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Infection preventionist Liz Toci: Protecting and learning from Homeland residents

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homeland center Liz TociLiz Toci felt at home when she came to Homeland Center for a job interview.

“When I walked in the door, I thought it was a beautiful place,” says Homeland’s new infection preventionist. She brings to Homeland a lifetime of caring for others, a deep interest in nursing for the elderly, and a passion for keeping people and places healthy.

Liz had always enjoyed caring for people, even when she was young and helping raise her younger brothers. She had some shadowing opportunities in nursing and realized that nurses “see people when they’re very vulnerable and need an advocate.”

The Middletown native earned her bachelor’s degree in nursing at West Chester University. For a time, she worked in nursing with psychiatric patients. Her dementia patients gave her an affinity for the elderly, and she went to work for a Harrisburg-area nursing home.

Liz says that advocacy skills are especially important for nurses who support dementia patients.

“It becomes about your intuition and trying to sense what people want and what they need,” she says. “It’s a lot of trying to interpret their desires and what’s going to make them most comfortable.”

Liz’s previous job as assistant director of nursing and conducting infection-prevention duties—all during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic—also raised her awareness of the steps nursing staff can take to educate themselves and protect their patients.

“Because we worked with a very vulnerable population, I wanted to learn as much as possible about how to prevent it from coming in, so the residents are at the least risk possible,” says Liz, who joined Homeland in 2022.

As an infection preventionist, she monitors antibiotic use among the residents, tracking to ensure they’re getting better. She also helps interpret and implement Department of Health COVID guidelines. She says that Homeland staff members are receptive to education about safety protocols because “when you work in long-term care, you see how hard even a minor infection can impact someone.”

She says that Homeland’s well-organized and collaborative operations benefit the residents and uphold excellence.

“It creates better outcomes because I have collaboration in my infection control efforts,” Liz says. “I can also lend a hand in the role of RN and help out with whatever needs the clinical staff might have. It’s a great team atmosphere, providing better support for residents.”

She can also approach colleagues and Homeland administrators for answers to her questions.

“It’s great to feel like you can ask questions to continue learning,” she says. “It’s nice to feel like you’re learning something new every day because the knowledge base in this field is so broad.”

Maybe someday, she’ll get a nurse practitioner degree, but she will always work in gerontology. For Liz, it’s about helping the elderly who have “worked so hard their whole lives. As a society, we need to reward them for all their hard work—give them some time to rest and enjoy their retirement and life.”

Liz and her husband live in Middletown, and in her free time, she scours flea markets for jewelry that she takes apart and restrings into fun, colorful necklaces and bracelets.

“That’s my creative outlet,” she says. “I go to flea markets and put necklaces in plastic bags. For $10, I can entertain myself for months.”

She also enjoys reading, including such classics as “Anna Karenina” and “Madame Bovary.” She discovered her love of the classics in high school and expanded her reading list when college friends with diverse majors introduced her to their favorites.

It’s all about soaking up learning, including lessons from visiting with Homeland’s residents. She also loves the range of Homeland activities.

“Residents need more than just their basic needs met,” she says. “They need their social needs to be met. They need stimulation. I think it’s just wonderful when I’m walking around and see all the activities going on to help improve the residents’ quality of life.”

Homeland accountant Cindy Zelko: Family ties to Homeland quality

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This year Cindy Zelko celebrates her 25th anniversary as an accountant in the Homeland finance office, but her ties to Homeland go far deeper.

Cindy first worked for Homeland as a secretary during a gap year between high school and college. Recently, her father was a resident who made excellent progress following a stroke under the care of Homeland’s physical therapy services.

“Everybody here is so friendly and personable,” Cindy says. “The care is really good.”

Cindy grew up in the Harrisburg area while her father worked for American Airlines and its predecessors, USAir and Allegheny Airlines. With free flights as a benefit of her father’s work, travel was a constant for the family. The travel itinerary might be to such destinations as Florida, Boston, Arizona, or Hawaii.

“We always got taken out of school during the school year because he had to work during the summer,” Cindy says. “We went to Los Angeles, which was fun because we got to see Hollywood. We went to ‘The Tonight Show,’ and we saw Jay Leno’s first show after Johnny Carson retired.”

Of course, Cindy and her two brothers recognized that their family vacations were different.

“All of our friends went to the beach, and sometimes we wanted to go too,” she says. “But looking back when we were older, we certainly appreciated being taken to these different places.”

Cindy’s decision to work at Homeland for a year after high school was influenced by her mother’s best friend, who was Homeland’s director of nursing at the time. After a year of working as a secretary, Cindy attended Indiana University of Pennsylvania, graduating with a degree in accounting.

