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  • Napa Valley Marketplace Magazine

Value in Service and Courage to Listen - Jeni Olsen

Rough Around the Edges Backstory in her own words . . .

“I started fantasizing about suicide when I was 13. Just thinking about it would bring me a sense of relief, as I imagined it was the only way to stop my desperate pain and loneliness.

“I was different. I didn’t fit in. I used drugs and alcohol to numb at an early age. When I was 15, I ended up in rehab. Forced to feel my pain, I wanted to end my life.

“I spent the next month and a half in a psychiatric hospital, which made me feel even more alone and pathetic. I felt guilt at what I was putting my family through, and thought that they, and the world, would be better off without me.

“I didn’t trust anyone, including the therapists at the hospital, who placated me with promises that my life would get better if I followed their program. About halfway through my stay at the hospital, I met a therapist named Rob. He had long hair, tattoos and rode a Harley. He was rough around the edges, like me.

“He never said too much, but just being in his presence made me feel calm. He was real. Once, after I had promised him I would stop hurting myself, I cut my wrists and was placed in solitary confinement.

“He came in the next day and stormed into my room and said, ‘You promised me you wouldn’t do this. I believed you. I’m not going to waste my time if you’re not going to stand by your word!’

It was the most real thing anyone had said to me during that period. In that moment, I knew I wanted to get better. Because somebody, this one person, really saw me and heard me and cared about me, when everyone else was too afraid to listen. Rob saved my life.

“We want those struggling to have the courage to ask for help, but what is equally as important for the rest of us is the courage to listen. As a parent, the hardest thing we might hear is that our child is in pain, so much pain that they want to die.

“As a friend or family member, we might not know what to say if someone we love is in so much pain they can’t imagine going on. It might be easier to ignore these cries for help, especially because we don’t know how to help.

“Just acknowledging someone’s pain can make all the difference. We don’t need to have answers.”

Just Listen

“It might be as simple as holding space for a friend so they feel loved. It might be as serious as connecting them to resources so they can get professional help. In order to break the stigma against mental health issues and suicide, we need to be better at seeing people and at hearing people. We need to make it safe for people who are suffering to reach out. And we desperately need to become better listeners.”

Passion and Heart Centered Work

In 2010, Jeni had a significant life change that caused her to reconnect with feelings she had as a teen – loneliness, fear and insecurity. With help from family, a few close friends and her “amazing” therapist, she worked through her pain and started the path to recovery.

The bridge from wanting to end her life to finding value in giving back is where Jeni found inspiration. She shares her story to remind people to connect, listen and learn how to support by being authentic. One person saved her life. He listened.

Along the way she had an overwhelming drive to work with teens, to help them connect on a

deeper level to our world, to find meaning and purpose in working with others. “I think because I am so passionate about my work with teens, it’s contagious in a way,” she explained. So a service community forms. People share and change happens.

Fast Forward - Be the Change

Today Jeni Olsen is doing amazing things in our community. Her model is to connect with other organizations and non-profits, to enhance their programs by involving our local teens.

For instance, after extensive research through Jane Goodall’s model of community mapping, she discovered there was a large percentage of children in Napa at low reading level. So she partnered with the Boys and Girls Clubs of Napa to enhance their teen-mentoring program, and there are now over 100 teen mentors working with elementary-aged kids at low reading level. These teen mentors also serve the homeless, hold collections for local vulnerable communities, and inspire their friends to be involved.

How Does She Do It?

Where does she find the time to run her graphic design business, be a wife, mother PLUS do all this community service?

“I honestly don’t know. Sometimes I am amazed at how much I get done. I get up early. I drink a lot of coffee! This kind of work fuels me and it somehow all happens.”

List Maker

Jeni is constantly making lists – always updating priorities. She has separate projects. They each have their own list. “There may be 42 things going on at once and I just refocus and do one thing at a time. That part is not so easy,” she confessed.


“The payoff comes when they are inspired to do more in the world, locally and/or globally. When I see that spark, that connection to our world, I know they get it.

“The payoff is when one of my teens texts me and says, ‘You have changed my life by introducing me to humanitarian work.’ Or, ‘I love you.’ I get a lot of I love you’s. I take my teens to coffee, to dinner, and I know this time is very valuable and meaningful – to them and to me. They have another adult they can trust. I mostly just listen.”

Bottom Line - Value in Service

“Teens give to children in Napa who need help with reading, to children living in their cars who need basic necessities like food or a toothbrush, to children in Honduras who need shoes. Their life changes when they receive by giving to others. They find confidence. They find value and self-worth. They know they are important to a child, to another person in this world. Helping others is contagious.

“When I do feel tired, I take a break. But not for long. I think about how important this work is that I’m doing with teenagers. I wish I had found this connection when I was a teen. It fills me up. It fuels me.”

About Jeni

Jeni owns her own business, Jeni Olsen Design: She lives in Napa with her husband, Martin, son Levi, student at Napa Valley College, and son Max, Jr. student at Napa High School.

Want to get Involved?

go to the Facebook page of each project and find out how you can help BE THE CHANGE.

Be The Change

Be The Change is a teen service club within the Boys and Girls Clubs of Napa, working to make a difference in our local and global communities. Be the Change was formerly Roots & Shoots Napa. Jeni helped start the club with her youngest son, Max, a student at River Middle School.

Homeless of Napa

Homeless of Napa was a Leadership Napa Valley, Class 29 project that raised awareness about the reality of Napa’s homeless by engaging the community through outreach and education. The project is currently being used by Napa County Public Health to acquire funding to continue to work towards ending homelessness in Napa.

Village: Napa

Village: Napa is a group of educators, mental health professionals and parents who are creating a community of support for teen wellness and mental health, in partnership with Aldea Family Services.

Global Humanitarian Work - Napa Valley Shoe Drive

In partnership with Soles4Souls, Napa continues to collect shoes, which are distributed in America and developing countries to help fight poverty. |

Next Community Service

Project - MLK Monday: A Day of Action & Compassion

A community gathering in honor and remembrance of Martin Luther King, Jr., organized by Rabbi Lee Bycel from Congregation Beth Shalom and the MLK coalition - a group of non-profits, religious groups and local service organizations in Napa. The community will be engaged in volunteer projects that benefit children, seniors, animals and the environment.

Save the Date - Monday, January 16th, 2017.

Photo Credit: Briana Marie Photography


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