When Debbie Jenkins' boss off-handedly remarked one day, "That's why I nominated you," Jenkins thought nothing of it. She was a bit confused, but brushed it off as a joke she probably just wasn't getting.
But two weeks ago, Jenkins, a licensed medical assistant, received a phone call from Washington, D.C., saying she had been chosen to represent the state of Alaska at a national conference honoring the best direct service providers from across the country.
Jenkins manages the Soldotna's Best Assisted Living and Sterling Care Group Home facilities, both of which are operated by ReadyCare, a company that provides caregiving services to the elderly, the developmentally disabled, and those with other special needs. Though she has only been with ReadyCare since June, Jenkins has been a caregiver -- both personally and professionally -- for most of her life.
Right after high school, Jenkins looked after her grandmother as she progressed through the inevitable stages of Alzheimer's. Many years later, she put her education on hold to return home and take care of her father, who was left paralyzed from the neck down when he fell from a house he was building.
"I know how it feels to have somebody who is elder, who can't remember, so I want to take that pressure off the family and be their conduit," Jenkins said of her work at the assisted living and group homes. "I want to be there to make sure their parent -- or brother or sister or whomever -- is getting the best care and they don't have to worry about it; they can be the child, not the caregiver."
For Jenkins, her work and her personal life are basically inseparable. On her days off, she still visits her clients. On holidays, she brings them flowers or little gifts.
"I just feel like even if it's my day off, they're part of my life," Jenkins said. "A lot of them don't have a lot to look forward to. Some of them don't have families that come visit on a regular basis, and we're the only family they have. And in turn, I don't have a lot of family here, so they're the only family I have."
In addition to making appointments, picking up medications, and communicating with doctors, Jenkins takes her clients on field trips to the beach, works with schools so they can have continuing education, and brings her Jack Russell terrier to the homes to play with them.
For whatever reason, one man at the assisted living home is very set on having his hair cut every three weeks. So once every three weeks, Jenkins makes sure he gets to the barbershop in Kenai.
A couple of clients at the group home are Alaska Natives who came to Soldotna from smaller villages to access better care, and therefore have a different diet and a different set of cultural experiences than others. So Jenkins took them to watch the Native Winter Games and went out of her way to bring more traditional foods into the home.
"They relate food to experience," she explained. "When you're autistic or you're developmentally challenged, a lot of these things bring back memories. So you want to make sure that they're comfortable in their environment, and by doing that you have to make sure that the things they're used to are here for them."
The list detailing Jenkins' above and beyond efforts goes on and on, and her boss, Analisa Selden, could probably recount every item on that list. Selden, the executive director of ReadyCare's Soldotna branch, is the one who secretly nominated Jenkins for the American Network of Community Options and Resources (ANCOR) award.
As part of the ANCOR nomination application, Selden submitted a letter from one of Jenkins' clients that included the line, "Debbie makes me feel good about myself." Selden said this statement sums up how all of Jenkins' clients feel about her.
"Debbie sacrifices a lot," Selden said, "but you would never know it because she doesn't act that way. She doesn't say, 'Oh, I wish I could be doing this,' or 'I wish I could go and do that.' She's always willing to step in and help."
Jenkins will fly down to Washington, D.C., at the beginning of June to receive her award and attend a three-and-a-half day conference, a learning experience she is certainly looking forward to.
"I just really feel honored because the state of Alaska is a large one," she said of winning the award, "and to be chosen to represent Alaska is probably, in my professional career, the biggest thing that's ever happened to me."
While Jenkins acknowledges that it is sometimes hard, especially with her clients at the assisted living home, to confront such naked mortality, she still derives such joy from ensuring the last chapter in their lives in a positive one.
"I like seeing that what I'm doing is making a difference in people's lives," she said, "and making sure their quality of life is made better.
"I just believe that this was my plan; this is what I was supposed to be doing."
Karen Garcia can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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