 15, and Priyasha, 13, and what sports they are playing, to how his shift was at his other part-time job, Ashok cites his relationship with the residents as a strong motivator on the challenging days. “It makes a big difference. I know them well and they know me as a person,” says Ashok.
From the breakfast they like to eat to what clothes they prefer to wear, Ashok believes that it is important to know everything he can about the elders. And true to his beliefs, Ashok still remembers the preferred way a former favorite elder Mike, who has since passed, liked to begin his day no matter when he rose–with scrambled eggs, wheat toast, and orange juice. “I always say, ‘I am not here to have them live the life I choose. I want to help them to live their life the way they choose,'” says Ashok.
And, even though Ashok admits that he has witnessed the recent industry-wide staffing shortages also impact his work at the Penfield Homes, he believe things are much better here than other places. “We still try to do our best,” says Ashok.
Fellow colleagues have even marveled at the number of years Ashok has committed to his work at St. John’s, asking him, ‘why do you stay, Ashok?’ For Ashok, the reason may be best summarized in these personal, heartfelt sentiments: “I still do not have any day that I say to myself, ‘I do not want to come back.'”