Written by Jenny Smiechowski, staff writer for The Birches
Eighteen years ago, Yvonne Dempsey set out on a journey that she’s still on today. She decided to pursue a career in assisted living by applying for a job as the business office manager for The Birches Assisted Living in Clarendon Hills.
Back when Dempsey joined The Birches in 1999, the community was part of the growing, but still new, assisted living movement taking over the senior living industry. It was an exciting and promising industry to join—but one that Dempsey had little familiarity with.
“I never even dreamed of working in assisted living,” said Dempsey. “I never even thought about this type of business, because it wasn’t popular when I was growing up. At the time we opened, assisted living was becoming more popular. And now they’re building them all over.”
Dempsey had spent most of her career in office management, and when she joined The Birches, the community hadn’t even opened its doors yet. She and The Birches’ Founder and CEO Jim Curto worked out of nearby offices, waiting for construction to finish so The Birches’ first occupant—a man named Charlie Roberts—could move in.
Over the years, Dempsey has transitioned from a full-time employee to a semi-retired employee who works two days per week. But the fact is, 18 years later, she’s still there. She has dedicated the last few decades of her career to an industry she, at one point, didn’t even know existed.
Like Dempsey, a lot of people start working in assisted living due to chance, coincidence, happenstance, fate, or whatever you what to call it, rather than intention. Yet still, many of them (especially at The Birches) make a lifelong career out of it.
Birches Chef Vasso Karounos, for example, has worked at The Birches for the past 17 years.
After going through a divorce, Karounos was searching for a job that could help support her family. She got a job as a server at the Franciscan Village, a senior living community in Lemont, but quickly started taking on additional duties in the kitchen and ultimately became a cook.
Not long after, Karounos heard about an opening in the kitchen at The Birches, and decided to apply. She worked both jobs for a while, full-time at the Franciscan Village and part-time at The Birches. But eventually, she accepted a full-time role at The Birches and became a leader in the Birches’ Dining Services Department. Karounos can even take credit for recruiting the head of the department, her current boss, Diana Subacuite.
As a teenager who had recently moved to the States from Lithuania, Subacuite needed a job, and fortuitously found herself working alongside Karounos at the Franciscan Village. Eventually, when Karounos made the move to The Birches, she told Subacuite there was a job for her there too.
Subacuite started as a part-time server and eventually worked her way up to the highest position in her department—Director of Dining Services.
“I kind of feel like I grew up here because I finished school, got married, had my family all while I was here” said Subacuite. “It’s been a great journey.”
Although Subacuite says she started working in the senior living industry out of necessity, she now sees the many benefits her career path has offered her.
“It’s stable. It’s meaningful. I can be creative. And I get to help the assisted living industry and healthcare industry change their thinking on cuisine—help them move away from the meat and potatoes-type of cuisine and do something more progressive,” said Subacuite.
Although most assisted living employees seem to fall into the field, there are those rare few who knew they wanted to work in assisted living all along—like Treka Horton, a certified nursing assistant (CNA) in The Birches memory care neighborhood Encore.
Horton started working at The Birches in 2005, but knew she wanted to work in the senior living industry long before that.
“I always wanted to be a nurse, and I always loved to work with older adults,” said Horton. “I have a passion, a real love for older people.”
As a CNA in Encore, Horton takes care of Encore residents’ daily needs, like grooming and bathing, and also leads them in activities and takes them on outings.
“I love the residents. I love my coworkers. We’re like a big family here,” said Horton. “If you have the passion to care for others, you’re going to be okay in assisted living.”
According Horton’s boss, Director of Nursing Tina Stasukewicz, Horton definitely has that passion, which explains why she was drawn to the senior living industry from the start.
Of course, regardless of whether Birches associates came to their career in assisted living by chance like Dempsey, Karounos and Subacuite, or intention like Horton, one feeling holds true for all of them—they feel very lucky to have found a career, not just in assisted living, but at The Birches specifically.
“The Birches places full trust in us, so it’s not just a routine. We get to make it exciting by creating new dishes. And that’s what drives me,” said Subacuite. “I think having a close team of people is important for me as well. Working with people for a long time. Building these relationships.”
Dempsey only has good things to say about her role at The Birches too, and especially about her boss of 18 years Birches CEO Jim Curto.
“It’s a great place to work. In all the years I’ve worked—and that’s a long time—Jim’s the best boss I’ve ever had,” said Dempsey.
On October 4, Dempsey and Curto, as well as the rest of The Birches team, celebrate The Birches 18th birthday. Roughly 18 years ago, Dempsey and Curto opened The Birches doors for the first time, in the company of their one resident—Charlie Roberts. Today, almost two decades later, it’s a comfortable home and an enriching, stable workplace for so, so many.