Resident Jan Jess served social work students at KU for 20 years
March is National Social Work Month. Social workers are an integral part of any long-term care community, and this month in particular, we want to show our own staff how much we appreciate them. This year we also are turning the spotlight on one of our own residents, who worked for many years providing social services to the senior population.
Jan Jess had always wanted a career where she could help others. It wasn’t until she moved to Lawrence with her husband, a journalism professor, that she finally had the opportunity to pursue that dream. Paul Jess had been teaching at the University of Michigan in the 1970s when he was offered a position at the University of Kansas. Jan, Paul and their three adopted children picked up and moved to Kansas.
“I saw a door open for me to finish my degree then,” Jan said.
Jan was accepted into the master’s of social work program and earned her degree in 1982. That year, she also was named Outstanding Nontraditional Woman Student at annual the KU Women’s Recognition Program. Nontraditional students included those like Jan who were married or returning to their education after an absence, as well as those starting college later in life, like single parents and veterans. The award singled out a woman who had made a “unique contribution” to the university community.
A letter supporting her nomination noted that Jan’s goal was always to work with elderly people. She co-authored and presented papers on gerontology, worked on recreational programs for seniors, and helped draft improvement plans for long-term care communities. “Clearly Jan Jess is a woman of talent and purpose. She approaches her work with and for the elderly with genuine enthusiasm and concern. She strives to lift the barrier of misunderstanding which separates them from other members of society.”
Jan’s first social work position was with the then-new hospice program of the Visiting Nurses Association of Douglas County. Soon, however, she was hired back at KU as assistant director of the field practicum program in the School of Social Welfare, helping students to find work.
“I traveled all over Kansas doing liaison work for the students,” she said, adding that she “absolutely” enjoyed working with college students. “There was never a dull moment.”
Jan stayed in that role for 20 years, retiring in 2003. During one of her last meetings, someone had tallied how many students Jan had likely helped to place in the workforce. “It was right at 6,000 students. I was instrumental in finding them good places to learn and work,” she said.
In 2013, Paul moved to Lawrence Presbyterian Manor. After a few years of traveling back and forth from their home, Jan joined him in 2015. Paul died later that year.Jan’s daughter, Jill, wrote an essay about her mom for a recent Mother’s Day. In it, she wrote that listening to her mother’s readings on gerontology and death and dying were as good as having a “mini-MSW.” She added, “I believe my mother has always wanted me to know that I am intelligent and talented and a joy and good enough for myself and for anyone who had the good fortune to know me.”
Social work is notorious for a high burnout rate. Jan said she fought those tendencies by focusing on the positive.
“You have to tell yourself you’re on the right track if you’re feeling good about your work — helping families especially.”