The noise of children during the heart of the school day creates a quiet hum in the historic brick building that houses Explorers Academy, a Head Start Program in Billings. Laughter spills out into the hallway and soon, the shuffle of little feet can be heard as these spirited children get ready to make a break from the classroom to the natural play areas just outside the door.
As children trudge on by, the program’s Executive Director, Jennifer Owen, wears a soft smile as she takes in the scene. These tiny bodies are more precious to her than gold. This is what she wakes up to nurture, grow, and empower each and every day.
“I want to see the community pulling in the direction of young children,” Jennifer says with passion. “When we do that, we literally change the brain architecture of these children. We wire that brain for success when they know they are loved, valued, safe and warm and they can succeed.”
It only takes a short conversation to know that a fighting spirit lives in Jennifer Owen’s heart. She’s passionate about her causes and if you give her a chance, she’ll tell you why you should be too.
“Investing in children pays dividends for a lifetime,” she says, making one more passionate point.
She will be the first to tell you that she’s following in the footsteps of some very strong women. “I have this unbroken line of women in my life who have battled and struggled and served in beautiful and different ways,” Jennifer says reflectively. From her great-great-grandmother who fled Eastern Europe during World War I to her great-grandma, who helped raise her, “That strength manifests itself in lots of ways.”
Jennifer’s early school days bring memories of great-grandma Ima. She would grab Jennifer’s hand and walk with her on her way to kindergarten, stopping just shy of the intersection before Garfield School. “She taught me to cross the street and go into school by myself to help me be strong,” Jennifer says with a smile. She’ll never forget the afternoon she watched her great-grandma hanging clothes on the line, visiting with a neighbor over the fence. “I heard her say, ‘That little girl is going to be president someday.’”
It was, in fact, a presidential election that proved to everyone in Jennifer’s family that she had an early love of politics. “It was 1984 when I turned 6 and my mother took me to the voting booth. I got to pull the lever for Ronald Reagan, but, being six, I got bored so I ducked out of the booth. My mom came out and sees this circle of adults standing around. She looks in the center of the circle and there I am, explaining to all of those adults why they should vote Reagan.” Jennifer goes on to say, “The idea of public service and government has been my dream and aspiration my whole life.”
It probably comes as no surprise that as soon as she graduated from Skyview High School in the late ‘90s, she says, “I kept heading east until I got to Washington, D.C.” She graduated from Concordia College Moorhead before moving farther east to do a year of public policy graduate work in Cleveland. Eventually, she and her high school sweetheart who she met at a youth leadership camp, Kurt Owen, would get married and settle amidst the electricity of our nation’s capital.
The atmosphere was powerful and the issues Jennifer had a hand in were, in many cases, life changing. She spent time at the Center for Education Reform working on school choice and charter school initiatives. She moved to Capitol Hill and became a staff assistant on the Senate Energy Committee, working on energy policy and helping draft water rights legislation. That’s when one of the attorneys on the committee struck a nerve. “That person said to me, ‘I can’t have you work on this anymore. You are not an attorney. You don’t speak the language.’”
Jennifer applied to law school the next day.
“I went to George Washington University Law School at night while I worked full time on Capitol Hill. I did that for four years.” Within a year, Jennifer would switch gears again, working as a legislative assistant for Montana’s U.S. Senator Conrad Burns. She would weigh in on landmark issues like the Central American Free Trade Deal by day, and hit the law books after hours. Jennifer says, every night at about the same time, she’d hear the same familiar sound. “At about 5 o’clock, I’d hear Senator Burns’ boots coming down the hall because he would be checking to make sure that I was leaving and going to school.” It’s an endearing memory. “He was really intent that his needs as a senator not impede my desire to get a higher education.”
After graduation, she moved on to work for Van Ness Feldman, a boutique law firm, started by former Capitol Hill staffers in the 1970s, known for its passionate and, many times, pro-bono work. She would barely make it through the door when her life took a devastating turn.
“My first day at Van Ness Feldman was going to be the Tuesday after Labor Day. The Thursday before that, my husband was diagnosed with stage 4 cancer,” Jennifer says. “Every single Friday, that law firm stood by me while I sat there and supported my husband through the chemotherapy and his treatment.”
