Keswick employee to be honored for 45 years on the job

Willeen Smith's employment at Keswick Multi-Care Center in Hampden begs a rhetorical question, posed by Marketing Director Michelle Larcey when she sat in on an interview last week.

"What haven't you done?" Larcey asked.

It's a fair question. Smith, 63, who was scheduled to be honored Wednesday, May 21 at an employee recognition dinner, has done everything she was asked to do, some of it outside her experience and comfort zone, in a career at Keswick that spans 45 years and counting.

She began as a unit secretary on a nursing unit, doing clerical work. Then she became a medical transcriptionist, an administrative assistant in the medical director's office, a marketing assistant, marketing coordinator, and director of volunteer services and public relations. Now, her title is director of volunteer services and community engagement.

She also runs the gift shop and has been a media contact for news abut Keswick and its employees.

Now, the spotlight is on her.

Being the center of attention is unusual for Smith, of Pkesville, who will mark her 46th year in June.

"It's kind of weird because I'm in the background," she said.

Smith came to Keswick out of Eastern High School, as a 17-year-old whose mother was beseeching her to look for a job. But it was Senior Week and prom time.

"I wasn't even thinking about a job," Smith said.

Fate intervened in the form of a high school guidance counselor, who lined up two interviews for her —one at a state government laboratory.

"I knew I didn't want to do that," Smith said.

The other interview was at Keswick, which at the time was still known by its original name and mission, Keswick Home for the Incurables. Its focus then was one caring for people who had diseases and chronic illnesses for which there were no known cures.

"It didn't phase me in the least," Smith said, though she admits one question crossed her mind: "Do you think any of this is contagious?"

Forty five years later, as she reflected on her career, she said, "It's been a great place to grow — and to grow up."

She has seen Keswick morph over the years into a full-service center with assisted living, nursing care, adult care service, post-hospital rehabilitation services and memory care.

It used to be, Smith said, that "the minute people got feeble, they were swept into a nursing home."

Now, she said, "Most of our work is done in rehabilitation to get people back to their lives, which is wonderful. It makes you feel good to be a part of that."

What Keswick Chief Executive Officer Carmel Roques likes about Smith is her flexibility, her ability to wear many hats and her openness to new challenges, at a time of change and flux for the health care industry.

Roques, who is in her second year as CEO, said she came in with a goal to make the public identify with Keswick as a community resource.

"I started talking to Willene about it," Roques said. "I think public relations is not the same thing as community relations."

Wearing her most recent hat, Smith has cultivated volunteers to work at Keswick, culling them from local high schools ad universities, churches and the community.

Now, Smith has all the volunteers she can handle and recruits what Roques calls "customized volunteers.".

"She turns away people," said Roques, who considers Smith a role model for Keswick's 300-plus employees. "Willeen has this gift for being a person who sees opportunity."

Cultivating volunteers has paid off. Last year, 14 students ages 9-10 from Gilman School came and spent one day a week for a month volunteering. This year, 27 children came.

For her part, Smith says her own goals has been to try new things and be a part of what's happening next. I'm a behind the scenes, make it happen kind of person."

When Keswick eliminated the gift shop manager's job, Smith asked Roques, "Who's going to manage and buy (goods) for the gift shop?"

Roques replied, "You are."

Smith also attends community meetings and cultivates relationships when Roques can't go, making her in some ways the face of the center.

"I need someone to go and be Keswick at those events," Roques said.

"It doesn't feel like work," Smith said of her nurturing of volunteers. "It's telling your story and how (the public) can fit in "

Her message, she says, is, "If you want to do good, we have a place for you."

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