St. Francis College Grad’s Life Goal: Giving Health Care to Those Who Need it Most

Zenovia Gonzalez with Maria Paige, a permanent patient at the Chateau. (Photo: Alicia Venter)

SHEEPSHEAD BAY — As she walked across the stage at the historic Kings Theatre in May, St. Francis College co-valedictorian Zenovia Gonzalez was closing in on her goal of becoming a doctor specializing in emergency medicine. 

During her four years pursuing a bachelor’s degree in biology, the Marine Park resident excelled, being part of the elite Dun Scotus honors society and earning a spot in medical school at SUNY Downstate Health Sciences University.

The dream, however, wasn’t born in the hallways of the Downtown Brooklyn college. It began when she was 14 years old, at a local rehabilitation center 10 minutes from her home. 

At the Chateau at Brooklyn Rehabilitation and Nursing Center, she found her passion: helping people at the most vulnerable times of their lives. 

When people are in the last stage of their life, they want someone to talk to, she said.

Gonzalez started volunteering in high school, alongside her sister. She was attending LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts, and dreamed of dancing on Broadway. Also, she was constantly excelling in her science courses, and at her mother’s suggestion, she decided to apply to the Chateau at Brooklyn as a volunteer, seeing the position as a way to explore the health care field.

There, she met Diane Ryabo, the director of recreation at the Chateau, and they quickly bonded. Ryabo sees her as a daughter figure, while describing her as a leader who does not need a lot of motivation or direction, and succeeds through her own initiative.

“It’s not so often that you get a student that’s just so above and beyond,” Ryabo said.

The Chateau is primarily focused on rehabilitation services, offering a safe environment for elderly clients to recover from a range of injuries, and houses some long-term patients with dementia and Alzheimers.

The Chateau at Brooklyn Rehabilitation and Nursing Center is in Sheepshead Bay. Zenovia Gonzalez began volunteering at the center in high school and is now attending medical school. (Photo: Alicia Venter)

Unlike some other volunteers, Gonzalez had no fear or hesitation about working with the sick and elderly, in fact relishing opportunities to spend hours at patients’ sides, being a friend when they would otherwise have no one. 

When Gonzalez completes her medical degree — and Ryabo is certain she will — she could see her returning to be a doctor at the facility.

“Departments were fighting over her,” Ryabo said. “I really feel it’s almost like your own child succeeded and became all grown up and they want to continue doing the work that you do.” 

Gonzalez began volunteering every day during her summer break, and whenever possible when school was in session. At the center, she helped with baking classes, theater art therapy, and a range of other recreational events. 

She was also just a friendly person to speak with, helping people like Maria Paige, a permanent patient at the Chateau.

“She was a wonderful volunteer, and whatever she’s doing now, she’s a credit to them. They’re all wonderful,” Paige said. “This is my family.”

While at St. Francis, the mentorship and internship opportunities Gonzalez took on continued to help her excel. During her freshman year, she spent an internship at St. John’s Episcopal Hospital and found exciting new challenges in the emergency room. 

Zenovia Gonzalez with Diane Ryabo, her supervisor at the Chateau at Brooklyn Rehabilitation and Nursing Center and now close friend. (Photo: Alicia Venter)

To her, it was thrilling to be faced with emergency situations that required immediate attention and diagnosis, saying, “You feel like you’re on fire.” Most notably during her college career, she did an internship at Brown University.

“Coming from such a small college to do research at a Top 10 research institution, it’s unheard of,” she said. “The fact that I did that, I owe to the people that helped to get me here.”

Every Sunday, Gonzalez attends Good Shepherd Catholic Church, and while her faith did not necessarily guide her to her interest in a medical career, she knows that through speaking to God, her prayers come to fruition. 

Even while studying full time at SUNY Downstate, Gonzalez plans to return to the Chateau when she can to volunteer. After years of helping her community, she can’t imagine just leaving it behind.

“It’s good to give back to where you came from, so I do still want to try and find a way to incorporate my goals with the nursing home,” she said.