Love of this community inspires Marla E. Jirak, Ph.D., to spend evenings at her sewing machine stitching colorful facemasks to help prevent the spread of COVID-19. Her labor of love so far has produced more than 300 masks and generated more than $1,000 for the Yavapai Community Food Bank. She also supplied free masks through a special donor to staff at Prescott’s Arizona Pioneers’ Home.
“There’s not a thing I have not sewn,” said Jirak, an expert seamstress and former sewing methods engineer for Flexsteel Industries, Inc. in Dubuque, Iowa. She began sewing at age 9, as one of 11 children growing up in a rural Wisconsin family. Upon advancing to management at Flexsteel, she traveled to several satellite facilities training employees and conducting quality control for the firm’s furniture products.
Her masks contain an embedded wire for adjustment over the nose and a lining to accommodate a filter. A $5 contribution for the food bank is requested for each mask. Interested donors can reach her at email@example.com for availability.
“Nothing compares to the satisfaction of helping others,” even while juggling a new career and family obligations, she said.
She and husband, Kevin, relocated to Prescott from Tucson in 2017. Her adult daughter, Anna, moved up from a Phoenix residential facility last year. The family just bought a larger home with a separate living level for Anna, who at six weeks of age had sustained a debilitating brain injury in a car accident. Neither Jirak nor her older daughter, Arica, incurred any serious injuries.
“Residential care for younger people is a challenge because most of the local facilities cater to older residents,” explained Jirak, who owns CoachSmart Consulting, LLC, a practice she has transitioned into advocacy and guidance for caregivers and individuals planning their future care.
Harnessing 38 years of advocating for Anna and serving as power of attorney for her own brother with developmental disabilities, Jirak now helps people cope with disabilities, age and health challenges. She utilizes her master’s and doctorate degrees to full advantage.
Key to putting wheels in motion is a workbook she created to identify and document what loved ones need, along with validating resources she recommends.
“If you don’t really understand the benefits that disabled people can get, you don’t really know what to go after,” she said. “I have a Ph.D., and sometimes I don’t understand it. A lot of the time, that information is not given out freely. If you don’t do it every day, it can be overwhelming.”
Getting help is “an overly complicated process, and it doesn’t have to be that way,” she added. “With all this information floating in my head, I felt like a mouse on a wheel going around and around. This is a way for me to give back to our community here in Prescott.”
She also aims to create opportunities for caregivers to share their experiences with brain injuries. Cognitive, memory and mood issues often can be eased with routines, she explained, including menus defined by days of the week.
“Some days caring for another person is frustrating,” she acknowledged. “Brain injury is so complicated. You cannot always figure out what is going on. It’s always a challenge. And then there are other days that are truly a gift. That’s something my daughter gives back to me.”
Prescott has proven ideal for the family, in addition to being hours away from Lake Powell for boating and fishing. She said it is important for caregivers to find respite.
“I love Prescott,” Jirak said. “It’s a great community. When I have Anna with me, people couldn’t be kinder. The most significant thing I have noticed here is that people are really nice. We like the size of the town. It has enough of the arts, although we still wish for a few more restaurants. We support local restaurants all the time. Part of our responsibility in moving here is to keep this little town going.”
What is your most valued character quality?
“One of my best gifts when retiring from corporate America was from a young woman whom I had coached. She said that one of the things that stood out about me and that was important to her was that I have integrity and try to demonstrate that in who I am. It was such a nice compliment. I am a straight-shooter, very honest and very loyal. I finish what I say I am going to do.”
If you could have lunch with any person, living or dead, who would that be?
“Meryl Streep. She’s very gifted as an actress. I always like the roles she plays. She’s very, very smart. I find it invigorating to be around smart people and listen to what they know, especially how it is displayed artistically.”
What is your guilty pleasure?
“Most people who know me well understand that I love to fish more than the average person. I could fish 24 hours a day. It all started when I was very young and went ice fishing with my dad.”
What is the number one advice you have for young professionals?
“You have to believe in yourself and your skills regardless of people who tell you that you can’t do it. Find the thing that you have a passion for, go for it, and welcome the advice of a good mentor.”
When have you been star-struck?
“I met Stephen Hawking several times. He was a phenomenal individual. I had extreme admiration for what he was up against and [how] he found a way to get out what he knew to the public.” QCBN