Prior to this afternoon, Keyla and I had spent a total of four hours together. But the way Keyla greets me at the door, the warmth she shows me, makes me feel like I’m seeing an old friend from college, or a cousin I’ve watched grow into adulthood from a distance.
I sit in her kitchen. Plants with ivy tentacles reach toward pockets of light, snaking past curved metal lettering with affirmations like “home is where your roots grow.” She gets me a glass of water from the fridge. As the door swings open, I see it’s plastered with photos of Keyla’s loved ones, smiling faces spanning at least four generations.
Keyla’s father served in the United States Armed Forces, paving the way to citizenship for him and his wife. Keyla is the youngest of five, and the first person in her family to graduate from college. She’s going to be a registered nurse and wants to specialize in hospice care. She tells me there’s something profound about being with someone as they pass away. Those final moments someone spends with their community carry a power for Keyla, and she speaks of them with a hushed reverence few people reserve for their jobs. The inevitability of it, the weight of it, and the seriousness of her role within it, all deeply inspire her.
Vantage West plays a special role in Keyla’s story. When she was 19, she desperately needed a car. When no one else would give her a loan, Vantage West took a chance. That chance has resulted in another nurse in our community, and the first college graduate from a family of immigrants.
As the sun sets, we stand on her back porch and exchange stories. Slowly, a massive tortoise begins to make its way across the yard. Kelya explains to me that a care home she worked at was closing, and had to rehome the tortoises. Keyla and another care worker both wanted two tortoises each, but at the last minute the other nurse got cold feet. Keyla felt bad leaving the other two without a home, so now she has four tortoises in her backyard.
Most people who do volunteer work try and “fit it in” where they can. I don’t think Keyla sees it that way. Keyla fits in everything else around her service. Her backyard is a tortoise sanctuary. Her job is caring for our most vulnerable. When you ask her what she did this weekend, she rattles off home improvement projects she helped friends with. She talks about family birthdays she was able to attend. She tells you about the woman she is seeing through end-of-life care.
When I ask how she makes it all work, she sort of shrugs it off, but I can’t let it go. I don’t understand how someone in their 20s can take on as much as she does with such grace and unyielding compassion for others. The more I probe, the more I realize that every facet of her life that is dedicated to service is in turn supported by another part of our community. An auto loan from Vantage West. A roommate who takes care of her pets during a long shift. A cousin who is there to listen, or run to the grocery store for a missing ingredient. The more of herself Keyla gives to our community, the more that same community rallies behind her, lifting her up to even greater heights.