She worked in public accounting for about two years, followed by another couple of years with a Harrisburg-area nursing home. When Homeland reached out to her again, the accounting position with its payroll and financial reporting duties was the right fit.

Cindy’s husband also is an accountant. They grew up in the same neighborhood and she has known her husband since she was 15.

Cindy and her husband have two daughters, who are grown now. The whole family has always been “big Disney people,” Cindy says. They visit Disney resorts several times a year, enjoying the food, rides, pools, and customer service.

After her father’s stroke, he had hospital and rehab stays, but the experiences couldn’t match the quality of care at Homeland Center, a Five-Star Medicare facility. The family got him into Homeland’s skilled care as soon as possible, and the difference was palpable.

“The therapy department has been great,” she says. “He’s come such a long way. He’s walking way better than when he came here. They have definitely improved his quality of life.”

Cindy takes pride in her work, especially in the meticulous preparation of financial statements and accounts so that everything runs smoothly when auditors arrive. In 25 years, the workload has increased as Homeland expanded its in-home services – Homeland at Home — but she and her colleagues in the finance office continue to uphold the strictest standards.

“We don’t miss deadlines,” Cindy says. “We’re always on time for everything. I love my job here. I like to make sure that everything’s in order for our auditors and our residents.”

Homeland Director of Nursing Jennifer Tate-DeFreitas: A life steeped in service

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If you need to find Homeland Director of Nursing Jennifer Tate-Defreitas, her desk isn’t always the place to look.

“I still work the floor, and I still work every shift,” she says. “It’s important as a director to know the work because nursing is hands-on. As nurses, we have to be flexible. Things can change in a matter of a minute. I don’t expect to come to work only doing one thing. I do what the job calls for.”

She adds that she enjoys being with the residents: “Any day I can get away from my desk, and I’m out there, it feels like home.”

Jennifer is one of Homeland’s many longtime employees who has been given and took advantage of professional growth and fulfillment opportunities. She brings her passion for nursing to the residents and the young staff she mentors.

She also brings a passion for service cultivated in an enormous family – her mother had 57 first cousins — devoted to community and “lessons taught through action and the word.”

Jennifer’s grandmother was a teacher by trade, “but she was a teacher in so many other ways that she didn’t realize.” Her grandmother took in some of her students and older siblings. She rose early every day to cook breakfast, lunch, and dinner for the staff who worked at the funeral home founded by Jennifer’s grandfather.

“She was always caring for people,” Jennifer remembers. “She was always in a servant position.”

In high school, Jennifer attended an international, all-girls boarding school in Columbia, Lancaster County. Her classmates came from wealthy families from across the globe — Japan, China, Peru, Colombia, Panama, Mexico.

The school also had a convent and a nursing home tended to by the nuns, which stoked Jennifer’s interest in working with seniors. Nursing came naturally, after all. Her great-aunt was a nurse, and her oldest first cousin retired as a hospital administrator. She pursued a five-year BSN program at Hampton University in Virginia, finding a nurturing and fulfilling environment at one of the nation’s Historically Black Colleges and Universities, or HBCUs.

She returned to the Harrisburg area to work in a nursing home, rising from charge nurse to staff development instructor. When that home closed, she entered school nursing while her children were still young, but she maintained her interest in geriatrics by joining Homeland Center part-time.

In 2010, she joined Homeland full-time as assistant director of nursing, taking on various responsibilities, from wound care to nursing education, before being named Director of Nursing.

She notes that long-term care is challenging, fast-paced and incredibly rewarding, especially for patients whose families may be scattered or gone.

“You’re that last piece of family,” she says. “You can give them something irreplaceable.”

Her bachelor’s degree taught her management skills that Homeland honed. Working under the tutelage of Homeland Center President & CEO Barry Ramper II has been “on-the-job training times 1,000.” She has seen his open-door policy, 24/7 access and dedication to the job, as well as his in-depth knowledge of regulations.

“When you work with someone like that and see that it works, and it equates to quality, you begin to model yourself after that,” she says.

At Homeland, her young staffers included her daughter, Malani, and former students from her school nurse days who started as CNAs and are now in nursing. She tries to mentor them all, advising them that nursing is about more than money.

“It has to be something you want to do, that you have the innate passion and compassion for caring for others,” she says. “If you don’t, you won’t be satisfied.”

She also strives to inspire through action as well as talk.

“I can walk down the hall and take care of the call when a resident puts on their bell,” she says. “I’m not a desk person. I am a nurse first. I never make anyone feel like I’m the boss. There’s no ‘I’ in team, like they stay. It’s always a team approach. If they see you working, they’re going to follow suit.”

Father and daughter bring their caring natures to Homeland

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Dennis Dinger and Tina Jones are a father-daughter duo with divergent careers but a shared passion for Homeland Center.

