An hour southwest of Des Moines, Iowa, sits the tiny town of Fontanelle. A little more than 600 people call it home.
“We cannot keep a grocery store open no matter what,” Denise Huddleson, who’s lived here all her life, says.
While it can be tough to fill a pantry without leaving city limits, the area does boast two beauty shops and a long-term care center, Good Samaritan Society – Fontanelle.
“I feel Good Sam is very important to the community just because you have so many residents that have grown up here,” says Kelsey Pieken, Good SamaritanSociety director of social services and health information manager. “Everyone knows everyone, so they want to stay close. Keep their family close.”
Very few know more about this community than Denise, a Society CNA of nearly 33 years. In 1989, she and her best friend left jobs at the local gas station to begin careers at the nursing home. Denise has been here ever since.
“I truly love my residents and really enjoy my job,” says Denise, who resides two blocks from the center. “They’re just like my family. My second family.”
Loyalty to residents 'unwavering'
New to the location, Society administrator B.J. Baskerville appreciates that Denise’s connections run deep.
“She would go down the hallway and she’d tell me this gentleman used to sell insurance in town on this block. This lady used to be the bus driver for the school district,” B.J. says.
“She has put in so much time, effort, love, care and compassion to this community, this building and these residents. Her loyalty to these residents, to the fellow staff members here is unwavering.”
Giving residents baths, feeding some at mealtime and running errands are just a few ways Denise is coming through for those she’s serving.
“She’s my right hand. If I need something, she gets it for me. If I need help, she’s right there,” resident Mary Lou Williams says.
Mary Lou is never far away from her sewing machine. When she needs supplies, she’ll see if Denise can stitch it into her day.
“She’s like one of my kids. I think she’d do anything for me because I’d do anything for her. She works awfully hard. Her job is very important to her,” Mary Lou says.
National Ever Forward Caregiver Champion
That dedication is bringing Denise recognition as the Society’s National Ever Forward Caregiver Champion.
“She goes above and beyond without any questions asked. She just does it. You can always count on her. She’s going to show up,” Kelsey says.
B.J. adds, “It’s a very taxing position. Not only from a physical standpoint, but then you add on the last few years with COVID-19 and just how much that can wear on you mentally as well. She’s always here.”
Being honored this way is a complete shock to Denise.
“I just never dreamed of getting something like this, ever,” Denise shares through tears.
“I do put a lot of hard work into my work and residents. I’d do anything for any of them.”
'Almost like a drill sergeant'
Describing her as old school, B.J. remembers his first impression of Denise with a smile.
During his first day on campus roughly a year ago, he noticed a resident outside his office near the front of the building.
“This is great,” B.J thought to himself. “I’ll take a resident outside. I’ll introduce myself. We’ll get to know one another.”
While B.J. and his new friend were busy finding a shady spot to chat, the rest of the team went on alert searching for a missing resident. The administrator forgot to notify others the two were heading out. When the 15-minute outdoor session wrapped up and they came back inside, the building was in elopement status.
“The first CNA I see is Denise. I could just tell in her eyes, ‘Like great, we have to work with this guy now?’ She very politely said, ‘Were you going to let anybody know?” B.J. says with a laugh.
Denise remembers, “I got after him.”
With more than three decades’ experience, the CNA is a leader who’s not afraid to hold anyone accountable when it comes to resident safety.
“Almost like a drill sergeant to a certain extent but you need that,” B.J. says. “Especially when you have so many residents to take care of and going through a tough time like a pandemic. You need leadership at all levels throughout the building.”
Leading with heart
From operating like a drill sergeant to leading with her heart, Kelsey thinks the center and its residents are blessed to have Denise around.
“She’ll take them out to eat,” Kelsey says. “Takes them up to the park.”
“Gets them nice smelling lotions and will make sure she puts jewelry on them or does their makeup if they want it done just to kind of help make them feel special.”
Denise explains her efforts by asking, “Put yourself in the residents’ shoes. How would you want to be taken care of?”
You can guess many would reply being cared for by someone who truly enjoys their career in health care, even after 30-plus years.
“Wouldn’t want it any other way,” Denise says.