“You’re not done.” The Very Personal Message Driving RI Office of Healthy Aging Director Rose Jones ‘06SCE
“You’re not done.”
For Rose Jones ‘06SCE those words – told to her by her godmother, MaeMae, at key turning points in her life – have challenged and inspired her to keep moving forward, keep growing and keep doing. Now in her current role as director of Rhode Island’s Office of Healthy Aging (OHA), Jones has harnessed the spirit of that phrase as she works to transform attitudes about what it means to be an older adult.
In just one year on the job, Jones has already made a fundamental change to the agency’s name itself. Previously called the “Division of Elderly Affairs,” in 2019 Jones successfully lobbied to change the name to “Office of Healthy Aging.” The new name denotes the shift in perspective that the agency has undertaken and continues to develop under Jones’ leadership.
Part of OHA’s mission now includes shining a harsh light on ageism and helping to dispel assumptions, stereotypes and misconceptions about aging. In place of those stereotypes, Jones has shepherded in important conversations and initiatives founded on the view that aging is a gift not only of greater wisdom but of new opportunities to continue to learn and grow, and to be proactive in shaping your own best life no matter who you are or what your age.
It’s a mission and a message that Jones delivers with a passion that can only come from having learned the lesson herself.
“My Mae helped raise me. When I dropped out of high school she was very upset” Jones recalls. “She took my class ring away and when I asked her why, she said, ‘Because you’re not done.’”
“So I went back and got my GED; still no ring. I went to Katharine Gibbs School and studied to become a legal executive assistant. I finished that program and said, ‘OK, now give me my ring.’ She still said ‘No. You’re not done.’ The last graduation she got to see was when I graduated from the School of Continuing Education at Providence College with a bachelor’s in Organizational Communication. She played that game with me even up until then. I gave her my diploma, and she said it one last time. ‘You’re not done.’”
Jones grew up between the west end and south side of Providence. She attended Classical High School, but struggled during her teen years and was eventually kicked out. She had never assumed that college would be part of her path in life.
“Where I grew up, not a lot of people went to college. You didn’t aspire to that necessarily,” she says. “I had spent a lot of childhood days riding my bike on the PC campus and just feeling how spiritually connected I was. But I also remember feeling that this place isn’t for people like me.”
After earning her GED and graduating from Katharine Gibbs, Jones was hired by Katharine Gibbs in the financial aid office, before joining the Rhode Island Public Transit Authority (RIPTA) as a marketing assistant which effectually launched her public relations career.
“I was doing OK with my career, and I loved my job at RIPTA,” Jones says. “But I was still feeling like I wasn’t worthy. That’s something that I think a lot of the folks we serve [at OHA] feel as well – that they’re not valuable anymore. We’re sending the message that yes, you are. You should aspire to and pursue any dream you have.”
Jones says she was fortunate to have some extraordinary mentors at RIPTA who delivered that same message to her. One of those mentors was Karen Mensel, RIPTA’s advertising manager with whom Jones worked very closely.
“ She taught me about design and storytelling, sparking a fire and passion in me that burns still today,” Jones says of Mensel. “She would breathe belief in self into me on a near daily basis. She taught me to think, dress, and dream. She was the most cultured, dynamic, confident and articulate woman I had ever met. I wanted to be just like her! Karen is now an older Rhode Islander herself, and is still outspoken, regularly advocating for laws and policies that strengthen services and opportunities available to older people. So, our paths have crossed again in the most beautiful way. I now get to pay all that she gave to me forward, by working to ensure that the rest of her life is the best of her life.”
In addition to Mensel’s influence, Jones says that two other RIPTA colleagues – Beverly Scott, then RIPTA general manager, and Lee Beliveau, who was director of marketing and communications – played a key role in her decision to go back to school. It was a decision that would set her on the path to the rest of her life and where she is now in her career.
“They both said I would plateau in my career if I didn’t have a degree. They told me to shake off the impostor syndrome and go back [to college] to get the confidence I needed, because I already had the competence.”
The message stuck with her. So by 2003 and with some misgivings still in mind, she decided to take a class at Providence College through the School of Continuing Education (SCE). By that time, she was over a decade into her career and now a mom of three.
“I thought I’d at least take just one class and see how it went. That first class was Intro to Journalism, taught by Bob Whitcomb from the Providence Journal. I did well, and got an A. I couldn’t believe it. So I decided to try another class. I think the next one was Logic. I actually liked it and did well in that, too. I began to think that maybe I could really do this. I decided to enroll and the rest is history,” Jones says.
