BRONZEVILLE — For Joyce Molino, changing the life of Jacob Amgbey was just another instance of the universe moving her to where she needed to be.
Molino spends her days working with men and women with dementia at Bronzeville Park, an assisted living home. The Elmhurst resident learns about their families, takes interest in their likes and dislikes, and helps them through rough days.
Molino said she treats every resident's room like it's their home as a way to improve their quality of life.
"They live with us and they live with us for years," Molino said. "It's really important to know whose home you're in."
She and Amgbey met in April 2012.
Amgbey is a 66-year-old Ghanaian who came to Chicago about 30 years ago. He worked as a taxi driver, sending money home to his family, until he was robbed and had a heart attack in 2006. His passport, visa and documentation were stolen along with his car. Because he speaks little English, Amgbey was mistaken for a patient with progressive dementia.
Molino was the first to realize Amgbey, who she said is very independent, doesn't have progressive dementia — in fact, she said he has improved since coming into her center after being treated at three other nursing centers before Bronzeville Park.
Molino thinks Amgbey's condition after his heart attack — physically compromised in a place where he didn't speak the language — played a role in the misunderstanding. She said Amgbey didn't "rock the boat" and was "happy with what he had" in the other facilities.
"Once the diagnosis was in place I think people just didn't question it," Molino said.
Though it took time for Molino to form a relationship with Amgbey, she learned he missed Ghana, its food — especially fufu, or pounded yam — and his family. She connected with a friend of Amgbey's named Godfred, and through him discovered Amgbey has a twin brother and two sons in Ghana.
With the help of others at Bronzeville Park and Godfred, Molino reached out to Amgbey's estranged sons to see if they were interested in seeing their father again. Their enthusiastic response prompted her to start raising money so Amgbey could return to his town of Peki in Ghana.
As they sat together last week, Molino joked about how Amgbey missed Ghanaian food and asked him to send her photos of his family and new home.
"It's time for you to fly home, Jacob," she teased him.
Amgbey laughed, "I'm ready."
Bronzeville Park workers and residents donated to the fund for Amgbey, and Molino sold food — "We had nacho sales, fajita sales, pie sales..." — and donated the proceeds. Organizers had raised about half of the $1,100 goal when an anonymous donor offered to cover the remaining half. The money will go toward Amgbey's travel costs and providing him with new clothes and pocket change.
Those who helped raise the money have come to be known as "Jacob's Angels," and Molino is chief among them. Besides cooking, she met with people from across the NuCare Services network, which Bronzeville Park is a part of, and encouraged them to help Amgbey return home. She also contacted the Ghanaian embassy, which provided Amgbey with new documentation to replace what was stolen from him.
"Joyce has a very special bond with our residents," said Lyndsay Czwornog, director of marketing communications and public relations for NuCare Services.
That bond comes from working with dementia patients on professional and personal levels, Molino said. Her father was diagnosed with Alzheimer's in the 1990s. Molino, an only child, had her parents move into her home. Because she deals with dementia every day at work, she thought it would be easy to help her father. It wasn't.
Molino was in turns angry, hyper vigilant and guilty as she coped with her father's illness.
"You go the whole spectrum … thinking 'I didn't sign up for this' to 'Oh my God, how could I think that?'" Molino said. "And I think that probably does make me better at what I do, yeah."
It is that experience which helps her connect with residents like Amgbey. He may be able to leave for Ghana as early as Tuesday, his 67th birthday.
Though Molino hadn't intended on following this career path, having pursued journalism and publications before working with dementia patients, she feels Bronzeville Park is the right fit for her.
"The universe moves you where you need to be," she said.