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Team Member Lená Kithcart Spreads Joy at The Forest

Members of The Forest at Duke community know Lená Kithcart. A spirited team member of nearly seven years, Lená has a big, bright smile and an unforgettably friendly demeanor. She speaks to everyone she passes and has an incredible heart for people. She loves cookies ‘n’ cream milkshakes, rap music, basketball, and giraffes. Oh, how she loves giraffes!

In December 2012, Lená joined her older brother Leroy in the housekeeping department and quickly found her footing. After Leroy won Employee of the Year in 2013, Lená took her place as Employee of the Year for Facility Services (now General Services) in 2014.

Settling in

Lená was initially hired at The Forest at Duke as a full-time “rover,” meaning she did not have a set schedule, but rather took on hours and areas of responsibility as they became available. If another housekeeper called out, Lená filled in; otherwise, she did things like dusting and detailed room cleanings in the Health Center.

When a fellow team member took leave in early 2013, Lená was offered her first set schedule in housekeeping. She took over cleaning multiple cottages, an assignment that felt a bit uncomfortable at first. The housekeeper typically assigned to those homes had been on that schedule for more than a decade, and the residents knew her and trusted her well. Lená was unsure how she might be received, especially since she was still relatively unknown by many in the community.

However, her fears soon melted away. The residents were very kind to her, welcoming her into their homes and delighting in getting to know her as a person. “That just left a lasting impression on me,” Lená recalls. “They didn’t have to let a complete stranger in their house, and they were just so nice about it.”

New opportunities

Lená gave the cottage schedule back to her fellow housekeeper when the team member’s leave ended. She went back to being a rover again but stayed extra busy. Every day, after putting in a full eight-hour shift at The Forest at Duke, Lená walked over to University Drive, where she worked five additional hours at K-Mart. She kept up this routine until the store closed in February 2013.

Lená remained a rover for about two months. Soon, she was given an opportunity to cover laundry duties for The Forest – a consistent schedule that lasted for the next year and a half. Despite learning a lot there, like how to fold a fitted sheet, Lená found her work in laundry very isolating. “It was like being in a fishbowl,” she describes.

In the summer of 2016, Lená’s responsibilities increased exponentially when she was given housekeeping charge of the Community Center. This solo act filled a full shift every single day. Lená’s to-do list was long and covered everything from the third floor Administration offices to the second floor General Services office and everything in between.

Lená has an incredible sense of humor and is full of surprises. A lover of all things giraffe, she showed up to her photo shoot with a giraffe onesie in hand! (Photo by Lauren Young)

She emptied trash cans and dusted desks, tables, shelves, banisters, picture frames, and baseboards. She polished water fountains and silver fixtures in the restrooms. Vacuumed hallways, rugs, and stairs. Refilled bathroom supplies, like paper towels, tissue, and toilet paper. Cleaned grout. Polished windows and glass doors.

Passion for a job well done

As a housekeeper, Lená worked about 20 hours of overtime each month, primarily because she enjoyed spending extra time with the residents. Once, when a resident had an injured arm and planned to go out of town with her husband for a family vacation, she asked Lená to help her make pimento cheese for the trip. True to her giving nature, Lená happily stayed late to recreate the resident’s old family recipe from scratch.

In 2018, Lená began spending her lunch breaks reviewing job postings at The Forest. She was interested in moving beyond what she already knew in the housekeeping department. Furthermore, she hoped to make use of her degree and establish a career for herself. In March, she discovered a vacancy in Sales & Marketing for the Move-In Coordinator role.

On paper to reality

“It’s a shot in the dark,” Lená recalls thinking. “On paper, I’m qualified. Let’s just try it out.”

Indeed, she had a noteworthy resumé. In 2012, Lená graduated from Winston-Salem State University (WSSU) with a Bachelor of Arts in Mass Communications. Having demonstrated superior academic achievement, she made the Dean’s List numerous times throughout her college experience.

Lená previously worked as an intern with WSSU Athletics during one of the university’s biggest winning seasons. It was then that she trained with the sports editor from WXII to learn videography tips, tricks, and standards. During the playoffs, she got to spend time working with a crew from ESPN, and they complimented the caliber of her work. She filmed during NBA superstar Chris Paul’s charity pickup game at WSSU in 2011. She also did (and does!) videography side projects. Her best friend owns two cameras, tripods, and other equipment, and together, they film weddings, quinceañeras, parties, and other special occasions.

