Substance abuse, homelessness, and prison have consumed a large portion of 52-year-old Ron Owens’s life.
But it wasn’t until a few years ago, when a doctor diagnosed the Dorchester native with bipolar disorder, that he began receiving the medical help he needed. Sober since 2008, Owens is now active in the City Mission Society of Boston and other local outreach organizations.
On January 24, he spoke to Emerson students and staff to kick off the College’s Day of Service, when participants volunteered for a variety of community service organizations on campus and around Boston to honor the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
“You just can’t look at a homeless person and say, ‘They don’t want anything different,’” Owens said. “Until you speak to that person…you really don’t know his or her story.”
Carl McDonald, director of urban outreach at City Mission Society, also spoke to the Emerson group, and said the average age of a homeless person is 9. He said women in area homeless shelters have an average of three young children with them.
Owens, a recovering crack cocaine addict who spent several years locked up at the MCI-Walpole prison for attempted murder—he told the audience he stabbed a man who attacked him in a drug deal gone bad—praised students who reserve judgment and want to help others.
“It takes a certain kind of breed to work in [community] service,” Owens said. “I commend the ones who are doing it now, and especially the younger ones who are on that path.”
“It takes a certain kind of breed to work in [community] service. I commend the ones who are doing it now, and especially the younger ones who are on that path.”
Owens spoke before the Emerson group before they embarked on several volunteer missions both on and off campus. Some made blankets to give to homeless children; others served meals at Boston Rescue Mission downtown, and visited the Russell Elementary School in Dorchester to help with lunch monitoring. A handful of participants wrote letters to lawmakers asking for easier access to education for undocumented immigrants.
Owens said he came from a churchgoing family. He attended a boarding school for privileged youth outside Boston as a teenager before he got kicked out for alcohol abuse, and then was expelled from a second school for using drugs. “When I was your age, I was running around wreaking havoc, even though I had the best advice,” Owens told students.
He spoke openly about committing a robbery at a coffee shop as a young man to fuel his drug addiction, and sleeping on Boston Common.
Upon his release from prison, Owens became active in several Boston nonprofit organizations to help the homeless, but relapsed on drugs and alcohol multiple times. It wasn’t until his diagnosis of bipolar disorder in 2008—and finally receiving proper mental health treatment—that his life truly began to turn around.
“I do this [volunteering] because I know I had the opportunity [when I was younger] and I did not live up to my potential,” Owens said. “By doing this I can re-live, in a positive way, some of my mistakes and know not to let them happen again.”
Owens now lives in a home he obtained through HomeStart Inc., an organization that assists low-income people find permanent housing.
Ashley Tarbet ’09, who works for Emerson’s Elma Lewis Center for Civic Engagement, Learning, and Research, said she felt compelled to participate in the Day of Service.
“I look at some of the kids I grew up with,” in Brockton, Massachusetts, which has a high percentage of low-income people, “who were probably not as successful because they didn’t have the opportunities I did,” she said.
“I come from a family of service,” said Tarbet, who said both her parents used to be teachers. “It just makes sense to give back.”