Story by Amy S. Zimbelman / Photos by Helen Kinser
When I met Pinkey Dunston for breakfast at a local restaurant, she had shown up early. She lounged at a table with her walker close at hand, chumming it up with other folks over iced coffees.
“Oh, are these your friends?” I asked.
“Not officially; I just met them,” she said.
It was then that I learned a key fact about Pinkey Dunston: she knows how to strike up a conversation to make people feel comfortable—in other words, she knows how to love on folks. And her life has given her plenty of opportunities to do just that.
Pinkey Dunston (who will proudly tell you that yes, Pinkey is the real name on her birth certificate) grew up in Brooklyn, NY. She has lived up and down the East Coast, in Baltimore, Massachusetts, and for the past four years in North Carolina.
She now works at the Durham Bulls Stadium checking tickets, a job she was connected with by StepUp staff. Less than two weeks after completing StepUp’s Jobs Week, she interviewed with the stadium and was hired on the spot. She had been hoping for seasonal work and work that could adjust to her Multiple Sclerosis (MS), and this was a great fit.
“It’s good for me because of my walker—I’m not required to stand or sit; I can choose. It’s fun because I get to meet a lot of nice people,” she says.
Though she loves to shoot the breeze with whoever’s around, Pinkey is nothing if not a hard worker.
“I love working,” she says. “I’ve always worked. When I’m stuck at home, I’m like, ‘I’m going crazy!’”
Pinkey has had many jobs over the years—from security to data entry to fish packing—oftentimes holding two full-time jobs at the same time to support her three children when they were growing up. But her most steady employment has been caring for people in nursing homes and mentally disabled folks as a Certified Nursing Assistant. She has done this kind of work for 40 years.
She told one story that stood out to her from her time at a nursing home in Baltimore:
“I would talk to them [the nursing home residents] about my life and I loved it,” she says. “But there was this 105-year-old man who said at first, ‘Get away from me.’ He didn’t like getting help. He was very bright and had all his senses. I would get to work early just so I could get history from him. While he’d talk, I’d help him shave, or help him put on his shoes. He would never realize the help I’d been giving him because he would talk about his life story—all about being in the war, about his wife. It was really beautiful to hear his story.”
While her professional life was often filled with caring for others, Pinkey’s personal life also dealt her a tragedy that she in turn used to encourage others.
In 2004, she got a call from her daughter-in-law. It was about her son Clinton, who was a teacher at New Bedford High School in Massachusetts. He had been shot three times.
“I was numb,” she says. “Clinton died five days before his 25th birthday. His son—my grand baby—hadn’t turned a year old yet.”
Reeling from this tragedy, Pinkey left her job at the nursing home. She began working as a security officer at the University of Maryland Medical Center’s shock trauma building.
“In Baltimore, so many young men got shot and killed. Over time when someone was shot and killed, the rabbi or pastor would come to get me. I would sit with the family and say, ‘I just lost my son too. Don’t think about anything but your child.’ I was able to deter a lot of craziness when emotions were running high.”
Pinkey got voted Shock Trauma Superstar by her colleagues for counseling so many families.
“The other officers said to me, ‘No one in security has ever gotten that award.’ It was really nice to be honored,” she says.
Though she enjoyed helping so many families, in 2012 Pinkey moved to North Carolina to care for a member of her own family: her cousin, whose wife had died and whose leg had been amputated.
While here in Durham, she fell on hard times, and had to live in a shelter for a while. It was while she was living in the shelter that she met a StepUp Durham staff person, and she decided to give Jobs Week a try.
Since she’s clearly been able to find employment for herself over the years, I asked her how attending StepUp’s Jobs Week helped her.
“Believe it or not, I think I was just so depressed about being in a shelter. Everything was knocking me back, knocking me back, knocking me back,” she says. “When I did a couple of mock interviews with StepUp it was great—they gave us a lot of feedback. I realized that I had to get back to being Pinkey…I kinda forgot about Pinkey the person.”
And since being hired at Bulls Stadium, the extra spending cash enabled Pinkey to not only move out of the shelter, but she’ll be able to visit her four grandchildren in Massachusetts more often—including her grandson Clinton who she says looks and acts exactly like his father. He was picked as a representative from Massachusetts to play in a national little league baseball team this next season.
“Things are going really really good for me. Right now, life is just falling in place,” she says.
Amy Spaulding Zimbelman is a Masters of Divinity student at Duke Divinity School and an intern at StepUp.
Helen Kinser is a photographer who serves at StepUp through Johnson (Episcopal) Service Corps.