Every summer, visitors who are looking for Generations at Elmwood Park walk into a building in the area and ask for directions. Debbie Hudson works at the front desk of this building, and always has a surprise for these folks: They have found Generations at Elmwood Park, and are now standing in it.
People who are looking for the facility drive by and miss the sign, but they notice all the plants and flowers brightening up an otherwise industrial section of Grand Avenue and assume the building they adorn could not be a skilled nursing facility. Every summer, Jean-Claude Francois proves new visitors wrong.
“I moved here from Haiti, and where I come from, the garden is a standard of living,” said Jean-Claude, the director of housekeeping. “If you have a garden, it’s a sign of ‘We’re doing OK.’”
Every spring, Jean-Claude fills both the lawn in front of the building and the large patio in its back with flowers that will fit well with Chicago’s humid and short summers. At this time, both sides of Generations at Elmwood Park are overflowing with tulips, azaleas, cabbage and daffodils.
On either side of the front entrance, Jean-Claude keeps two pots filled with pansies. Debbie (the assistant to administrator John J. Hurley) spends most of her day at the front desk, and said one of her favorite days of the year is when her front-door flowers reappear.
“I just love them,” Debbie said.
For Jean-Claude, it is a reminder of his homeland that fits within the parameters of his job description. He spends most of his days checking the building’s ventilation ducts, washing laundry, replacing lights and disinfecting everything; but amongst all that, he still makes the time for the gardens.
The season begins each October, as the colors of the previous summer surrender to browns and reds. Autumn is the time for trimming the bushes, fertilizing the soil and planting new bulbs.
“And then, wait,” he said. “The garden looks good in the winter. The bushes look good. You can tell there’s a garden there.”
As spring arrives, raking out leaves and digging up weeds is a priority. Jean-Claude has never learned the names of Illinois’s native weeds, he just hates them all equally. At the start of the summer, mulching and daily watering and weeding are musts.
One afternoon, Generations at Elmwood Park resident Dan and his visiting nephew, Kevin, sat and talked beneath the pear tree and beside the evergreens.
“I like just to see all the changes, all the seasons,” Dan said. “Now, it’s coming alive.”
Jean-Claude moved from Haiti in 1976, and spent his first 32 years housekeeping and gardening for another nursing facility in Chicago. When it closed in 2008, though, he came to Generations.
As a young islander, he and many of his neighbors grew flora native to Haiti: roses, begonias, ferns and flowering vines. He said he appreciates the challenge that long winters present, but sometimes misses the look of the Caribbean.
“The Chicago area is beautiful, but Haiti is beautiful because of the tropical colors,” he said.
Indoors, Jean-Claude wears a Superman hat and sits down in a chair; the housekeeping director notes that this chair is comfortable and should not be in need of replacement for years. It, and the rest of the building, and the gardens outside, are ready for that day’s visitors…and those who get lost, thrown off by the surprisingly floral appearance of the building they seek.