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Alum Returns to Volunteer Full-time in Valley

Elizabeth Rivera, March 9, 2009
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When you first meet Karen Ong you quickly become aware that she is someone going places. What you don't know is that she's getting to those places in a beat-up old trailer packed to the brim with toilet paper, toothpaste, groceries, and clothes. She sits in the passenger seat, maybe fiddles with the radio, the driver revs up the engine and it is the start of another typical day as the first full-time volunteer coordinator for JPPM.

JPPM is Jail, Prison, and Program Ministries, an organization based in California's Napa Valley that ministers to prisoners and their families. Three years ago, Karen was at PUC finishing up her senior year as a bio-chemistry major and heading the ministry KidzReach, JPPM's children's program. KidzReach takes children from unstable homes and gives them a weekly day of fun filled with loving adults and activities.

Then Karen received a diploma and said a sad goodbye to KidzReach. She had wanted to keep working with JPPM, but the lack of a real position and funds made it impossible. She moved to Washington, D.C., and became a fellow with the National Institute of Health (NIH), where she spent the next two years doing medical research.

And then she began applying to and interviewing at graduate schools. She woke up in hotel rooms across the country and thought not about interviews, but about those kids who needed her. Something inside Karen kept pulling her back to JPPM. " I just couldn't stop thinking about it," she says.

She knew if she didn't she'd regret it, but doing so was impractical and seemingly impossible.

But Karen decided to try anyway. And things began to fall into place. First, the expansion of JPPM and a full-time position for this grossly understaffed organization that has helped over 1,000 families during its 20-year run. Then Karen's parents moved to Oakland, which provided her with housing. She was accepted to New York University's M.D./Ph.D. program and was allowed to defer until next July.

Karen now juggles various duties at JPPM while working toward three major goals: getting JPPM officially recognized, establishing an official taskforce position so there will be another full-time worker next year, and getting more people involved through PR. Her days are unpredictable. A Monday of bouncing back dozens of e-mails and working on the website will be followed by a Tuesday registering cars donated to JPPM and a Wednesday doing homework with a handful of girls. Last week she unexpectedly spent four hours in the ER helping a woman with health issues and also driving around in that old trailer packed to the brim. She drives around checking up on families, some of which don't have phones, and connecting one-on-one. These families have a parent in jail and/or dealing with drug addicition, and kids (and adults) in need of some love. And that's what JPPM is all about - not raising money or amazing programs, but love. Reaching out to a community in need of healing, and trying to put a stop to the vicious cycle of incarceration and poverty.

To an outsider, this year working for JPPM might look like a lateral move, but as Karen says, "I'm not sure how it fits in with my long-term career goals but I'm sure that it's really important." She speaks passionately about the need she sees in the community, of the people she's helped and of all the big dreams she has for JPPM. And it all started with the simple idea: "If I want to see this, I have to make it happen."

Of working with JPPM and KidzReach Karen says simply,"It sets your life in the direction that you've wanted it to go, but weren't sure you had the strength to do." And without meaning to she inspires others with her stories to ask, What am I scared I can't do? What direction have I been aching for my life to go in? And she provides a few answers as well: Start now; the rest will fall into place; take the first step now and jump.

JPPM is constantly looking for volunteers and help. If you'd like to help with time or money, please contact Karen Ong at