Ashley Haynes

Ashley Haynes with her dog Hurley on her family's property with a neighboring farm in the background. Haynes works for NAMI (National Alliance for Mental Illness) and is organizing the NAMIWalk in Baltimore. (Photo by Nate Pesce / May 14, 2013)

Ashley Haynes is working long hours out of a tiny cubicle these days, earning about half what she was a few months ago. And she couldn't be happier.

As events and education outreach coordinator for National Alliance on Mental Health Illness in Maryland, the 29-year-old Woodbine resident finally has a job where she can honor the beloved older sister who was brutally murdered 20 years ago.

"Kristin (Haynes, her sister) is definitely what has inspired me to work to make a change for the better for people, whether it's world hunger or mental illness," said Haynes, who is organizing NAMI Maryland's annual fundraising walk, scheduled for Saturday, May 18, at Baltimore's Inner Harbor.

"There was so much anger and so much hate," she said of her feelings about her sister's slaying. "You can take that anger and let it consume you … or you can use that ability to relate to people's trials and tribulations, to get inside people's hearts and understand how they're feeling, and use it for something good."

Even before she lost her sister, Ashley Haynes was no stranger to adversity. She lost both her grandfathers as a child and her mother when she was in first grade. And then came the summer of 1993.

Kristin Haynes, then 19, was living and working in Cockeysville when Ashley and her father decided to visit her at her job. When they were told that Kristin hadn't shown up for work in a week, her father notified the police and filed a missing person report.

A search began, but it was two months before Kristin's badly decomposed body was found near the Genstar Quarry, in Cockeysville. A 24-year-old Cockeysville man, described during his trial as someone she barely knew who had given her a ride home from a party, was arrested and convicted of second-degree murder in her death.

The death of the woman who had been her stand-in mother devastated the 9-year-Ashley. "My sister was 'that person' in my life," she said.

But instead of falling apart, Haynes channeled her energies into sparing her grieving father any more pain. She never cut school, got good grades, played lacrosse and ran indoor track at Glenelg High School, and generally stayed out of trouble.

"I did everything I could from that point on to cure my father's pain, to make sure he didn't have to go through anything like he went through with the loss of my sister," she explained.

Unfulfilling jobs

She continued that high achievement after high school when she snared a series of well-paying jobs: a manager for a mortgage company, a sales representative for a diamond corporation.

The money was good, but the feeling the work gave her was not.

"It was terrible," she recalled. "I was feeling my spirit just wither away.

"My peers were all working 14 hours a day to buy the next cool thing. I realized that if I was going to spend 14 hours a day working, I wanted to do something more fulfilling. … I needed to get back to something more personally rewarding."

Last year, Haynes decided to look for work with a nonprofit corporation. She answered an ad for a part-time job with NAMI Maryland.

"I had never even heard of NAMI," Haynes said.

Intrigued by a surprisingly rigorous application process, she did some research on the group and on mental illness.

"The statistics were alarming," she recalled. "Mental illness is not just schizophrenia, the stuff you hear about. It's depression, bipolar disorders. … It's something that affects one in four Americans. And there's such a stigma associated with it, that keeps people from getting help.

"I really felt like I could be a spokesman for this, really help people my age, and parents. … I knew I had to see where this would take me."