Jones says her time at PC SCE was transformative.
“I made some really strong connections there. I got tremendous guidance from the faculty and administration, and I was just really, really close to folks and it guided me in a beautiful way,” she says.
“The classes that meant the most to me and that were most profound were not what I expected. I thought I was just going to check a box,” Jones says. “But the one class that probably tops that list is the Philosophy of Death and Dying. At the time a hospice nurse taught that class – Mrs. B, I called her – and when I met her I knew she was special and was going to have a special place in my life.”
“That was an emotional class,” Jones says. “It was hard to get through but so, so necessary. It wasn’t about papers and exams. It was very introspective. One thing that class led me to was facing and processing childhood trauma and some major losses that I had experienced in my very young adult life, especially the passing of my son several years before.”
In 2006, after nearly three years attending classes while also working and raising a family, Jones graduated from PC Summa Cum Laude, ranking second in her class. She spoke at the SCE graduation dinner, using the platform to talk for the first time about her journey in life and the loss of her son.
“That would never have happened if I hadn’t had the amazing spiritual experience that I had over the two-and-a-half years that I was at PC,” Jones says. “That was big for my life. Bringing that forward to today and my role at OHA, the work we do is really personal. You can’t get a person to trust you and share what they’re going through if you can’t also go there yourself. That speech was the first time I really opened the doors and windows into me, and it was very freeing. It laid the foundation for the work I’m doing now.”
After graduation Jones’ career took off, following a path that often combined public service, public affairs and communications – most of the time at state agencies, including the Department of Transportation, the Department of Environmental Management and the Executive Office of Health and Human Services.
It is perhaps not surprising that Jones has chosen to build her career in public service. It takes a mentality that she says was engrained in her by her father, who was a public servant himself.
“My father was a cop in the City of Providence. I grew up in a house where public service was THE calling,” Jones says. “No matter what you do or how you can do it, help someone as you are helping yourself. Look back and help people move forward, look out and help people in. That’s core to who I am as a human. It always comes back to giving people a voice and lifting them up for me.”
After his city police career, Jones’ dad worked at Fleet National Bank, before retiring and taking a job with the Capitol Police at the state house – a place that Jones now frequents in her work.
“At that point he was an older member of the team so his job was to flash all the lights in all the rooms as they were locking up,” she recalls. “He would talk to me about the chambers and all the official state business that would happen there. Part of my journey over this last year [at OHA] was going through my own Advice & Consent process in the Senate chambers. Watching as our state senators unanimously voted me in as director, I couldn’t help but reflect on all his nights in those rooms and how proud he would’ve been that his daughter became part of that official state business.”
Looking back at those experiences, Jones says it’s clear she really had no option to settle for less than going back to school or to shy away from fulfilling the role she now plays.
“I had to do it. My children were watching, my community was watching, my dad, mom and Mae had sacrificed so much for me – there was no option but to keep going. When I was overwhelmed I’d cry it out and then say ‘You’ve got this,’ and dig deeper. I still say that to myself, I still have those days. I’m not unique in facing struggles, but I’ve certainly faced a lot of adversity in my life and you can get through it. You’ve just got to dig deeper and believe that it’s never too late.”
Jones says that’s a major message that the OHA is now trying to convey to older Rhode Islanders – it’s never too late. You’re not done. It’s a message that also applies to those who, like Jones once did, think that college isn’t meant for them or that the time for seeking new challenges or new beginnings has passed.
In her work at OHA, Jones proves every day that it’s never too late for whatever you want to do in life. She does so with not only the work she puts forth on behalf of older adults but also through the life she leads herself.
Not only has she built a successful and deeply meaningful career, she’s also now mother to eight children – five by birth, three by choice, as she likes to say. All but one are grown. Two have followed in her footsteps, pursuing degrees at Providence College through the School of Continuing Education.
Meanwhile, Jones’ own journey in life and her mission at the Office of Healthy Aging is still far from over. She’s always looking for the next mountain to climb. Which is why she never did get her high school ring back.
She had one more graduation after her godmother’s passing, when she earned an MBA in International Relations and Marketing. A cousin brought the ring to that graduation and presented it to her on her godmother’s behalf, finally offering it up for Jones to keep.
Jones held it in her hands and thought about all the many instances like this one she’d had with her godmother in years past, when the ring was withheld and a challenge put forth as to what she would accomplish next. She thought about all that had happened in her life as a result.
Then she gave the ring back and said simply, “I’m not done.”
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