By Fred Dickey August 3, 2015
Every inflated good trait that is claimed on business resumes, Serena Prins has for real. She is what companies hire consultants to teach employees to be: Motivated, positive, honest, reliable, competent, prepared and collegial. All of the above.
Hire that woman, you say? She already has a job. She’s in charge of small, caged animals at the El Cajon Petco store, and the little beasts are quite content--for being in a cage.
Serena is a woman of 46 whose zealous hours in the gym give her a solid look. She is polite and friendly. She will look a person directly in the eye and answer every question, as though being forthright was what everyone did. Lawyers should be grateful there aren’t a lot of Serenas.
She also happens to be mentally “slow,” though high functioning. That word may give PC police the vapors, but “slow” is relative and depends on where you’re headed and how long it takes you to get there. Serena gets there in plenty of time.
Three Petco managers, when asked, uniformly spoke of her competence, friendliness and love of the little creatures in her care.
Carol Atherton, job mentor for Partnerships With Industry, a non-profit that helps the disabled find and keep jobs, has advised Serena for 17 years. She says, “It’s been greatly rewarding to observe her success and the difference it’s made in her life.”
I ask Serena about her work, and pride ignites a smile on her face. “Do you want to see the animals?” She leads the way.…
We walk toward the small cages, and Serena becomes a tour guide, proudly sharing information about her menagerie. “We have hamsters. We have rats. We have guinea pigs. We have parrots. We have parakeets.”
“No. We have the Humane Society here, though. Everybody should come visit them. And, please, give them a home.”
Later, sitting in a backroom at Petco, she answers the first question before it’s asked: “I've been working here at Petco for almost 17 years. I enjoy working here because I love animals. I care about their well-being. I make sure they're healthy and got food and water and clean cages.”
She continues: “I was born prematurely. At birth, I had the umbilical cord wrapped around my neck. I was born a blue baby. It caused some brain damage. I have a learning disability, a little bit.”
Growing up, Serena did not have to worry about being spoiled. “My biological dad I don't know too much about. My mother and him got divorced when I was young. I have two half-brothers that I've never met.
My mother is in Arizona. I talk to her sometimes on the phone.”
Some of the boyfriends in her mother’s life showered her with verbal abuse, making her lack of sharpness a target. She withstood those hurtful episodes and graduated from Grossmont High School in Special Education.
Woe-is-me is not Serena. There is no room for hyphens in her life.
She stops in front of a cage. “I talk to the animals. I like to reassure them….These here are chinchillas. They're cute, and furry and soft. They’re very shy, but they let me pet them.
“You have to know what each animal eats, then you have to watch them to make sure they’re eating and not sick.”
She is told chinchillas are almost extinct because they’re trapped and turned into fur coats.
A look of dismay comes over her face. “Ohhhhhhh.”
There is an expanding movement to find jobs in commerce for people like Serena who flourish in duties that don’t exceed their capability. And, like Serena, they rarely fail.
For the disabled, a job is a “coming-out” to society and the satisfaction of contributing; for companies, it’s good community service, plus reliable help at a low wage.
Serena does not have the temperament of an advocate, but in her own words she believes disabled workers are usually easier to fit into a workforce because they tend not to get hung up on jealousies, ambitions, and turf battles. They just do their jobs.
Her hours at Petco vary between 16 and 20 weekly. Her monthly income is about $800 from her job and $868 from Social Security. She also is on Medicare.
The next cage has little brown animals burrowed deep in confetti paper.
“Those are hamsters. Sometimes they're in their hideaway. I fluff up the bedding. I give them cabbage, which they love.
“Over here are the guinea pigs. They let me handle them.” She reaches in and picks one up. “I’m careful not to drop them. I handle all these animals gentle.”
She holds the ball of fur close. “All right, sweetheart.” She coos and gently returns the guinea pig in its cage. “I call all the animals that. I talk to them and assure them how cute they are, so that way I don't skip anybody. That's why I do that.”
What level do you think you function at?
