Alex Tobalin learned early about death.
But she'd rather focus on life lessons among the elderly patients in the specialized dementia care unit, Encore, within The Birches in Clarendon Hills.
Alex, who recently turned 11 and has been volunteering at Encore for more than six months, can be found there three to four times a week helping the residents on their walks, their crafts, their memories and their Hokey Pokeys.
Her mind, she says, is on the residents "24-7."
"It's just like I'm in my own family," says Alex, the daughter of Miguel and Mary Jo Tobalin of Clarendon Hills. Only in this family, she has about five different names and everybody thinks she looks just like their own daughter.
That's just fine with her, she says.
Having Alex around brings residents a lot of joy, says Encore Director Jackie Schwab. "She's just a really neat kid. She's really just fabulous with the residents. You can tell she helps with her heart."
Schwab was apprehensive about Alex's age when the Walker Elementary School fifth-grader first approached her about volunteering. But meeting Alex and watching her with the residents convinced her Alex was exactly what the residents needed.
Although working with the elderly is not an easy job even for adults, Alex already knows it's something she wants to do the rest of her life; she plans to become a geriatric nurse.
And while death is part of the reality of working with the elderly, she's says she already learned about that with the death of a favorite resident in September. It hit her so hard she ran out of The Birches and took some time off before realizing the other residents needed her and she needed them. So she focuses instead on the living.
"Alex is a very old soul, she's very sensitive, she's extremely caring," Mary Jo Tobalin says as her brown-haired daughter's head bobs in rhythm with heads of gray and white to the Hokey Pokey during a recent happy hour at the facility.
And her huge smile never stops.
Tamara L. O'Shaughnessy
What do you want to be when you grow up: A geriatric nurse
Favorite food: Mom's spaghetti and meatballs
Weird talent: She can turn her elbow all the way around so it's facing up with her hand facing down.
Best lesson from Mom and Dad: Patience. You have to use it everywhere, she says.
Do you know a great kid age 14 and under who's done something amazing? E-mail names and information to email@example.com.