“If you’re blessed with someone to take care of you, it’s an honor to take that blessing and give it to someone else.”
It was a cold night in Aurora, Illinois, and 11-year-old Simone Pena stood outside her family’s apartment building, bereft and waiting.
The friction between Simone’s 13-year-old brother, her mother and her mother’s boyfriend had reached a breaking point that evening. What began as an accidental fire started by an untended candle ended with the apartment building being evacuated, the police called, and Simone, her brother and 7-year-old sister getting kicked out of the house.
“I think the most disappointing thing was I had always been there for my mom and did whatever she said,” Simone remembers, wiping away tears. “So for her to say she was going to send us away was hurtful.”
Her father in prison, her mother’s back turned, Simone felt the weight of responsibility for her siblings fall onto her own young shoulders. “The only thing I could think of was keeping my sister safe,” she recalls, “and letting them know that everything was gonna be OK.”
It’s gonna be OK. For Simone, the phrase is no mere platitude. It is a guiding principle, straight from the headwaters of the calm and abiding love that flows from Simone into those around her. In her 12 years with Bickford, Simone has returned time and again to the mantra that guided her through the darkest parts of her childhood, using it to provide hope and reassurance to scores of residents, families and fellow team members: It’s gonna be OK.
Simone’s steady faith in her ability to overcome difficult circumstances—and her ability to transfer that quiet confidence to the people around her—has propelled her from an entry-level position as a certified nursing assistant at Bickford of Oswego, Illinois, through four promotions to her current role as divisional director of operations for Virginia. “‘It’s gonna be OK’ really is something that I always say,” Simone says. “Because I’ve been through a lot, and it always is OK.”
Indeed, on that night in Aurora more than 20 years ago, young Simone did the only thing she could think to do: She told the police to call her 21-year-old brother, Michael, to come pick up her and her siblings. He did—and ultimately he and his wife, Michelle, assumed parental rights for Simone and her brother and sister. “I remember crying to Michelle that day, I remember bawling, and I remember her saying, ‘It’s going to be OK,’” Simone recalls. “And it was.”
The couple found a way to provide for Simone and her siblings, in addition to their four other young children. And, painful as the experience was, Simone found a way to turn the loneliness and uncertainty she felt that night into an inspiration to care for others. “It definitely stems from that,” she says. “When working with families, my team or my residents, I never want them to have that feeling of not having anyone to depend on or to go to.”
Simone is the kind of caregiver who will sit up all night with a resident to help them feel comfortable and secure, even after she’s worked all day. She’s the kind who will step in to assist her team with a resident’s personal care, even as director of the branch. She’s the kind who figures out what each person around her needs—whether it be a resident, their family member, her employee or even her own mentor—and then gives it freely.
“I feel like as a caregiver in our industry, and just in general, that if you’re blessed with someone to take care of you, it’s an honor to take that blessing and give it to someone else,” Simone says. “I try to do that every day with my team and our residents and our families.”
Simone’s own family has continued to support her through every step of her career. As a young mother, Simone relied on her extended family to help care for her children while she worked long hours as a CNA. Her daughter Ileana, 14, and son Mason, 9, have since become part of the Bickford family: They play checkers and rock-paper-scissors with residents, and Ileana aspires to work for Bickford once she’s old enough. And when the Bickford activity bus—affectionately nicknamed Howie—broke down on one of the busiest roads in Oswego, Simone wasted no time calling Michael and Michelle to come give it a jump. “I could call them at 2 in the morning and they would be wherever I needed them,” Simone says.
In spite of her difficult upbringing—or perhaps in many ways because of it—Simone maintains a sense of optimism that is hard not to share.
“You don’t have to relive the same day twice, so it’s going to be better tomorrow,” Simone says. “Even if it’s not OK, it’s OK.”