Sunday, June 27, 2010

Inspiration for hands-on community building

A few weeks ago I spoke to Bob Milanovich at John Knox Village (Pampano Beach, FL) about changing careers and working in the senior living/CCRC industry.

I've known Bob for 16 years.  Our friendship developed during family visits to my great-grandmother who lived at John Knox Village (JKV).  My great-grandmother died about 9 years ago but my paternal grandmother still lives there.

I met Bob while I was a teenager, the oldest of 9 kids, when we drove from Kitchener, Ontario, Canada to visit my great-grandmother and grandparents over Christmas.  Somehow we ended up singing on stage at the John Knox Village holiday program.  My youngest sister was a toddler at the time.  At one point I knelt beside her holding the microphone while she sang "Jesus Loves Me".  As Bob tells it, he fell in love with my entire family at that moment.

After the show we spent a very memorable evening with Bob driving around the village crowded into a golf cart.  (We obviously didn't all fit, so we took turns walking.)  Bob took us caroling to the 'villas' where residents lived independently.  We caroled through the assisted living building and sang to the little groups sitting in the common areas of the nursing center.  We completed the evening by going room to room, crowding around individual beds in the nursing center, singing to people who were unable to get up.  My parents had taken me on a number of visits to nursing homes while I was a boy so the delighted smiles, the soft hands, and the thin arms were very familiar as we sang and hugged our way through John Knox.

After that, our caroling became something of an annual tradition.

What I noticed about Bob that first night became more apparent as I got to know him during our visits. (We sometimes lived for a week on the JKV campus as Bob's guests.)  He was Director of Marketing and I understood that his job was to sell JKV to new residents, yet he did so much more.  His presence lit people up.  Bob deeply cared for his residents' well-being and by extension, for the whole community.  Though he may technically have been 'only' an employee, as Bob walked around JKV he behaved as though he was the host or proprietor.  He always seemed to be walking around the community or whirring along in an open golf cart, stopping to shake hands, answer questions, give hugs, or to thank and encourage staff.  He made it his business to ensure that everyone felt appreciated from the lowliest staff in housekeeping or dining service, to residents and visitors.  I watched as Bob drew people in and made them part of the enterprise.  He was both humble and in-charge.  He exercised a kind of leadership that was subtle yet very effective - making residents feel at-home, cared for, and part of a meaningful community.

As I began considering a career in senior living and community entrepreneurship, I realized how deeply Bob Milanovich's example had touched me.  I am very grateful for his encouragement and his kindness to my family.

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