This photo of Lená was taken in 2017 for The Forest at Duke’s Portrait Project. The project depicts community residents and team members and shares a bit about them and their appreciation for The Forest. (Photo via The Forest at Duke’s Portrait Project)

Her dream job? “I wanted to be the first camerawoman to film an NBA game. If I couldn’t do that, I wanted to work in either media relations or marketing with the NBA,” Lená explains. Even today, she would especially love an opportunity to work with the Boston Celtics or the Philadelphia 76ers.

Lená decided to take her experience in Mass Communications and go for the open position in Sales & Marketing at The Forest. About a month after she applied, she heard from Ellen Brown, the former Director of Sales & Marketing, who offered her an interview.

Doing her homework

Lená didn’t take the opportunity lightly. “I approached the interview like, ‘This is mine. This is my job. I need to go ahead and do the background work to get into my role.’”

In preparation, she performed research to better understand what the job entailed. She learned the type of contract The Forest offers, the standard appliances and fixtures in each apartment and cottage, and the move-in process for new residents. She requested a marketing brochure and other materials from the department to help guide her.

Lená applied in March and interviewed in May. The interview went very well, despite her nerves about a group interview, wherein she spoke before the four women already established in the department. She says it felt different knowing that she had cleaned the ladies’ offices for so long and was now interviewing to be part of their team.

The afternoon after the interview, Lená’s phone rang. It was Ellen. At her parents’ house, Lená took the call outside and soon found herself receiving a verbal offer for the job.

Lená Kithcart joins the Parrents in a portrait.
Lená cites residents as her favorite part about working at The Forest. Indeed, she shares a great rapport with community members! Pictured here with her are residents Mary Ann and Tony Parrent, whom she always introduces to others as “my Parrents.” (Photo by Lauren Young)

“All [my mom and dad] see through the windows is just me, jumping up and down, reaching up to the trees. I’m screaming. I’m shouting!” Lená remembers with a big grin. “Of course I accepted.”

She began her new position a mere 30 days later.

Here and now

Today, Lená is thriving in her role as Move-In Coordinator. Now established as a key member of the Sales & Marketing team, she holds responsibility for making sure new residents’ moves go as smoothly as possible. She introduces incoming community members to the available selections for their new homes and works closely with contractors to make sure all selections are properly installed in a timely manner.

Lená loves so many things about her new position but finds one aspect of The Forest more delightful than all the rest. “My favorite thing will always be the residents. They have seen the world, have incredible knowledge, and are so much fun,” she says.

She also holds great respect for her fellow team members and sees them and the residents as an extension of her family. Lená does her utmost to make others smile, whether by joking with them, using fun nicknames, or passing along warm hugs.

Lená’s family, from left to right: Father Leroy, mother Rená, Lená, sister Krystal, and brother Leroy. Taken in 2004 by Lawrence W. Smith Photography. (Photo courtesy of Lená Kithcart)

Lená’s parents, Leroy and Rená, are childhood sweethearts and still very much in love. They’ve been married for nearly 32 years. Lená is her parents’ middle child, or as she calls herself, “Thing 2.” Thing 1 is her two-years-older brother Leroy, while Thing 3 is Lená’s younger sister, Krystal. “Thing 3 is a superhero,” Lená says proudly. “That’s my baby.”

Krystal passed away on April 6th of this year. She was 21 years young. Born with congestive heart failure and lung disease, she spent much of her childhood in hospitals. She also had cerebral palsy but never let her medical challenges slow her down. She was a social butterfly, an old soul, and an adoring daughter and sister. In the wake of Krystal’s passing, Lená has found great comfort in her extended family at The Forest. “If I need a hug, a laugh, someone to talk sports or music with, there’s always someone here for me,” she says. “I’m so thankful for everyone here – residents and team members alike.”

Lená cites the positive energy and love she feels at The Forest as primary reasons why her job has become her passion. “I always want everything to be rainbows, unicorns, and glitter, and more often than not, I come to work to find rainbows, unicorns, and glitter,” Lená grins. “And the occasional giraffe.”

Lauren Young, Marketing Specialist

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