Leading by listening: Heritage Park senior home director connects with staff, residents

Heritage Park Executive Director Brian Zaragoza speaks with nurses and staff at the care center on Thursday afternoon.
Chelsea Self / Post Independent

Mike Smith started working at Heritage Park, a senior care facility in Carbondale, 25 years ago, when his current boss was one year old.

“I’ve said that a couple times. I don’t mean it as a put-down,” Smith, weekend supervisor for the nursing facility, said of Heritage Park executive director Brian Zaragoza.

“It’s just, how impressed I am with him. He’s got a good head on his shoulders,” Smith said.

Zaragoza started as executive director in January 2019, one month after obtaining his nursing home administrator certification and eight months after receiving his MBA in health care administration from the University of Colorado at Denver.

Delaware to Denver to the ‘dale

Zaragoza knew he wanted to go into health care administration by the end of high school, and health care runs in his blood.

His grandfather emigrated from the Philippines to be a doctor in the U.S., and his parents both work in medicine near Zaragoza’s hometown of Wyoming, Delaware.

“I actually thought when I was younger I wanted to be a doctor,” Zaragoza said, but science wasn’t his thing, and he didn’t want to attend school for that long.

He did want to make a difference, though, so he pursued hospital administration. The program in Denver dovetailed with another lifelong passion: Skiing and snowboarding.

It wasn’t until he started his masters program that he thought to work in hospice and nursing homes.

Zaragoza didn’t expect to have this kind of job so soon after graduating.

“I really thought I was going to go into hospital administration, that was kind of the more glorious healthcare sector of healthcare administration. Not everybody graduates college saying, ‘I’m going to be a hospice administrator,’ it just kind of happens. I’m really glad it did,” Zaragoza said.

He applied to be an administrator in training with Life Care Centers of America, which owns Heritage Park, when he got a call from one of the company’s vice presidents.

Zaragoza recalls the conversation: “‘Hey Brian, I know you interviewed for the administrator in training program, but I just had a building open up in Carbondale. What do you think about just going in headfirst, and jumping right into the fire?’”

‘Are you old enough to be running this place?

Zaragoza, who is 26, walks the halls of Heritage Park, greeting residents by name, and making sure staff members are doing well. He says he doesn’t recognize all of the 80 or so residents by name, but he’s pretty close.

He does make an effort to know each of the 100-plus staff at Heritage Park.

He regularly meets people, usually family members of prospective residents, who joke about his age: “How old are you? Are you old enough to be running this place? You’re the big boss?”

Zaragoza was nervous when he first started: Would the staff welcome him? Resent him? Would they be resistant to changes he would try to make?

His trepidation turned out to be wrong — people welcomed him with open arms.

Brian Zaragoza has been the executive director at Heritage Park Care Center in Carbondale since January of 2019.
Chelsea Self / Post Independent

But he also decided to start out as a helper, not a reformer.

“I went in with the mentality that I wasn’t going to change anything, I wasn’t going to try and bring any new ideas and stir up a ruckus, I just introduced myself to everybody, talked to everybody on the floor, helped out where I could,” Zaragoza said.

When the staff saw him roll up his sleeves and get his hands dirty, they respected him and then began to bring him ideas about how to improve care for Heritage Park residents.

“I realized being a leader, more than anything, means being a listener,” he said.

Smith said that what he appreciates most is Zaragoza’s ability to listen.

“He’s very involved with all aspects of the staff, and the incoming residents. He knows a lot of the residents by name, always introduces himself to the new residents,” Smith said. “Some of the past directors didn’t always do that, they were more in their office doing the business end of it.”

The best part of the day

As Zaragoza walks the halls, he greets guests in the corridors of the deceptively expansive Heritage Park building.

“I’ve been meaning to give you a high alert,” a woman in a wheelchair tells him. “Is everything OK?” Zaragoza asks, smiling.

“On the cheesecake,” she replies. It was apparently very good. “If there’s a piece left, you need to grab it,” she says.

Walking through the corridors and interacting with the guests is the best part of the day for Zaragoza.

“Just to joke around with them, and get a smile is huge — for them, yes, but also for myself. My day can get bogged down with all kinds of stuff,” Zaragoza said.

The most important part of the job, Zaragoza said, is keeping residents and their families happy.

But a “close second” is the paperwork — making sure the facility is complying with all state and federal regulations, which is necessary and important, but also time-consuming.

“To be able to walk out this door, walk down the hall, and actually connect with a human being who we’re taking care of is really rewarding,” he said.

Like surrogate grandparents

It also keeps him grounded, and reminds him of the value of his work at Heritage Park.

 “Some of these residents, they don’t have loved ones, they don’t have family members that are caring for them, they don’t have that support,” he said. “At the end of the day, it’s nice to know that you’ve made a difference in people’s lives, or impacted them in some way.”

A similar feeling has kept Mike Smith coming back to work at Heritage Park day after day.

“It’s like going to see grandma and grandpa everyday, and having 50 of them,” Smith said.

“They’re just like surrogate grandparents. They become like family,” Smith said.

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