Dennis is a career financial services executive who serves as treasurer for the Homeland Board of Trustees. Tina started working in Homeland’s dietary department as a summer college job and is now a Homeland registered dietitian.

Both give their time and talents to help sustain the highest possible quality of life for Homeland residents.

Dennis has been associated with the board periodically since the mid-1990s when he was the CFO for the former Dauphin Deposit Bank. At that time, the bank president was retiring, and he suggested that Dennis apply for his seat on the Homeland board.

He said he looked into the board’s makeup and was impressed with the caliber of community leaders who served as members.

“It has always been a top-notch board,” Dennis said. “They always try to get trustees who have various backgrounds so that we can bring all of our expertise together for the sole purpose of benefitting Homeland.”

Tina was studying nutrition and dietetics at Messiah College (now Messiah University) when she took her first summer job at Homeland in 2008. Working as a dietary aide, she built experience in nutrition’s impact on health, a subject that has interested her since high school.

After graduating, she returned to Homeland and worked in dietary and nutrition roles while earning her dietetic technician credentials, followed by her registered dietitian certification.

Registered dietitians play a crucial role in the comprehensive care of residents. Tina is knowledgeable about the science of nutrition and its power to promote the overall health of the elderly.

She and her colleagues on the clinical side –– including nurses, social workers, and therapists — make sure that residents maintain an appropriate weight and protect their skin, and nutrition is a significant contributor.

“We work as a team to help the residents live to the best of their ability and be independent,” Tina said. “It’s about keeping residents happy and keeping them motivated. We like to bring smiles to their faces. It’s more than just nutrition. It’s caring about them.”

Tina takes every opportunity to get to know residents on a personal level. She also enjoys working with residents’ family members.

“I’m here for the resident, but I’m here for the family because they could be going through a difficult time,” she said. “I always give out my phone number freely.”

One resident’s family member once called to thank her for making a low-sodium diet palatable, saying the family could see the care she was providing for their mother.

Tina has a knack for nurturing the elderly and is “made for this job,” said her proud dad.

“She’s a hard-working, caring individual,” Dennis said. “I must say she has a wonderful boss here at Homeland – Yolanda Williams. She’s like a second mother.”

“I second that,” Tina chimes in. Homeland Director of Nutritional Services, Laundry, and Housekeeping Yolanda Williams has been “very, very helpful from the very beginning.

“She has a very good management style and cares about her employees,’’ Tina said of Williams, Homeland’s Director of Nutritional Services, Laundry, and Housekeeping. “She’s caring, and you can see that. She wants her staff to do well. She constantly impacts us, which impacts the residents and helps us care for them.”

Like Tina, Dennis also enjoys meeting Homeland residents. He constantly searches out those he might have a connection with from the workplace, church, or, especially, his Schuylkill County hometown of Hegins.

“I like to stop in to say hello and reminisce,” he said. “In a roundabout way, I’m caring for the residents with what I can contribute to the board.”

Dennis serves in a volunteer advisory capacity and said he is impressed with the financial acumen of Homeland executives and the management of the Homeland endowment. These funds assure that residents can stay in Homeland if their resources run out.

Dennis believes that donors support Homeland’s endowment, operations, and special projects because they believe in the mission. Typically, they either know about Homeland’s quality of care through a previous relationship, such as a board membership or a family member in residence, or they’re impressed by Homeland’s 155-year history.

Tina admires her father’s commitment to the growth and financial stability of Homeland, especially as a volunteer who carves out time amid his other job and family duties.
“To do everything he’s done in his life and volunteer on top of that shows that he’s a very caring individual,” she said.

The Dinger family often gets together for meals and extended-family vacations to Myrtle Beach. Whenever there’s a birthday, Dennis’ wife, Sandy, plans a meal of the birthday honoree’s choice. Tina always requests her mom’s meatloaf. Dennis likes a September picnic with hot dogs and hamburgers.

“Our family is growing with the grandchildren now, so it seems like there’s a birthday dinner every month,” Dennis said.

Tina is the youngest of Dennis and Sandy’s three children, and she is expecting their fifth grandchild – her first child — this summer.

Everyone in Homeland management is helpful, Tina concludes.

“They hear our wants and needs,” she said. “If we have a concern about a resident and take it to management, they will hear us and adjust to help that resident. It’s a team approach here with everything.”

Homeland Financial Assistant Sonia Miralda: Decimal points make a difference

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Attention to detail is a hallmark of Homeland’s excellence, and it starts in the finance office.

“A number, a letter, a point, or a dot somewhere can mean a mistake in the information,” said Sonia Miralda, a Homeland financial assistant. “You need to have that on your mind when you send something out. You need to have the correct information.”

While residents experience attentive care, they and their families enjoy peace of mind knowing that the financial wheels are turning smoothly.

