She beat out more than 200 other applicants for the job and in October started working in NAMI's headquarters on Little Patuxent Parkway, in Columbia. In April, the job was expanded into a full-time position.

Working with NAMI has helped Haynes realize how much she had bottled up her own feelings after her sister's death. Just as people suffering from mental illness are often reluctant to talk about it, she was reluctant to talk about the death — to the point where even good friends didn't know about it.

"Here I was encouraging other people to tell their story and get help ... without doing it myself," she said. "I realized the link, and the opportunity."

NAMI Maryland Executive Director Kate Farinholt said she did not know about Haynes' sister when she hired her, but she was impressed with Haynes' empathy from the start.

"We saw something really special in Ashley," Farinholt said. "She didn't necessarily know a lot about what we did, but she was extremely receptive. She wanted to know.

"We want people to be passionate about what we do," Farinholt added. "We want people who want to help make a difference. And Ashley's got all that."

Haynes' brother Mark, 37,  who lived through the same family tragedies, was not surprised by his sister's new job and her take on it.

"Since she was  a little kid, Ashley's always been that person that helps everyone," he said. "She has a good heart."

What their family has endured, he said, "makes her want to reach out and try to help and help and help. She's a very good person. She'll do well with NAMI."

More than a fundraiser

Haynes' work focus these days is on the statewide NAMIWalk, the organization's primary fundraiser. The 3K event is held every year in May, which is mental health awareness month.

"It's a fun event, but a ton of work," Haynes said. She said she is hoping for 2,000 walkers and a total of 5,000 participants, which also includes supporters, volunteers, vendors, spectators and others. The goal is to raise $300,000.

NAMI Maryland has an annual budget of less than $600,000, Farinholt said.

Both Farinholt and Haynes said the walk is more than a fundraiser.

"It's about raising awareness," Farinholt said. "It gets people talking about mental illness."

"It's an opportunity to become more visible, make more connections," Haynes said. "It's getting the organization out there, showing people we're here to help."

And for Ashley Haynes, the NAMIWalk is also another step toward healing.

"Everybody has their own stuff they have to deal with," said Haynes, who now lives in the same Woodbine house she grew up in. "Regrettably, my family's specialty has been loss.

"But I think you're given what you can bear and my family is bearing it. … If I let this consume me, he (her sister's killer) has won twice. So I won't."

For more information about NAMI or the NAMIWalk, go to namimd.org.