Category Archives: Meet the Team

Mountain climber

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Eunice and Judy Wolner climb virtual mountains together at Vista Prairie at Goldfinch Estates in Fairmont, MN. Judy explores the reality of the residents she cares for, like Eunice. As the Lead Care Coordinator for the community’s memory care unit, she has engaged seniors diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease or other forms of dementia, and their family members, for more than 18 years.

Goldfinch’s longest serving staff person, Judy applies her experience in the field to supervise a dedicated staff. “The reason I’m here is because I need to be here,” she says about her calling as a Goldfinch leader. “It’s never been about the money. I feel like somebody has to be there. Our mission here gives families peace.”

While memory care is Judy’s latest adventure, it’s not her first. When she was 21, she and a group of friends climbed Kilimanjaro, the highest mountain in Africa. The peak is literally next door to Moshi, the village where she grew up with four brothers and three sisters in Tanzania.

She recalls that the climb (Judy is third from left in the photo) took three days to go up and three to come down, for an average of 6-8 hours each day. “This was considered the easiest route but after the first day, I knew why our ancestors called it Kilemanyaaro,” her tribal language’s expression for “cannot be conquered.”

Trans-Atlantic travel was Judy’s next exploration, in her early 20s, as she visited a friend in New York. This love for adventure landed her in Minnesota where she met her husband and got married in 2005. They settled in Fairmont, his hometown, where they are raising their son. Judy quickly secured a position as a Goldfinch Estates resident assistant.

Most folks in Fairmont don’t look like Judy. She sees her ethnicity and race differently. Growing up in a high tourism part of Tanzania with people of all colors, faiths and cultures was a blessing. “There’s a lot of foreigners that come and climb the mountain or go on Safaris,” she says. “Moving to the U.S. was the first time I was referred as ‘Black’ which is a way to distinguish people in the U.S. However, that’s impossible where I was born, with so many shades of the same color. We are simply Tanzanians. It’s more about what part of the country you come from, or what tribe you’re from.”

Living in Fairmont for nearly 20 years, she has helped to educate friends and coworkers about her race, culture, and her career. She recalls one conversation where she responded to a child’s curiosity this way – “We’re just like flowers. Wouldn’t it be terrible if we only had the white roses or the red roses and not all these other colors?” This child’s mother later reflected that she’d frequently wondered how to explain race to her kids.

“If your heart is pure and you tell the truth, there’s no problem,” says Judy, expressing her philosophy. “It all depends on adults and the seeds that get planted early in life.”

And that’s the same philosophy Judy teaches in climbing memory mountains with residents. “Part of our role is to educate family members to accept their loved-ones for who they are now, not who they were before they moved here.”

In addition to its 41 memory care suites, Goldfinch Estates offers 92 one and two-bedroom assisted living apartments for seniors who want access to supportive services while maintaining their independence.

Home for Christmas

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This was the first Christmas at Vista Prairie at Brentwood for Rhianon Peterson, the community’s Director of Health Services, who joined the staff in late October. While she brings 20-years of nursing experience to the job, her holiday joy at Brentwood felt like something new.

“We have a Christmas gala here,” she describes. “I asked my husband and my daughter to come and help. And when we got home that night, my husband said what he loved best about the experience was seeing me smile. There’s no other job I’ve ever had that I can come to work and just smile, because I love these people.”

The family had recently moved to Rice Lake, WI from the Spooner area to be closer to where they grew up. Rhianon’s education roots also are in Rice Lake, obtaining her Registered Nurse certification at the local community college. That was in 2002.

After a variety of hospital and other nursing experiences, coming back to care for older adults had long been her goal. When the opportunity at Brentwood surfaced, she jumped at the chance.

“I’ve always loved Brentwood,” she says. “I used to come here as a hospice nurse. It was a place that I always said, if I ever had to put a loved-one somewhere, this is where it would be.”

While she’s happy she’s found her professional home at Brentwood, Rhianon is grateful for her years of experience in hospice and home care. “Being out in the field in those positions gave me confidence in my role here, that I can do this,” she said. Brentwood’s residents already have seen her skills in leading the nursing staff and carrying out health assessments.

The Brentwood community offers options for residents on all sides of the care spectrum, with 28 one and two-bedroom apartments for seniors who want options for personal care and supportive services along with their freedom of movement. We also offer 19 memory care suites that provide a long-term option for seniors diagnosed with Alzheimer’s or other forms of dementia.

Clear Vision

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Milady Imdieke envisioned her career in health care early, in a life that has taken her through two countries and four states. Last May, she assumed her current position as the Director of Health Services for Vista Prairie at Windmill Ponds in Alexandria, MN.

Born in the Dominican Republic, she and her mother moved to Miami when she was six months old. There, they joined her physician father who was in the process of obtaining his license to practice medicine in the U.S. Her father’s medical residencies progressed through New York and Pennsylvania, eventually recruited to a clinic in Todd County’s Long Prairie, MN when she was in the third grade.

“My dad always wanted to practice rural medicine and experience the four seasons,” Milady explains, “So, Long Prairie it was.”

