(Photo by Jon Gardiner/UNC-Chapel Hill)
In 2008, life was good for Charina Illescas Brooks. Born and raised in the Philippines, she had married Daniel Brooks, a North Carolinian, in 2001. She struggled through two years of paperwork, but she and their 1-year-old daughter, Nikki, were finally able to join her husband in North Carolina in 2003. Five years later, the family was living the American dream, having just moved into their new home in Snow Camp.
Then the Great Recession hit. Her husband, a plumber, was laid off his job of 13 years, and his prospects of finding another one weren’t promising. That meant that Brooks, a stay-home mom, would need to get a job – quickly – to keep up the mortgage payments.
Brooks had done clerical and computer work in the Philippines, but couldn’t find a similar position here. She took a job with Tar Heel Temps, the only employer that called her back, as a housekeeper at Carolina.
“It is a job that is not meant for everybody, but it is a job that helped us keep the house, feed my family and survive,” said Brooks, who is based at Cobb and also cleans Graham, Aycock, Stacy, Everett and Grimes residence halls. She achieved permanent status in 2010, but her husband’s unemployment would continue for five years.
“Those five years, when it was just me working, it was hard,” Brooks recalled. She had never faced the pressure of being the sole breadwinner before.
Beginning to blog
She found it helpful to write down her thoughts, but not in a private diary. She taught herself web design and created a blog called “Pondered Thoughts” (charinabrooks.wordpress.com), observations from her daily life and Bible verses that helped her.
“Whatever I was feeling that day, I wrote it down,” she said. “I shared whatever I could. You never know who you might be helping.” Her site has had views and comments from all over the world. In 2015, she compiled the entries into a book, Finding God in the Ordinary: Embracing a God-Filled Life, partly to have something to pass down to her daughter. The self-published book is available as a digital download and in paperback online at Amazon, Barnes & Noble and Books-A-Million.
When Brooks received a 2015 C. Knox Massey Distinguished Service Award, she gave copies of her book to Mary Ann Keith Massey and Chancellor Carol L. Folt. She sometimes gives copies to the students she meets, too. “If I could help one person with that book, I think it has served its purpose,” Brooks said.
While housekeeping may not be the ideal job for her, she makes the best of it, getting to work at 6:30 a.m. to load up the rolling cart she will use to clean the bathrooms and public areas of the residence halls. The gleaming floors of the Cobb lobby and the neatness of the seating areas show her work ethic.
“We take care of our areas like we do our home,” she said. “I am fortunate enough that everywhere I’ve been assigned, the students respect and appreciate my hard work.”
Some of those appreciative students nominated Brooks for the Massey Award. “I always see Ms. Charina at 6:30 in the morning coming into work and even at 6:30, she is always readily and happily greeting me,” wrote student Jessica Fintak in her nomination letter. “She starts my day off on the right foot!”
Resident adviser Porsha Tate of Grimes Residence Hall wrote, “Not only does she clean our building, but she makes an effort to create relationships with the residents by asking them how their day has been and even following up on details mentioned in past conversations.”
This interaction with students is the highlight of the job for Brooks. She’s glad to work in residence halls where she gets to know students. And the feeling is mutual. When one of the worst typhoons ever, Typhoon Yolanda, slammed into the Philippines in November 2013, the worried Brooks was not her usual chipper self and the students noticed.
The typhoon killed 6,300 people and displaced more than 4 million, and Brooks hadn’t heard from her family yet. The students continued to check in with her for the rest of the day, eventually learning that the typhoon had damaged her family’s home, but they were OK.
Students not only took up a collection to send to her family, they also went to Snow Camp for a spaghetti dinner fundraiser hosted by her church, Rock Creek Methodist.
Her co-workers appreciate her, too. Even though she is fairly soft-spoken, the petite Brooks often is the spokesperson and translator for other housekeepers, particularly the Burmese and Hispanic co-workers who speak only broken English.
“If they don’t understand something or know how to say things, they come to me, maybe because I can speak better than they can,” Brooks said. “When there’s a problem, I need to say something about it. I owe it to them to speak up.”
Being the family’s breadwinner for five years was stressful for Brooks, so the fact that her husband finally has a job again, working at UNC Hospitals, is making life a little easier.
The couple had agreed that she could stop working when he found a job, Brooks said, but when she told her newly employed husband she wanted to be a stay-home mom again, he balked.
“Are you really serious about that?” he asked her. “Think about the benefits.”
Her husband was talking about benefits like health insurance and sick leave. But for Brooks, the benefits of being a housekeeper were more intangible.
“I got to know myself better on this job,” she said.
Home: Snow Camp
UNC employee since: 2010
Interesting facts: Students and co-workers nominated Brooks for the award, and Brooks also nominated herself, hoping to use the money she received to visit her family in the Philippines, whom she hadn’t seen in 10 years. The money from the Massey Award allowed Brooks and her daughter, Nikki, 13, to spend almost four weeks in the Philippines with their family, celebrating the 2015 Christmas holidays.
What it meant to receive a Massey: “I want to thank everyone that nominated me for the Massey. This award wouldn’t be possible without them believing in me. I want them to know that I was able to see my family after 10 years and that I will be forever grateful for giving me and my daughter that opportunity. Winning the Massey is more than just the money, although that was a big factor as I so wanted to see my family. Winning the Massey meant that all my years of hard work and honesty were appreciated. It meant that all those times I said, ‘Good morning’ and ‘How are you?’ and ‘How’s school?’ and all those little talks that I had with the students in the hallways made a difference in their life here at UNC.”
By Susan Hudson, University Gazette
Originally published by University Gazette: March 22, 2016