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Jodi Benge honored for professional excellence in long-term care

Baptist Home of Kenmare administrator Karen Schwartz rattled off a list of adjectives to describe Jodi Benge of Bowbells, the facility’s activities director. “She’s caring, compassionate, fun-loving and dedicated to the residents,” said Karen. And tonight at the North Dakota Long Term Care Association’s annual awards banquet in Bismarck, Jodi will be recognized as the best in the state at what she does when she accepts the 2010 Activity Professional Award of Excellence.

4/28/10 (Wed)

2010 Activity Professional Award of Excellence . . . Jodi Benge (second
from right), activities director at the Baptist Home of Kenmare, credits
the success of her program to the enthusiasm of residents like (l-r)
Ellie Martin, Kenny Gravesen and Jim O'Gorden. Benge has been
the activities director at the Baptist Home since November 2007.


By Caroline Downs
Baptist Home of Kenmare administrator Karen Schwartz rattled off a list of adjectives to describe Jodi Benge of Bowbells, the facility’s activities director. “She’s caring, compassionate, fun-loving and dedicated to the residents,” said Karen.
And tonight at the North Dakota Long Term Care Association’s annual awards banquet in Bismarck, Jodi will be recognized as the best in the state at what she does when she accepts the 2010 Activity Professional Award of Excellence.
Jodi is quick to share credit for the successful activity program at the Baptist Home. “The residents are willing to try anything I put out there,” she said, “and they make the job fun. Sometimes the staff rolls their eyes at me, but they’re always willing to help me out, and I have a good boss who tells me to go for it!”
Jodi has filled the activity director’s position for the past three years, but she began working at the Baptist Home of Kenmare in September 2005 after she switched careers from her former position at the Burke County Tribune.
“I started in housekeeping, but after two weeks I told them I wanted to work with the residents,” said Jodi.
She had the opportunity to try the activity aide position after Tammy Grosser moved out of that role, and then accepted the activity director’s title when former director Cheryl Birkeland left the job in November 2007. Jodi was thrilled with her good fortune. “I had lots of plans and ideas,” she said.
She explained how she felt like she was fulfilling one of her favorite quotes. “My purpose in life in not to find a job,” she said. “My job in life is to find a purpose. I think this is where I needed to be.”
Jodi decided early in her new career that variety would be important for the well-being of her new best senior friends. “I don’t want to think that these are people living in the Baptist Home and they’re going to die,” she said, then smiled as she talked about keeping them happy, busy, moving and working.
So while bingo remains a favorite game, Jodi limits the amount of time actually scheduled for it each week, which still amounts to three sessions. She tosses in several other games including Uno, trivia and Jeopardy. “That keeps them thinking, which is important for their well-being,” she said. “I mix it up and make them use their brains.”
She grinned. “They’re very competitive.”
Once she made that discovery, Jodi fueled those tendencies with a walking program complete with pedometers for all participants and a map of the United States to track their virtual travels around the country.
“They’ve already made it to the West Coast,” she said, and pointed out the group’s “route” on the map as the individual steps counted added up to miles. “Now, they’re headed to the East Coast.”
Actually, members of the Weaving Walkers have reached New York State, and they’ve taken fierce ownership of the program as they dedicate time each day to their own walking plans and document their steps, which are displayed for public viewing on charts that cover an entire wall in one hallway. “They want to see those numbers every single day,” Jodi said.
As benefits from the walking club became more apparent, Jodi decided to add an exercise component to the schedule three days each week that everyone could do. “They dread it,” she said, with a shake of her head and another smile. “I hear them complaining, but it strengthens them and keeps them flexible. As tough as it is for them, they keep doing it.”
The exercise sessions include work with therabands and 1-, 2- and 3-pound free weights. Beginners in the program begin with 10 repetitions of each exercise. “Now, most of them are up to 30 repetitions,” said Jodi.
She consulted with a physical therapist from Velva who showed staff members several exercises to use and who gave the Baptist Home high praise for the residents’ level of participation. “They watched our program and said it was wonderful,” Jodi said.
Jodi sprinkles a few less strenuous events into the schedule, including read-alouds, regular movies shown at the Baptist Home and downtown at the Kenmare Theatre, and always crafts. She maintains high expectations for those craft sessions, though.
“A lot of times it has to be basic, but no matter what they do, they create it themselves,” she said.
Residents also enjoy taking rides, especially now that the Baptist Home has a safe and comfortable bus to use for outings, thanks to donations from several individuals, businesses and the Kenmare Veteran’s Club. “A lot of people don’t get out for fresh air,” Jodi said, “so when we have a trip planned, they’re lined up at the door.”
“Even when the trip is on the road to nowhere!” Karen added.
Jodi said some of the drives are simple outings to see the countryside, while other trips have more specific purposes, such as meeting a church group in Lignite for homemade pie or traveling to Stanley for the famous Whirl-a-Whips. Bowbells, Donnybrook and Mouse River Park are favorite destinations, as is the Roosevelt Park Zoo in Minot.
“And we’ve even gone to the Heritage Center in Bismarck,” Jodi said, adding that bus trips are always good for laughs among the residents. “We’re looking at some options for this summer.”
