When she was 5 years old, Loa Owen was sent to live in the Pittsburgh Home for Crippled Children.
For the next six years, her routine was predetermined – physical therapy, occupational therapy, speech, meal, rest, physical therapy, occupational therapy, speech, meal, rest.
The only break in the monotony came in the form of Saturday afternoon visits from her parents and sporadic visits from an imposing doctor, of whom Owen was terrified.
“I called it a jail. Though it did teach me to be very independent,” said Owen. “I learned how to take care of myself.”
Owen was born with cerebral palsy, a general term that includes impairment of motor function that can affect body movement, muscle control and motor skills.
She uses a wheelchair and her speech is affected.
“It’s very difficult to live with cerebral palsy,” she said.
Though she deals with physical impairments, Owen doesn’t complain.
When asked if she has pain, Owen said, “Not really. My hips bother me sometimes. I have bad hips.”
Owen is a dedicated volunteer who gives countless hours to her church, Washington Hospital and LeMoyne Community Center. She also knits and donates her creations – lap robes, hats, blankets and scarves – to the Salvation Army.
“I’ve been through a lot. A lot,” said Owen. “But I was raised to not accept help of any kind. If I can’t do it, I’ll find a way to do it. I was forced to because of my circumstances.”
Owen, 69, is the oldest of eight siblings, though her time spent in the children’s home robbed her of bonding with them.
When she was 11 years old, her parents brought her home to their farm outside Avella.
Owen still appreciates the strict but loving upbringing provided by her mother.
“You didn’t leave your room without making your bed first,” said Owen. “She would say, “Handicap or no handicap, you’re going to obey me. She treated me like she treated the other kids.”
Owen also had a close relationship with her mother’s parents.
“I adored them. They accepted me the way I was,” she said. “They never tried to change me.”
Owen walked with the assistance of braces and crutches until she was 16 years old. She welcomed the transition to a wheelchair.
“It was absolutely wonderful. There was no more fear,” she said. “Walking was complete torture. I was scared to death of falling.”
Owen stayed with her parents until she was 38 years old, when she decided it was time to live alone.
“I went round and round with my mom. She was scared,” said Owen. “I said, ‘Now’s the time for you to let me go. If I get hurt, so what? Then I’ll know not to do that anymore.’ I said, ‘Mom, let me go. I need to know what I can do for myself. I need to make a life for myself.’”
Owen moved into what is now the Bellmead Apartments, Washington, where she still lives.
When her parents moved to the South, she made the decision to stay.
“I had to stay up here. The Southern states weren’t equipped to deal with physically disabled people,” said Owen, who uses public transportation. “I can go anywhere I want to go here.”
Though she enjoys her independence, Owen said it was difficult to watch her family go.
“My grandfather died, and my dad, mom and grandmother moved away,” she said. “It was losing four people at once. I went into a depression. It’s hard to grow old without your family.”
Her father and grandfather have since died. Even though her mother is still alive, Owen doesn’t get to see her, as she has dementia and lives hours away.
“I still miss my mother,” she said. “I love her very much.”
Owen said she was diagnosed with depression, for which she receives services.
Keeping busy also helps her cope.
“I volunteer because I like to help,” she said. “I also do it for myself.”
Owen started volunteering at the hospital in 1999, organizing and delivering patient mail from her chair, dubbed “Loa’s Pink Panther.”
“I move fast,” Owen said. “They can’t keep up with me.”
According to Rebecca Biddle, director of volunteer services for Washington Health System, Owen has volunteered more than 2,600 hours.
At the LeMoyne Community Center’s after-school program, Owen acts as a foster grandmother.
“I just want to show little kids we’re not someone to be afraid of. We’re the same as anyone else. I like to have fun,” she said. “One of the kids asked, ‘Why do you talk funny?’ I told them that when I was born, something happened to my speech.’ I said, ‘If you don’t understand, just ask me to repeat.’ I don’t mind repeating.”
Owen laughed when told she was being profiled in the newspaper for her successes.
“I was taught to take care of myself,” she said. “You’ve got to be useful.”