By Karin Evans
Ashby Village Volunteer Kris Owens’ best-laid plans were to keep working at the job she loved—“until I died at my desk from the sheer pressure of my job at the age of maybe 69 or 70,” she says. Why not? It was a job she loved, managing a commercial escrow branch, all women, in the title insurance industry. “I totally enjoyed what I was doing. It was interesting, fascinating, nothing boring.”
But then, at the age of 61, Kris was diagnosed with breast cancer. “It was totally a life-changing event for me. All of a sudden I realized, maybe I don’t have that much time, and maybe I don’t want to be doing this forever.” She went through treatment, recovered, and groomed a successor.
At 64, she retired, with no intentions but to take it easy, enjoy life, and travel. Six months later, Kris had cleaned out all her drawers and was totally bored. Her oncologist, Lisa Bailey, M.D., suggested she come volunteer in the Carol Ann Read Breast Health Center, which Bailey had created, to help other women who were going through what Owens had been through. “I got really involved with that,” Kris says. “It made me feel good to help someone, and my only regret was that I didn’t have someone like me to help when I got cancer.” Kris volunteered there for two days a week, for three years.
Just as she was casting about for something else to do, Owens was invited to an Ashby Village neighborhood chat at the Emeryville Watergate, near where she lives. She immediately signed up to volunteer. She did that “ferociously,” as she puts it, five days a week. She took members grocery shopping and to hair appointments, and she went to as many Village events, as she could—from yoga classes to luncheons. She loved everyone she met.
After a year she became a member, as well as a volunteer, and began an even deeper involvement in the life of Ashby Village. After meeting one amazing 90-year-old after another, she realized how valuable the help of a MedPal could be. So she decided to take Marion Anderson’s MedPal course. “Then Marion asked me to join in her classes, and I would play the patient and she would play the doctor, and we would do some skits about what to do and not do,” says Kris.
When Marion stepped down a few months ago, Kris was asked to take over the MedPal trainings. “I said, ‘I think you guys are crazy, but okay,’” she says with a laugh. “My only experience was with the breast cancer volunteer work. But I figured as long as I had the compassion and the enthusiasm and wanted to do it, I would.”
The experience has turned out better than she could have imagined. “It’s surprising because my whole career was in a very contentious industry, working in a competitive, nasty business,” she says. “To survive that you have to be really aggressive and assertive. Compassion wasn’t even in my dictionary! “So this is a new part of my life,” says Kris. “Now I am totally, completely involved in Ashby Village and I think the concept is the greatest thing anyone has ever done for seniors. I love the idea.
In the past I have given money only to women’s causes, such as breast cancer organizations and Friends of Faith Fancher. Now Ashby Village will get all of my donations because they are local and the money stays here and it goes to the members and the staff and to the members who can’t afford the fee.
I think the staff are so fabulous and so dedicated, and I don’t know how they manage to do all they do. “I have never been involved in any organization that is as valuable as what they do at Ashby Village,” she continues. “I think all of the board members and the women who run different committees are just incredible.” And, she adds, “I am constantly trying to recruit people! Join up and you could do something every day for a year for just $750. You get so much! “For me it’s been really rewarding. I enjoy getting up in the morning and then I get in my car and I go out and do something for someone. There is more to life than just going on cruises and taking it easy.” Kris laughs. “I never thought I’d leave my career path, but here I am. I just love doing this.”