Participation in the various activities runs high among residents at the Baptist Home, mostly because of Jodi’s friendly personality, but also because of another incentive she uses--the wildly popular resident auctions held about three times a year. “For every activity they attend, they get an auction dollar to spend,” explained Karen. “It’s just a little encouragement to come to an activity.”
Jodi shares other small prizes from time to time to hand out to game winners and for the walkers as they achieve certain goals. “That just keeps them going,” she said. “It’s more about the hugs or when I hear ‘I just had a great day’ from one of the residents. They are so good to come, and that makes it easier!” She estimated about 90 percent of the residents joined most activities.
And while residents lift those weights, practice their art skills, travel on bus tours, and test their memory and teamwork in games, Jodi and other staff members record it all on camera. That way the residents can glimpse themselves in action and celebrate those moments with relatives and friends during Family Night events. Karen explained that slide shows of the photos are often the highlight of Family Night. “The residents like to see themselves,” she said.
“We take that stuff for granted, but for many of the residents, it’s a big deal,” said Jodi.
Karen laughed. “That’s what they talk about afterward!” she said.
Residents also look forward to their storytelling and reminiscing times with Jodi, especially when they’re chosen as Resident of the Month. “I interview them and tape their stories, and write it all up for the display,” she said. “Their histories are just fun!”
Always working
for the residents
Jodi finds these and dozens of other ideas by searching a few of her favorite websites related to resident life. She and activity aide Roxy Corey also attend professional development workshops twice a year to maintain their certification. “I’ll see something that will spark me and think, ‘We could try that!’” Jodi said.
To be effective in her full-time position, she spends about 20 percent of her time planning. “And 80 percent in hands-on activities, working with the residents,” she said.
“Her day is for her residents,” said Karen. “She’ll do anything to entertain them. Jodi has a love of her residents and makes each day special for them.”
“Well, when they meet you at the door coming in each morning, they want to see a smile on your face,” said Jodi.
Karen described how Jodi’s enthusiasm for the residents extended beyond the Baptist Home walls. “The best way for people to learn about us is by word of mouth,” said Karen. “We’ve worked hard at having our residents out in public so people see them, getting our name associated with things in town, and inviting people in to see who we are.”
She continued by saying that when family members and friends of the residents visit the Baptist Home, they inevitably comment on the festive seasonal decorations the staff plans every month, the variety of events taking place, and just how busy the residents are.
Karen also attributed a higher number of volunteers at the Baptist Home to Jodi’s efforts. “Once people realize how simple volunteering is, they come,” she said. “It can be sitting and playing games with the residents or kids coming in to sing or anybody visiting.”
Jodi shrugged. “Those volunteers deserve a lot of recognition,” she said. “We welcome them, and the residents love to see new faces come in!”
But while each month’s activity calendar is stuffed with events, Jodi would like to do more. She’s always looking ahead on the schedule, whether to contact a musical guest to perform, arrange a bus trip, or introduce another crazy game.
“I’d like to have more inter-generational activities, on a monthly basis,” she said. “That’s something our residents really look forward to, having kids come in here. Right now, we have Jane Kalmbach and her piano students and the Flaxton 4-H club, and I’m hoping to have more groups come.”
Surprised by the award
Karen and Roxy, who nominated Jodi for the state honor, managed to keep the news of Jodi’s selection a secret until March 5th, the day the Baptist Home celebrated its 49th birthday with a program for the residents and staff. “We did a slide show about Jodi’s work here and announced that we had a special award to give,” said Karen.
“Of course, the tears started,” Jodi said. “I had no idea. I’m very humbled, but very honored.”
“There were even tears in the eyes of the residents,” added Karen. “We’re definitely a close-knit group!”
Jodi calls the residents and staff her second family, but her immediate family is familiar with her work, too. Her older daughter Sara Esterby works as the housekeeping supervisor for the Baptist Home of Kenmare, and her younger daughter Dena Bergstrom serves as the activities director at a Baptist Home in Bismarck, which is not affiliated with the Kenmare facility.
“And [son] Dylan, he comes to play Uno and bingo with the residents,” said Jodi. “Of course, he taught us everything we needed to know about the Wii!”
Dylan and Jodi’s husband Dennis accompanied her to the awards banquet in Bismarck today, where they were joined by Dena and her husband Jared and the Benges’ new granddaughter Bailey. When Jodi and her family return to Bowbells, they’ll continue the celebration with Sara and her partner Monte Peterson and young grandsons Austin Esterby, already known at the Baptist Home for his singing abilities, and Aidan Peterson.
When she’s not at work having fun with the Baptist Home residents, Jodi continues her day as a farmer’s wife. She and Dennis enjoy playing pinochle, camping, going to car races and riding motorcycles together in their spare time. She also serves as secretary/treasurer for the Burke County Fair.
Jodi admitted to doubting her decision when she first accepted a position at the Baptist Home. During her first year there, she received the Caregiver Award from residents and staff members, and her latest honor from the NDLTCA only affirms her gifts for working with her elderly friends.
These days, she has every intention to continue her job and keep finding ways to improve the quality of living for the residents.
“She’s always asking them what they want to do, where they want to go, what they wish for,” said Karen.
“My only goal is just to keep them happy,” said Jodi. “They become a part of you!”