After a 15-month battle, Kurt Owen lost his fight with esophageal cancer. The love of Jennifer’s life who had just started a career in defense and intelligence work left this world not long after his 30th birthday. To this day, Jennifer knows very little about what Kurt worked on professionally; most of his projects were classified. “The first time that I got any hint about it was at his funeral. One of the people that he worked with stood up and gave some very brief comments and said, ‘Most people in this crowd will never know that the things Kurt did saved lives.’” Jennifer pauses as she states, “Kurt was my first kiss and my first love.”
Throwing herself into work, Jennifer says, “I just felt like the world had moved on and it was so unfair.” She stayed in that deep, dark place until a long-time friend invited her to lunch for a heart-to-heart. “He told me, ‘Listen, when you are 31 and widowed, the whole world is going to tell you that this is the worst thing that has ever happened but the truth is, there is pain bigger than yours in this world. You are stuck in your own suffering. The only way you are going to make it is if you find that pain that is bigger than yours and go serve it.”
Jennifer remembers thinking, “Where could I find a need that was so great that it would consume my thoughts rather than spend every second of every day being mad that my partner wasn’t with me anymore?” She found her answer in a small medical office called Clinica Verde perched in the mountains of Nicaragua. One of the partners at Van Ness Feldman knew of a small non-profit that was trying to start up a premier clinic to serve the poverty-stricken area. They needed someone to help them stock the shelves and maybe plant a few flowers. It didn’t matter that she didn’t speak Spanish. With nothing more than a suitcase and her Bible, she boarded a plane, praying for a way to heal her broken heart.
“Somewhere between 60 and 80% of the country is unemployed. Most people live on two U.S. dollars a day or less. It is poverty, the likes of which I have never seen,” Jennifer shares.
Within three months, the clinic opened its doors and Jennifer was hired as the Executive Director, working to develop a quality of care for this pocket of poverty. Jennifer says, “We thought if we give them the highest quality of healthcare, even though they could pay nothing for it, maybe they would begin to make better choices in a way that changes the trajectory of their family’s health for the long term.”
In time, the clinic, which served women and children with gynecological, prenatal and postnatal services, would get critical medical equipment — fetal heart monitors, ultrasound technology — and the kind of care that delivered dignity. Jennifer says, “When the clinic opened in 2012, it was the only place in this rural area where a woman could get a pap smear in private.” She learned what it looked like when you walk alongside someone to show you care. She adds, “That really transformed me.”
It was also during that time that Jennifer did a lot of talking with God.
“I would do this thing where I would just open my Bible and count on God to just open it to a passage that he wanted me to see,” Jennifer says. For more than two weeks, every time Jennifer randomly opened her Bible, it landed somewhere in the chapter of Job. If you’re not familiar, this entire book is devoted to one man’s incredible trials and his faith in the midst of suffering.
“That process of watching Kurt battle cancer for 15 months and then die with such dignity and faith was so good for him but for me, I was just lost. Finally, after spending two weeks in that book, I got the sense that God could have something bigger in store for me than I could even imagine,” Jennifer says with emotion.
Six months later, Jennifer would head back to Billings. She didn’t board the plane alone. While in the mountains of Nicaragua, she met and fell in love a second time. In 2013, Jennifer would marry again and a year later become a mother to her beautiful, curly-haired son, Rigo.
With the title of mom now added to her list of accomplishments and the confidence to start something from the ground up, Jennifer Owen started looking for her next big adventure. “I looked at starting my own business around kids. I had this little boy, what would I want as a mom?” She scribbled out ideas and dreamt a little bit. “I was working on that, writing a business plan, looking at franchises when one Sunday morning, I was reading the Gazette. I saw an ad for the Executive Director of Head Start,” Jennifer says. She ended up shelving her business plans temporarily and put in her application.
“I came to the board very honestly. I said to them, ‘I don’t have any experience in early childhood development other than this tiny baby of mine, but I do know how to run an organization.” In 2014, Jennifer landed the job. She knew she had some rather large shoes to fill.
“Head Start has been in the community for 45 years and it has been marked by a long line of very good leaders. My predecessor, Kathy Kelker, is sort of a lion in the space of early childhood education.” That wasn’t lost on Jennifer.
