My first salute is to Reba Chonfsky, a woman who spent her entire life helping others become all they could be. After years in retail management where she gave personal attention to her customers, whether students or seniors, Reba then found what would become the niche in her life – to help those who were most challenged, those with disabilities or illness.
With the innate ability to ‘cut to the chase’ coupled with intelligence, high energy, and purpose, Reba spent the first years of her work life in retail, a really good place to learn first-hand how to treat people. Whether unpacking boxes, stocking shelves, taking inventory, buying or selling, you also develop a foundation for how things work and yes, I speak from experience.
Changing careers, Reba became a part-time case worker for the Dept of Youth and Family Services, responsible for transporting young clients to medical and therapeutic appointments. As you can imagine, many of these children came from challenging situations and were fortunate to find a friend who would listen to them, care for them and offer the love they needed.
When she was 60, Reba accepted a position as the Coordinator of the Personal Assistance Program, a pilot program under the auspices of the Cumberland County Office on Aging and Disability created by the State of New Jersey. She was the first coordinator hired and worked in that position for over twenty years. This program made it possible for adults with physical disabilities to continue working, to attend school or vocational training and live independently in the community.
And here’s where Reba came into her own as advocate, friend and mentor. Managing her clients’ paperwork, coordinating their personal assistants, listening to their cares and needs, she supported their efforts and gave them hope. She arranged day trips and social events for them, she arranged wheelchair transport and whatever else was needed. She became known as caring for the ‘whole’ person – the physical, emotional, financial and social aspects of her clients’ lives.
As noted so beautifully by her daughter Debbie: “Not only did she manage the paperwork, the critical day-to-day needs, and the development of innovative programs, but she provided the love and emotional support necessary for her clients to gain the confidence to live in ways they never thought possible. She enabled countless clients to step out of their previously limited worlds into their unlimited possibilities. She helped many re-imagine themselves in whole new ways! As a result of her love, support and “know-how”, her disabled clients became abled clients and were better able to parent their children. They developed the confidence to apply for new job opportunities, they learned to drive, they pursued vocational training and entered and/or completed college.”
One of the things I found unique about Reba was her ability to transfer her own illness and challenges into love and care of others. She embraced every day in every way with love and joy.
It is said that Reba dreamed of becoming a nurse and although she never had the opportunity to complete the coursework, I believe that Reba was born to nourish, cherish, enrich and care for all who needed her. And that to me is the definition of a nurse. Thank you Reba.
Special Note: Last week Reba Chonofsky was posthumously inducted into the Cumberland County, NJ Women’s Hall of Fame.
Special Note 2: to be truly transparent I will tell you that Reba was my husband’s aunt and although I met her late in her life, I loved her spirit, her sense of community and family.