Being a teenager is tough. The hormones. The physical and emotional changes. The peer pressure and drama of high school. Good grief. It’s stressful just thinking about it. Just ask Zaire Sims. She knows. She went through the struggles just like everyone else, but with an added challenge weighing her down. A big challenge.
Her family was homeless.
Throughout most of her four years at Western Hills University High School in Cincinnati, her family bounced around, finding shelter where they could. Sometimes they stayed with friends. Sometimes they stayed in a hotel room. Zaire ended up moving in with an aunt during her senior year just for a little bit of stability.
While the weight would crush most people, Zaire somehow survived.
“High school was a pretty bad time for me,” she says. “Although I may not have realized it at the time, I was learning resilience, that no matter what happens things will eventually get better. I also learned that you can literally have nothing and still serve others.”
Buoyed by an inner knack for perseverance and a wide range of knowledge gained from hard life lessons, she applied for a scholarship to The Ohio State University through its Young Scholars Program. The program helps propel first-generation college students with a high financial need by giving them coaching, mentoring and advising support, as well as other tools and resources. She thrived in the environment, graduating in 2017 with a bachelor’s degree in social work and the honor of being the program’s inaugural Outstanding Senior Award winner.
“That program changed my life,” she says. “It changed my trajectory.”
It’s a trajectory that eventually led her to Meals on Wheels Southwest Ohio & Northern Kentucky, where she began as a representative payee social worker and is now a building coordinator at Hillcrest Elderly, a senior apartment community in Roselawn where she oversees the activities, programs and support of the community’s 205 residents. It’s also a trajectory that helped her land a national fellowship in the American Society of Aging’s Rise Program.
The Rise Program is a launching pad for the next generation of aging leadership, according to the ASA’s website, whose goal is to create a pool of leaders who are Black, Indigenous or People of Color who can improve the policies and programs at the local, state and national levels, thereby improving the well-being across an increasingly diverse aging population. For Zaire, the ASA program will “allow me to work toward my ultimate goal of providing older adults with an optimal quality of life and promoting a positive perception of aging.”
More than 120 people applied for the fellowship nationally. Zaire was one of only 30 who were selected.
“This is a big, big deal,” says Cheryl Bolender, senior manager of case management services who oversees the social work team and first hired Zaire as an intern. “When I saw the program application, I immediately thought of her. She’s just a perfect fit. When she came to us, her experience was mostly with children who were living with severe with mental illnesses, but she embraced working with seniors. And her having worked with other age groups has really brought a lot to the table and impacted the way we deal with seniors.”
The Rise Program is 20 weeks long, requiring daily work, two-hour meetings each week and attending the national ASA conference on aging in New Orleans in April.
“When Cheryl talked to me about it, it definitely seemed like something I would be interested in,” Zaire says. “She has always believed in me, and because of her I was able to find my passion of helping seniors.”
Her passion for seniors actually has its roots in those difficult days of her youth. Her grandfather had schizophrenia, and she got to witness the unfortunate and unkind ways he was treated.
“But I would always run into his social workers,” she says, “and I was able to see that no matter what someone was going through, you can treat people with respect.”
As a student at OSU, she secured an internship with the Ohio State University Department of Social Change at the Isabell Ridgeway Care Center, which was a nursing home, where she got to see another difficult aspect of senior living: social isolation.
“I saw that outside handful of people, most of the residents there didn’t have anyone to sit and talk with them,” she says.
After working a year in Columbus, she moved back to Cincinnati with the intent of earning a master’s degree in social work at the University of Cincinnati. While earning her MSW during the day, she spent her nights working in the neural behavior unit at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital, which was for children on the autistic spectrum.
“There were some days I would only get two or three hours of sleep,” she says. “[The energy drink] Bang was my best friend.”
As a graduate student, she was continually drawn to the issue of social isolation among seniors that she witnessed as an undergraduate.
“Study after study shows that social isolation increases abuse, exploitation and neglect,” she says. “It was difficult enough, and now COVID has brought social isolation to the forefront. It’s further isolating seniors.”
Which is why she works hard at creating activities and events for the seniors at Hillcrest, whether it’s bingo or ice cream socials or bringing in a food truck. As she knows all-too-well, there’s nothing that anyone can do about their past, but that doesn’t mean you can’t impact their present or—with the help of the ASA Rise Program—change their future.
“There were times I was sure I was not going to make it, when I had self-doubt,” she says. “But I worked hard to get where I am, and my goal is to be and do better. I want to develop skills to help more people.”
Bolender smiles at Zaire’s convictions and determination. “I keep telling her that when I retire I will be able to say I knew her when.”