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.
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."
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.