“On a scale of one to 10, I'd say I probably do a pretty close nine. I function very well considering my disability. There are some people that are not disabled, they're not responsible and they don't take care of themselves. I guess I do better than some people.”
Do you ever think if you didn't have your disability what you'd be doing in life?
“I've never been asked that, but I've thought about it. I was born with this disability. It's not like I'm normal and then all of a sudden, bam, you get a disability. I didn’t just go blind or have a freak accident and I'm paralyzed. I'm not like that. Those people have it hard to make an adjustment. It's a big difference. You're born with it. You don't have to adjust to it.”
Once on her own, Serena was the beneficiary of public housing assistance which is a blessing and a pitfall. Last year, her monthly rent benefit was limited to less than $800.
It will come as no shock that some neighbors in that rent range can be--well, not very neighborly. Her last apartment was a one-bedroom close to a woman with two kids and a pit bull that was way down on the cuddly scale which put it way up on her apprehension scale.
It’s a good thing that welfare departments pinch pennies, unless you are the one to share a staircase with a pit bull, and have children playing football just above the thin plywood of your ceiling.
A year ago, Serena’s mother came into an inheritance and bought her a mobile home of 868 square feet in El Cajon. No gift has ever been more timely. It is Serena’s castle and no mansion has ever been more pampered, though she assumed part of it was her mother making amends for those earlier years.
The clock is ticking on her old car. It’s a ’91 Honda Civic. It has vehicular senility and often forgets to run properly. ”When I step on the gas it don't really get going right away. It just takes a few seconds longer and then it'll get going and then it runs.”
Parrots are her favorites. “I give them good clean water, fresh millet and sliced apples. I scrub the cage. They recognize me, I guess. I'm the breakfast wagon. As soon as I'm opening the door I can hear them squawk, squawk….Look at this one--Hi, sweetie.”
She indicates a beautiful, multi-colored parrot: The price tag on this bird says $599.
“You've got to be careful because if their wings are not clipped and your doors are open--“
There goes six hundred bucks out the door.
We head next door to a small mom-and-pop taco place for lunch. Serena asks, “I’d like the number seven. Is that okay?”
She describes the grief she is enduring over the loss of her boy friend of 20 years who died last December of a stroke, she thinks. He was 89 years old and a retired SDG&E foreman. She says they didn’t live together, and I get the impression his family was not keen on the relationship. She found out about his death a month later at her gym.
“You go through the grieving process. You're fine for a while and all of a sudden it's like a big truck just hits you. It's been hard again for the past few days. It makes me cry.”
She’s ready to move on and tackle her latest concern which is loneliness. She says she would like to have a good relationship. I ask her to describe her ideal guy.“He would be friendly, patient, gentle, not mean, not abusive, no drugs, no drinking, maybe no smoking, and just be real nice. If they're not nice, they'd be kicked to the curb. I don’t want a guy with kids. They sometimes get between you and the guy.”
“Oh, yeah. I know a lot about the intimate department--you know, intimacy. I miss that, not being intimate with a guy. I do miss that.”
You mean sexually?
“Yes. I hope to get the next one that knows everything about that department.”
Good luck on that.
“Yeah, I know, but, I'm in no hurry for that. I have a lot of respect for myself. Some people are like--If I lose somebody I have to find somebody right away. I don't do that. My mother was kind of like that. It's like people need to have respect for themselves.”
She walks by cages holding mice and rats of various sizes, and is asked if they are bought to feed snakes.
“Unfortunately, yes. It's sad. I feel like a murderer, but then I've got to tell myself snakes got to eat. That's the way it is.”
How do you feel about animals in cages?
“I think it's kind of sad when you think about it. But if they have to be in cages it's good to have someone who cares for them to take care of them.”
If you took Serena Prins’ values and ethics and gave her the IQ and training of a Harvard MBA, you’d have a Fortune 500 CEO.
--Nah. Come to think of it, she’d probably get fired. Too much of a good thing.
It does not take a great brain to give love to a helpless tiny animal. It takes something greater.
Fred Dickey's website is www.freddickey.net
His email is firstname.lastname@example.org