Four years later, as she walks these halls, she sees hope. She sees growth. She sees the future. She sees it as she looks at the newly renovated natural playgrounds completed thanks to incredible community support. She feels it when she walks into a classroom that is part of a state-funded pilot program testing the waters to see if Montana should start publically funding preschool. She embraces it when she strolls through Head Start’s newly acquired second facility in Billings and sees the children bee-bopping down the halls. Last summer thanks to a federal grant, Head Start purchased what was once Holy Rosary Church near the corner of Custer Avenue and 5th Street West. The move is paving the way for expansion in new and creative ways.
“Just on eligibility alone, we could triple enrollment and still have unmet need,” Jennifer shares. “There is this constant question of, ‘How do we achieve our mission if we can’t serve everyone who needs us?’”
Being that out-of-the-box thinker, Jennifer has put a few ideas into play with an eye on meeting that unserved need. She’s been instrumental in bumping up morale within the organization. She’s in the midst of a five-year strategic plan for growth. She led the program through a rebranding. Instead of just being known simply as Head Start, the program is officially called Explorers Academy, underscoring its mission of hands-on learning. Jennifer says, “We wanted this idea that we are encouraging children to be inquisitive and curious problem solvers that explore and discover in the classroom.”
There’s also a move to take the program from a half day to a full day, helping parents to break through the barriers that keep them from working and successfully supporting their families. “For a lot of our families, childcare is a massive barrier,” Jennifer says. She knows because each and every family that attends this program sets individual family goals that the staff then supports. Jennifer says, “Walking alongside these families and helping them do for their children what I am fortunate to be able to do for mine is very important to me.”
This school year, Explorers Academy took in the first eight students who enrolled, not because they live at or below the federal poverty line but because they felt the quality of education was worthy of paying for it. Jennifer says, “If you want to enroll your child in what we believe is the best in early childhood education in the community, you can pay to attend here.” It’s just one link in the chain designed to support this early childhood education academy well into the future. Jennifer can attest with confidence that the program has been great for her own son. “He’s thriving in this environment.”
With so much under her belt all before the age of 40, many would clearly call Jennifer a success. She, however, isn’t quick to accept the title. “You know what? I have this little boy that I love and a job that I am so passionate about and a chance to be in a community that I grew up in and I love but there are some other parts of my life that are falling apart and that’s hard too,” she says with emotion. Facing a divorce from her second husband, she says, “I think he ultimately found the transition from a predominantly Spanish speaking community to a predominantly English speaking, white community to be too much.” As Jennifer talks about her future, her hand rubs the skin on her arm revealing a tattoo depicting a man, armed with a sword, keeping a giant crab at bay. “It’s a man fighting cancer,” she says after being asked its meaning. The image was emblazoned on the lab coats of the surgical oncologists at the National Institutes of Health, one of the facilities where Kurt sought treatment.
“I couldn’t bear the thought that I would forget him, so I just had to put him permanently somewhere, where I would always see him, every day,” Jennifer says as she chokes back the tears. “It’s hard to stand in your convictions,” Jennifer shares emphatically. “But, it is essential to me that no matter where I go or how my life evolves according to God’s plan that I put this man who was so fundamental to me front and center and I never shy away from the beauty, the pain or the challenges of the battle.”
Standing strong in her convictions is why she joined other community leaders to spark “Figure It Out,” a community conversation that puts business minds in the same room as those in social service to try to come up with solutions for some of our city’s biggest problems. She says, “If we just get our hands dirty, roll up our sleeves and start digging into the challenges our community faces, one person at a time, we start to have this catalytic, transformational impact.”
If her great-grandma Ima were here, she’d see that her once pint-sized joy might not have grown up to become president (yet), but came to lead by pushing daily for meaningful change in the lives of those around her.
“Gosh, I hope she’d be proud of me. I hope that she would see that I am the strong woman that she raised me to be.”
After farming for a number of years on their Billings homestead, Jennifer’s great-great-grandparents, Albert and Rose Glock, ended up deeding their five-acre parcel to the city of Billings. A neighbor added in some of his land and together the tract of green space came to be what’s now Rose Park, named after Jennifer’s great-great-grandmother Rose.
DID YOU KNOW? Head Start serves 404 kids at four different sites in Billings, Lockwood and Laurel.
In 2016, Jennifer Owen, along with Jayne Bryant and Jessica Tuck, opened The Art of Play, an interactive indoor play space near the corner of 24th Street West and Broadwater Avenue, designed to let kids play and parents socialize. Last October, the team sold the business to a couple who, as Jennifer says, “is taking it in new and amazing directions.”