My first real job came a few months after I started grad school in 2013. A professor told me about an opening at the University of Maryland, Baltimore, where one of her former students was hiring. “I think you and Jenny would be a great fit,” she said. I applied, interviewed, was quickly offered the job and began working for Jenny Owens, one of the most motivated, positive and generous individuals I've ever met.
As a boss, Jenny was equally interested in my professional growth and fulfillment and my personal happiness (at times maddeningly so). I started out as a contractual employee, so she wasn’t obligated to give me yearly performance reviews or routine check-ins, but she did anyway. When I’d get into the office each Monday morning, half-asleep, she’d excitedly ask me about my weekend and revel in each detail, no matter how mundane. When I’d come down with a cold, she’d lean in my doorway and gently ask, “Are you eating enough greens, Katie?”
Jenny was a motivated superhuman who could put a positive spin on anything, from unexpected DIY home projects to another undertaking at work that might “technically” be outside her job description. She was always working on something, whether it was related to her doctorate or checking items off of her Baltimore bucket-list, which was beautifully chalked onto the dining room wall at her home.
Jenny cared. I couldn’t find any aspect of her life where that quality didn’t apply.
So while I was nervous to tell her I’d be taking another job two years after I started working with her, I knew, deep down, she wouldn’t be anything but happy for me. And, of course, she was.
Over the next year, Jenny and I kept in touch, which is a unique feat for someone who is as embarrassingly absent on social media and careless with text messages as I am. She delighted in hearing about the plans for my upcoming wedding, and I listened excitedly as she updated me on her pregnancy. She was due in April of that year, and we imagined her new baby’s debut at my wedding in May.
Jenny’s son, Max, was born April 2, 2016 with Congenital Diaphragmatic Hernia (CDH), a rare health condition requiring him to have major surgery at just a few days old and giving him a 50/50 chance of survival. I remember taking dinner to Jenny and her husband at the NICU at Hopkins, just a few days before my wedding, after Max had undergone his surgery. Jenny and I talked in the parking lot for a bit — she updated me on how Max was doing, how she and Nick were holding up, and apologized for probably not being able to make my wedding. (Seriously, Jenny?! I more than understood.) She also told me about the other families she’d met in the NICU — many of whom had traveled from all over the country — and how she felt so fortunate to be living in Baltimore, home to some of the best medical facilities in the world. Maybe there was something she could do to help those other families, she’d mused. I knew Jenny. This seed would grow and flourish, I was sure of it.
And flourish it has. In the months that followed, Jenny started Hosts for Humanity, an organization that matches volunteer hosts with families in need of lodging while their loved ones receive medical care in Baltimore. Throughout the past two years, I've cheered from my laptop with each new email update — Jenny’s idea became a functioning 501(c)3 and has continued to gain momentum, receiving various grants and more opportunities to grow. Max is now a healthy, chunky toddler, who loves to sing and be outside.
Last week, Hosts for Humanity was selected as a runner-up for the Warnock Social Innovator of the Year award given out at Light City. I watched the video recording of Jenny’s presentation. As she emotionally recounted the moments following Max’s diagnosis — how devastated and terrified she and her husband were — I was completely moved by the immense strength and heart of my friend and mentor: Even in her darkest time, Jenny was somehow still thinking of others and determined to find a way to help.
On Tuesday, Jenny will pitch at the Johns Hopkins Social Innovation Lab's Impact + Innovation Forum for a $25,000 grand prize, and I’ll be there to cheer her on. It’s been on my calendar for weeks. She is without a doubt one of the best people I know, and Baltimore is lucky to call her one of its own.
Katie Reid is director of digital media at The Boys' Latin School of Maryland and an MFA candidate in integrated design at University of Baltimore. Her email is firstname.lastname@example.org.