Allendale’s ‘CNA of the Year’

It’s a May afternoon at the Allendale Community for Mature Living in Bergen County, New Jersey. Residents are gathered in the courtyard, waiting patiently for a lively activity to begin: the facility’s fashion show. Entertained by the event’s cheerfulness, this audience isn’t prepared for who is about to make her surprise entrance—or grand entrance, in their eyes.

It’s not just her approach to the job that distinguishes Thomas. She uses an inherent gift in her voice to soothe and comfort residents daily.

Ophelia Thomas, certified nursing assistant (CNA) to her employers, local celebrity to her residents, just emerged, and the audience erupts. “When she walked out, you would have thought she was in a stadium,” says Emily Brown, activities director of Carlton Court at the Allendale Community, who witnesses firsthand Thomas’ captivating presence with the residents. “The applause! You should have heard the applause.”

The warm welcome is absorbed humbly by the modest caregiver. Thomas, who is 60 years old, isn’t one to revel in compliments. This trait is even truer as Thomas discusses her recent accomplishment: The 2008 C.N.A. of the Year award, given to her this past April. The acknowledgment, presented by the New Jersey Activity Professionals Association, is awarded to a professional who goes above and beyond the call of duty, promoting a positive image of their profession to others by providing outstanding service to residents. It was created in 1986 to distinguish CNAs who help out in activities, extending themselves to residents—and their communities—in ways not required by the job description.

Although she is proud of the award, Thomas says she hasn’t let it influence the quality of care she puts forth. “I feel excitement,” Thomas says. “Julie (Cochrane, activities director of the Allendale Community) nominated me without my knowledge, which is probably for the best since I am not one who seeks public recognition. I do what I do because I look forward to helping the elderly and assuring their families that their loved ones are being cared for with compassion and love just as I would treat my own family.”

Ophelia Thomas (center), a CNA at the Allendale Community for Mature Living, was awarded 2008 C.N.A. of the Year. With her are Allendale Community activities directors Emily Brown (left) and Julie Cochrane (right).

No longer a thankless career

Both Brown and Cochrane say Thomas deserves the award because of her stellar work ethic. She’s reliable. She manages a carpool. She’ll show up in snowstorms. She’ll sleep over if needed all night. She’s always willing to take someone else’s shifts. She attends every event; all of this while caring for a family of her own in Jersey City—a 30-mile commute to Allendale.

So what inspires Thomas to put forth such a passionate, if not exhaustive, effort? “I have learned through personal experience that compassion, dignity, and love are the foundation for helping the elderly to live a life that is as independent as possible,” Thomas says. “Every person, regardless of age, deserves to be treated this way, and I feel that some (residents) are very powerful and they have a certain special quality that also evokes a smile.”

Before her hiring at the Allendale Community, Thomas worked at a bakery in New Jersey. A CNA since 1995, Thomas was motivated to become a caregiver when looking after her mother and grandmother proved to be rewarding experiences. It was during this time that Thomas developed her powerful philosophy on caregiving. However, it’s not just her approach to the job that distinguishes Thomas. She uses an inherent gift―her voice―to soothe and comfort residents daily.

“Ophelia has a special talent in singing and that’s one of the reasons why she was nominated for this award,” Cochrane explains. “She goes above and beyond the call of duty in her singing to the residents while she is helping them with their day-to-day (activities). She also helps by singing during special activities and performances. She has a beautiful voice.”

A voice for caregiving

Thomas has been singing since she was six years old. Growing up in the Philippines, Thomas’ grandfather entered her in a local amateur singing contest, which she won. It’s been her inclusion of this talent into her work that makes Thomas “shine like a star,” Brown says. “It’s very hard to get someone in the CNA department to help with activities because they are so busy doing their job. It’s hard to pull them away from that. You will pass the room and you will see (Thomas) or hear her singing to the residents. By doing the work while singing, they think you are happy, and they are happy because of your attitude.”

“I have learned through personal experience that compassion, dignity, and love are the foundation for helping the elderly to live a life that is as independent as possible.”

-Ophelia Thomas

Brown says when residents are in the hallways waiting for assistance, they will try to get Thomas’ attention if she passes. “Her personality is awe-inspiring,” Brown continues. “They are trying to stop her, just to talk to her, just to say something to her.”

Cochrane adds that the residents are sad when Thomas has a day off from work. But Thomas isn’t the most loved worker there—all of the caregivers are valued employees, Cochrane says. They’ve built a rapport with residents, and the Allendale Community functions like a large family. It is Cochrane’s hope that the C.N.A. of the Year award will resonant throughout the facility. “I think (the other CNAs) are happy and some of them are envious and wish it was them,” Cochrane says. “Maybe some of them will work as hard as Ophelia. Some of them didn’t even know the award existed until Ophelia was nominated and won. It’s a goal they want to work toward.”

But to Thomas, working solely for recognition wouldn’t be right. Put her on stage, give her applause, award her due appreciation. To Thomas, the perks don’t come with the job—they are the job.

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