To hear Jonnathan Figueroa tell it, his journey to Penn-Mar was nothing short of fate.
A Community Activity Instructor at Penn-Mar’s Far Hills Day Learning Center, he just celebrated his one-year employment anniversary, and is still as passionate about the mission as he was on his first day.
That’s because for Jonnathan, Penn-Mar’s mission is very personal.
“I’m from Puerto Rico. I got my Bachelor’s degree in Social Work, and my minor in Psychology. I’ve always wanted to work in this field. When I was in school, I had an internship in a Day Program kind of like Penn-Mar’s, but with little kids. They had autism and other disabilities. So, it was really similar to the work I do here now.”
But when Jonnathan moved to Pennsylvania, he unfortunately discovered that the Council on Social Work Education did not accept his degree. He either needed to redo his Bachelor’s, or get a Master’s.
While sorting out school, Jonnathan searched for job opportunities outside of social work – certainly not what he had envisioned. He took a job working in a warehouse, but knew it wasn’t a good fit.
And then tragedy struck.
On May 25th, 2019, Jonnathan’s brother died. His brother had cerebral palsy, and a big part of Jonnathan’s life centered around supporting his brother.
“All my life, together with my mom, I dedicated my life to help my brother. When he died, I was really upset. Work made it worse. I didn’t want to be doing something that wasn’t fulfilling. I felt like, I have this degree in social work and I’m not working in what I studied and what I care about. I needed to do something about that.”
The Path to Penn-Mar
Thankfully, fate intervened, and Jonnathan randomly found himself in Penn-Mar’s parking lot, where he and his boyfriend met up with someone to pickup his boyfriend’s dog. “I didn’t even know what Penn-Mar was, but I saw the ‘Now Hiring’ sign. Later, I went to the website and I liked what I saw. I liked what Penn-Mar was all about. I applied. What was I going to lose?”
Jonnathan continues, “The next day, before I even clocked into my job at the warehouse, I got a call from Emily.” (Emily was Penn-Mar’s Talent Acquisition Specialist at the time.) “I was very scared because I have an accent. I speak Spanish on the weekends at home and English at work. I was worried people wouldn’t understand me in the interview.” He casually jokes about his impressive bilingual skills as if they’re no big deal, mentioning that if you talk to him on a Monday, it’ll take him a moment to switch back to English, but if you talk to him on a Thursday, you might not even detect his accent. “But when I went to the interview, Emily was so nice. She made me feel less nervous.”
After a few more conversations with the HR department, Jonnathan learned that Penn-Mar offered more than just residential roles. “I learned about the Day Program, and I was like, ‘Oh my God, that’s what I love!’” It was the perfect position.
He completed a couple follow-up interviews, and then waited for the call. A week-and-a-half went by, and Jonnathan had almost given up hope. He was sitting at lunch at his warehouse job when the phone rang. “I almost died; I was so happy. I was in the cafeteria and everyone was eating, and I started jumping up and down while they stared at me.”
Jonnathan thought his first day might be tough, with orientation and all the trainings. “But I had Abby [Brenneman] for training, and she was really awesome. She started talking about her experiences as a DSP and her story. After the trainings I thought, ‘I’m in love with this company and what we do here.’”
Life as a DSP
Jonnathan quickly adapted to his new role, pulling out all his notes from college to help him in his job. He worked with a group of two gentlemen, and “they were awesome.” He found he loved the work, sharing, “the feeling of what I do, it makes my day.”
But a little over 6 months into the job, COVID-19 happened.
“On March 16th they told us they were going to have to close the Day Program. We could receive unemployment, or we could work in a residence. I was a little worried about getting sick, but I knew I couldn’t sit at home all day. I was also about to start my Master’s degree. There were going to be times when I had classes, and I didn’t know how that would work.”
Thankfully, the team found a house with hours that fit around Jonnathan’s remote school schedule. He started supporting three gentlemen in their home. “I love those guys,” he exclaimed.
Soon, he took on extra responsibilities at the house: groceries, cooking, outside maintenance, breakfast, and other duties. “I learned a lot, to be in charge, to have more responsibility. Denetrice [a fellow DSP] joked that I was spoiling the guys, because I love to cook, and I made a lot of homemade food.”
In fact, Jonnathan once again drew on his family’s influence. “My dad is a chef in Puerto Rico and taught me how to cook. Every weekend I would go to the restaurant and learn.”
Tom, one of the men Jonnathan supported, would wake up and jump out of bed whenever he heard Jonnathan coming in. “Pancakes, are you doing pancakes, Jonnathan?” he asked each morning. “And Elmer loved my oatmeal,” Jonnathan added with a laugh.
In early August, Far Hills reopened some Day Learning services in a very limited capacity, and Jonnathan went back to his usual role. While he’s glad to be back, he adds emphatically, “I miss them a lot.”
Living a Legacy
Jonnathan has settled into his Master’s program, and is proud to report that he did very well his first semester, despite all the chaos of 2020. He’ll start taking summer classes soon, too.
“I’ve also applied for the Career Ladders program,” he adds, hoping he’ll be starting that shortly. “I love to keep myself busy.”
As he reflects on his journey to discovering his passion, Jonnathan notes, “I brought so much to this job from college, but even more from my brother. He’s not here anymore, but the way I see it is that I’m here. And in this job, I’m able to do for other people what I usually did for him. I don’t feel like I’m providing services. I feel like I’m helping my own brother. So, it’s very personal for me.”