A Registered Nurse for four years, Milady and her father are now health care colleagues, especially as information about the Pandemic became more complex. “There was so much information out there,” she remembers. “I went to my dad, ‘What are you seeing? What are your journals telling you?’”

Milady was wooed to work for Windmill Ponds, more than three times larger than the community in nearby Clarissa, MN where she worked before. “Here, I get to interact with all the residents and see what’s going on with them.”

Milady likes everything about the job, including her leadership role at Windmill Ponds. But it’s the relationships with residents that she relishes most. “They sit and talk about their life, from the very beginning to the medical issues that are going on with them now,” she says. And it’s not only health issues. Once that trust is established, Milady says she also enjoys helping residents with other issues, including to make sense of their new smart phone.

Milady is a student again, as well as a practitioner. She’s about halfway to earning her BSN (Bachelor of Sciences in Nursing), taking on-line courses at the University of Mary in North Dakota. Windmill Ponds has a scholarship grant from the Minnesota Department of Health that will pay for those expenses as she completes her BSN.

Somehow, Milady juggles it all, studying some of each day and all day on the weekends. “I make a big pot of coffee and just do everything.” But it’s fulfilling her career vision. “I want to stay in patient care,” she says. “I really do like geriatrics.”

Vista Prairie at Windmill Ponds offers assisted living in 65 one- and two-bedroom apartments, designed for seniors who enjoy an active social environment and expect high quality care.

A legacy that keeps giving

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Juanita Schmeeckle’s big heart and keen intellect live on in annual grants provided for Martin County nonprofits. Vista Prairie at Goldfinch Estates is connected in more than one way to Juanita’s legacy. Juanita made Goldfinch Estates her home in 2009. Mary Larson remembers accompanying Goldfinch’s nurse to Juanita’s home at that time, to assess her care needs.

“She lived a very modest, low key and private life,” says Mary, who recently retired as the Goldfinch Estates Community Sales and Marketing Manager. “She was an amazingly intelligent lady. She was very well traveled and had a style of her own!”

Before she moved-in to Goldfinch Estates, Juanita and a group of trustees established the Schmeeckle Foundation. The organization ensured that Juanita’s estate would be used to enrich lives through “innovation and creative collaboration,” as the website says. The Foundation’s Martin County focus includes early childhood care and education, people who are disabled and elderly, and the arts.

A second connection came in 2020 as Goldfinch Estates was honored to receive one of the Foundation’s grants. “The grant assisted us with career development, convenience services and support programs,” said Executive Director Kacey Kasel. “As a result, staff retention has increased and our need to bring in staff from outside agencies was drastically reduced, allowing our residents to be cared for by local staff who know their needs best.”

Goldfinch Estates is proud to be part of Juanita Schmeeckle’s legacy and her foresight. “Thank you, Kacey, and the rest of your staff for the care you give to the residents of Goldfinch,” said Shirley Maschoff, one of the Foundation’s trustees. “Juanita was very well cared for during the time she spent in your memory care unit, and we appreciate it.”

Specifically, the foundation grant funded a generous tuition assistance program that provided support for seven Resident Assistants to become Certified Nursing Assistants through the Minnesota Department of Health. Front-line staff also got recognition through programs like Employee of the Month. Finally, meals were made available to front-line staff by Goldfinch’s culinary staff to assist with the challenges of long duty shifts.

The community offers 92 one and two-bedroom apartments for seniors who want access to supportive services while maintaining their independence. We also offer 41 memory care suites that provide a long-term option for seniors diagnosed with Alzheimer’s or other forms of dementia.

On the air

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Julie Wohlman, a Certified Nursing Assistant (CNA) for Vista Prairie at Garnette Gardens in Redwood Falls, MN, will celebrate her 60th birthday in style this month. She’s on the air, talking about how much she loves her job in her first six months on Garnette’s staff. Julie says it all came about from a question.

“A resident asked me how I liked working here,” Julie recalls. “I said ‘I love it here.’ She says, ‘Do they treat you well?’ and I said, ‘Oh yes, they treat us very well here.’” One thing led to another and before she knew it, she was recording this spot for a KLGR radio ad.

A mother of four and stepmother for three more, Julie said she’d always been interested in health care. She served at an area nursing home but found the job too physically taxing. After working in retail for a couple years, her husband suggested she apply for an opening at Garnette Gardens, noting the differences between a nursing home and the responsibilities in assisted living and memory care.  It was the right decision.

“The residents are just awesome,” Julie notes. “I love to listen to their stories. They talk about what it was like ‘back in the day,’ and we have a lot in common.”

While she grew up in the Twin Cities, Julie lives on a farm now and says she enjoys talking about farming with the residents. She says service for residents is what keeps her at Garnette Gardens. And the residents are clearly happy she’s part of the community. “We have one resident who just loves to tease me,” she says, “and you just have to give it back.”

The community offers 62 one and two-bedroom apartments for seniors who also value their independence but need options for personal care and supportive services. We also offer 16 memory care suites. Nine care suites round out the options, offering a higher level of assisted living care and supervision.