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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?