Young professionals find dreams come true at Bella Sera

Young professionals find dreams come true at Bella SeraRIDGECREST REGIONAL HOSPITAL — While the staff of Bella Sera earned attention for its dedication and precautions during the pandemic, two young professionals recently shared how the skilled-nursing facility offered them a place to help realize their dream careers and long-held life goals.

For Hannah Espinoza, the journey toward becoming a Licensed Clinic Social Worker had a unorthodox beginning and some surprising milestones along the way.

“When I first went to college, it was film school in Chicago. I thought of myself as more of an artist, then, and was really interested in documentaries,” said Espinoza. “ I moved to Los Angeles, which is where you go if you’re interested in filmmaking.”

But it turned out Hollywood was not for her. “There were a lot of pressures for things that were not important to me, and it didn’t feel like where I was meant to be.” She decided to join the military, which brought her back to Chicago for boot camp. After graduating from basic training, she was assigned to a duty station in San Diego, then homeport-shifted to Hawaii.

“While I was there I was a volunteer for the Sexual Assault Prevention and Awareness program, and that is where I met my first LCSW. She was awesome! I loved the way she helped people through tough times, and I realized that was what I wanted to do.”

After being discharged, she used her GI bill funding to go to University of Southern California (USC). “Because I would not have been able to afford USC without it!” While working on her master’s degree, her husband (who she met in the Navy) reconnected with his high desert roots. “He is from Cal City, and he took a job on base in 2016.”

At first, she thought she might get a job on base, as well. “Since my background and experience is in the military, that was where I wanted to help,” said Espinoza.

Instead she got an internship at Bella Sera in 2017. When she graduated in 2018, she decided to stay there. “Honestly, it had become a passion for me. When I first learned that the internship was in a nursing home, I wasn’t sure how that fit with my focus on the military. But there are a lot of veterans here, so I have found that I still am serving my community within Bella Sera.”

Lakana Panergo’s pathway spans two continents, more than three decades, and two licensing programs.

“For me, I have to go all the way back to when I was 13. I was inspired by my mom, who made me want to become a nurse.” Panergo took care of her mother when she was diagnosed with cancer. “Seeing her suffer, I knew I wanted to be someone who could help people who were going through that, someone who could comfort and care for them. So I decided that I wanted to serve in health care.”

After her mother passed away, Panergo took care of her brother. But eventually she was able to get a scholarship to study nursing, and earned her bachelor’s degree in her home country of Thailand. She worked there for four years before moving with her husband and family to the United States in 2009.

Instead of returning to the workforce, she chose to devote her time to her children while they were young. When they were more independent, she decided to reenter the nursing field.

While she still had a passion for caring for the vulnerable, she discovered that her command of English was a barrier to getting her credentials in her new country.

“I decided that I was going to start fresh, and go slowly,” she said. “But I made it!”

She graduated from the Nurse Assistant Training Program at Bella Sera to qualify for the CNA certification exam. Upon passing, she was hired at Bella Sera. The administrators supported her decision to work only part time while she continued her schooling. Last December, she became a Licensed Vocational Nurse. “Because I love taking care of children and the elderly, I decided to stay on here.”

Both ladies discussed the challenges and opportunities of their unconventional pathways, and offered advice to those who have not yet settled on a career path.

“I was 30 years old when I went to boot camp — where I was the oldest woman,” said Espinoza. “And even after that, it was not until I was 38 years old when I really knew what I wanted to do.”

She noted that while filmmaking may seem like a far cry from social work, they share a common thread: “People. I love people. I love working with and serving and helping people. And I think that there is still opportunity in what I do now to listen to people, make that connection, record their stories and share them with their families.”

Her life has changed, “But that’s the great thing about life — it’s never too late. You don’t need to have a blueprint of what your life needs to be as a teenager or even in college. You can look outside of the box and consider all the possibilities.”

“There were times when you have to one thing down to take up something more important that is right in front of you,” said Panergo, who acknowledged that her education and career took a backseat to her children for many years. “But I never stopped following my dream. My kids know that I never let my dream die.”

The language barrier continued to be intimidating during her studies, she said. “It was hard when I first started, and I knew people struggled to understand me. It was scary, and sometimes I felt ashamed to speak — but I didn’t let it stop me. I just learned to repeat things over and over and practice until I got over that feeling.”

“There are great people to work with here,” said Espinoza. “When I first came here, I didn’t know anyone in this community. Now I have some very good friendships I maintain even outside of work. We all have a common, caring heart for our residents.”

“I love coming to work,” said Penargo. “In two years I have never been late, never called off a shift. I come here and I am happy. Being here, having the friendships here, fills a gap in my life.

But the main reason I continue to work here is that the residents feel like my family. It makes me think of my mom, my grandmother. I feel like I am taking care of my own family.”

Courtesy Photo: Pictured are Hannah Espinoza and Lakana Panergo

Story First Published: 2022-04-08