It’s a journey which Karen O’Bannon could not have possibly predicted 31 years ago, yet here she is. After 22 years as the Oak Valley Hospital District Family Support Network (FSN) Department Manager, O’Bannon has turned in her keys and called it a day.
In late May and after several months of deliberation, O’Bannon has happily entered into the life of retirement. The journey first began for her in the early 1990’s after relocating to Oakdale with her second husband, Brian. The couple first met while employed at St. Joseph’s Hospital.
O’Bannon was a single mother at the time, after her first husband was involved in a tragic accident in 1987. Meeting her second husband and relocating to Oakdale, felt like a positive shift to a tide which had previously been tumultuous.
“As difficult as it all was, I don’t have any what ifs,” she said of her early chapters. “I’ve always believed in life there’s purpose.”
O’Bannon continued to state, she wasn’t quite clear on why her first husband was in such a tragic accident, with a wife and young child.
“However with me going forward, I felt there was a purpose for what I had gone through,” she admitted. “I’m so grateful for the way my life is today.”
Shortly after relocating, the family welcomed a second child to the fold and O’Bannon began getting involved in the community as a volunteer. Her activism landed her in the company of well-known community volunteer Mickey Peabody. An active member with Oak Valley Hospital at the time, Peabody reached out to O’Bannon for help with a family resource center.
“It was kind of funny,” she said of her early volunteer work with Peabody, “we just went places.”
As they did, they would speak of the idea and engage with community members on what a facility like that would entail.
“What I call it is, community building from the inside out,” O’Bannon said. “You ask the people that live here, what do you need? To me this is the way it should always work.”
By January of 1996 she was hired as a part-time employee to assist Peabody with the Family Support Network. Later that month the two women traveled to Minnesota for training in a parent network program. That was the area they had received the most feedback of “need” for from the community.
As she looked ahead, O’Bannon knew there was a need and would be no shortage of people attending the workshops. The challenge she felt would be in finding enough volunteers to facilitate the program for the two-year length of the program.
“I had more facilitators than I could use,” she said of her volunteers. “I had 16 and I only needed eight. So we had two groups that met twice monthly every Friday night for two years.”
Her 22 years of service to the community is filled with stories of some heartache, but mostly successes. One in particular being that of a pregnant high school student who wanted to complete her education, but was unable to find child care once the baby came. The resources O’Bannon and her team offered at that time led the teen nowhere. Not one to be swayed, the Department Manager found a way to find her child care.
“She was the first person in her family to graduate from high school,” O’Bannon said with pride.
She then went on to graduate college and spent a bit of her career as a staff member of FSN, including working with Familias Unidads serving Spanish speaking parents and students.
“I of all people become speechless when I think of how honored I am to have been able to be part of these people’s lives,” O’Bannon shared, noting a feeling of privilege to serve so many people during her 22-year career.
“Our entire staff has a heartfelt commitment to what we do,” she continued. “We don’t consider it a job.”
According to the pioneer, all staff of FSN have been either a volunteer or program participant before joining the team. It’s a fact that she’s proud of, as well as relates to through her own journey following her husband’s accident 31 years ago.
“They became my support network,” she said of the speech therapist, physical therapist, doctors and team which served her first husband post-accident. “They became my friends. They became the ones that knew me and knew the journey. They took the time for me.”
And it was through that experience, that O’Bannon recognized the value of helping just one person.
Looking ahead, she shared the decision to retire was not easy, yet she recognized it was time.
“I’m so excited about it that my cheeks hurt from smiling,” she confessed.
Plans beyond that are still to be determined. For now, the wife and mother of two looks forward to sitting in her garden and enjoying dinner with her husband of 27 years.