Miralda was working at another area nursing home when two former co-workers who had joined Homeland approached her about an opening.

“I applied, and everything has been awesome,” she said. Her job includes accounts payable, paying Homeland at Home invoices, sending bills to cover residents’ therapies, ensuring that residents and their families get copies to keep track.

In an office where changes come every day, teamwork is Miralda’s favorite part of the job.

“I can come with a question to any team member, and I will get a correct answer,” she said. “It’s always a time for growing, always knowing something new. I am not afraid to go to anyone when I’m in doubt about anything.”

Miralda likes to laugh with her colleagues, too. They sometimes “take 10 minutes to sit down and think of new ways to do things. When we’re eating lunch, we’re always talking about how we can be better.”

Even though Miralda is not a frontline staffer, she enjoys interacting with Homeland residents. When the pandemic first shut down communal dining, she delivered breakfast to residents’ rooms.

“It was a change, of course, but it was delightful to go and help and take their meals and discuss things like what they were eating,” she said. “I never miss the opportunity to visit with residents.”

Residents are always eager to ask Miralda about her home country of Honduras.
“They want to know where I’m from and what’s different about it,” she said. “I guess I’m a pot of knowledge for them. I’m happy to talk to all of them. It seems like something different for them, and their interest is special to me.”

Miralda’s American journey started when she was 19. On vacation to the U.S. in 1986, she realized she wanted to stay. She found a sponsor family, living and traveling with them while learning the language. She loves the U.S. for its freedom and safety.
“You can speak your mind, and some people will like it and some will not, but that is their business,” she said. “I do appreciate that very much here.”

She misses her family and calls her mother in Honduras daily. She enjoys telling people about the ideal weather of her native country, but she saw her move to America as an adventure.

Miralda and her husband of 35 years, Pablo, moved to central Pennsylvania from the Washington, D.C. area when they were expecting their first child, a son who is now 24 years old. Her husband, an electrical engineer for a Carlisle machine products company, is the home handyman. Miralda is famous for her potato salad but always ready to try something new and create unique flavors.

She said she appreciates the level of communications from Homeland management at work – something she didn’t experience with her previous employer. She has told her husband that if they ever move, they will have to find a home between their jobs because she isn’t about to leave Homeland.

“I am so happy here,” she said. “I’m not willing to look for another job. I’m as comfortable as can be.”

Homeland social worker Amanda Williams: A friendly presence for residents and family

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Amanda Williams only knew a bit about Homeland Center when she applied for a social worker position. After getting the job, she quickly realized that she was in a unique place.

“You can tell when you’re in a place where administrative staff has been there a long time,” she says. “They’re committed to the mission and the organization and upholding the standards of excellence and quality care.’’

Amanda joined Homeland in December 2020, quickly finding her place as a friend to residents and a help to family members. As a social worker on second-floor skilled care, she helps develop care plans, guides families through the health care system, and whenever she can, visits with residents to hear their stories and share their days.

Before joining Homeland, Amanda was a social worker for an aging-in-place service in York, helping the low-income elderly with the needs of daily life – making grocery runs, helping pay bills, assisting with Medicaid enrollment.

“Sometimes, we were their only family,” she says. “In those moments, you could see the smile on their face with the simple task of going to the grocery store for them.”

Still, she wanted a job where she could have a more significant impact. She found that at Homeland.

Amanda has always wanted to work with the elderly. Even while growing up in the Montgomery County town of Souderton, she often volunteered at nursing homes.

“The elderly have so much to offer and so much life experience,” she says. “Getting to talk with them, hear their stories and help them — it’s very rewarding.”

Amanda earned a bachelor’s degree at Elizabethtown University and a master’s from Marywood University. After three and a half years in York, she came to Homeland to work because her soon-to-be husband (she’s a newlywed now, having married in March 2021) lived in Harrisburg.

Family contact is an essential part of her job. When families schedule visits, they can turn to Amanda for help. They might call with requests as simple as assistance in finding a loved one’s favorite shirt or blanket. If they have questions about a loved one’s care, she conveys it to the nursing staff.

After the recent death of a resident, she recognized the impact that she and her colleagues have.

“The family was so grateful that I was a phone call away,” she says. “I could answer their questions and calm their minds about how their dad was doing. It’s never an easy time, but they showed overwhelming gratitude for the staff.”

When she’s not at work, Amanda and her husband love spending time with their 3-year-old German shepherd, Kona.

At Homeland, Amanda appreciates the guidance she gets from her supervisor, Director of Social Services Daniqwa Buckner.

“She has been a great teacher and a great mentor,” Amanda says. “Our unit managers have been very helpful and don’t mind explaining things. Everyone is willing to help you with questions. They’re very supportive here.”