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By Terry Dean
Yesica Sanchez is as much a cheerleader as an intern on this particular afternoon at the Oak Park Arms, helping to run its Friday game of miniature golf at the senior residential community.
The lounge area has been turned into a putting course. Sanchez, a 23-year-old social work student at Dominican University, retrieves golf balls and gives them back to the players. About 10 seniors, all residents of the Oak Park retirement complex, are playing.
"Good job!" says Sanchez to Maxine, who nailed a roughly 10-foot put despite not being able to see very well. The intern applauds her and all of the seniors.
The game lasts a little over an hour. It's one of many activities Sanchez helps run with staff. After a long day, it's quitting time for the intern and she heads home. But not back to a dorm at Dominican in River Forest or to a bachelorette pad in Oak Park. Sanchez heads for the elevator and up to the fifth floor, Room 515, where she's living during her nine-month internship. The cozy one-bedroom apartment is where she'll stay until she graduates next summer.
"I like it here more than I thought," says the California native, who came to Oak Park in August to study in the Graduate School of Social Work at Dominican. She moved into the Arms at that time. Sanchez would like to work at a retirement home. While at The Arms, she'll be learning management, marketing and budgeting, among other administrative duties. But this is the first time an intern has actually lived at the facility as well.
"In a way, I was overly ambitious when speaking with the graduate school," said Moses Williams, executive director at The Arms, about creating this new internship opportunity. "In previous internships, I have worked with some social workers, and I didn't have the confidence that the person who left here could go and run a community."
In designing Sanchez's program, Williams decided to create one that would entail learning various aspects of administration over a much longer timeframe. Having the intern living at Oak Park Arms, 408 S. Oak Park Ave., seemed to make sense, Williams explained.
"It's all encompassing, and that was the goal," he said, sitting in his office with Sanchez while going over her work schedule for the next few months. After this meeting, it was on to the golf game for Sanchez.
The game can get pretty competitive, says Jill Wagner, marketing director for The Arms. While Sanchez tracks down golf balls, Judy Peterson, The Arms' life enrichment coordinator, keeps score. Sanchez works four days a week at the facility. Her internship is not paid but she is on a scholarship. She pays rent at The Arms but not the full senior price.
Her family — including mom, dad and five other siblings — is in California. She grew up in Lake County, just north of San Francisco in the Bay Area. She's become friends with many of the seniors at the Arms and works out with some. They've taken to her like she's part of their family. Some are like grandparents.
"It's like having a surrogate daughter," says Wagner. "She's around all the time. She'll see them at breakfast or she'll go meet with residents. It's great to have someone who's so young and vibrant. It just brings a different element here."
And like concerned parents, residents like to know where Sanchez is going and with whom.
"She had a friend come by who she was going out with, and they all were like, 'And where are you going and when will you be back?'" Wagner said.
Just a few apartments down from Sanchez is John Heflin, a four-year resident at The Arms. Shortly after Sanchez arrived, Heflin invited her to a family member's birthday party. She tries to get Heflin to walk with her to the store and exercise more, but Heflin says, "I get enough exercise walking around here."
She tried to get him to join the golf game but he decided to sit this one out. He teases Sanchez, and she obliges with a smile and a laugh.
"You don't know anything about cold weather," he says. "We'll see if you're ready when you come through that door crying. I'll say, 'I told you.'"
"I give you a hard time, don't I?" Sanchez replies.
All joking aside, Heflin expressed appreciation for having Sanchez around.
"It's nice that she chose this place," he says. "I think it's nice that she came here on her own, don't know nobody. It shows that she wants to be something."
Sanchez has known she wanted to go into community service work since childhood. She came to the United States from Guatemala with her family when she was 6 years old. She remembers her elementary school teacher being a strong influence on her.
"The transition was somewhat difficult because of the language, the culture, new friends. I had mom and dad here and immediate family, but that was about it. In the third grade, I had this teacher who was such a great advocate. She really took the time to tutor me during breaks and made me appreciate my culture and not shun away from it.
"And she was a big fan of Cesar Chavez," Sanchez said, recalling the migrant farmworkers' rights activist. "I attended a march. I remember boycotting [products and businesses] while in the third. That's how it started, and after that, community service just became something I enjoyed."
When she got to college, Sanchez wanted a major that "fit" her, she said. After attending college for a year in Boston, she returned to California for her sophomore year at Whittier College, a liberal arts school. Looking for a graduate school to continue her studies in social work, Sanchez chose Dominican University, one of the few schools she applied that offered a one-year, advance-standing program in social work. She'll get her master's degree next May.
Sanchez says she's mainly focusing on her studies but occasionally hangs out with friends. And her friends at The Arms are always looking out for her.
"Don't bother our little girl," Heflin says.