When a lifelong friend was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis a few years ago, Kay Jasso invited her to come live with her.
But her friend was used to being on her own, and she declined.
The MS, however, soon took over her friend’s life. Over the next four years, she lost her job and sank into depression.
“She had no support system, and I didn’t have a clue how to help her,” Jasso said. “She killed herself with pills.”
These days Jasso has plenty of ideas about how to help patients with the incurable, progressive and debilitating auto-immune disease, which attacks the central nervous system and can lead to a range of problems, from paralysis to blindness.
As executive director of the Multiple Sclerosis Center of Southwest Florida, which helps MS patients from Port Charlotte to Naples, she provides a menu of options to support their physical, social and mental health needs.
Among them are massages, yoga classes, acupuncture therapy, exercise classes, art therapy, support groups, book clubs, equestrian therapy, educational lunches and mental health counseling to patients and their families.
And although her annual budget is only $230,000 — obtained through grants, donations and fundraisers — most of the services are provided for free or for a small co-pay.
“Most of our clients are on Medicare because of disability, not age,” she explained, adding that an estimated 1,500 people suffer from the disease in the five-county area. “But Medicare doesn’t pay for everything. We make up the difference.”
From the desk of her sparsely furnished but cheerful office at the center’s new 2,400-square-foot office at 3372 Woods Edge Circle in Bonita Springs, Jasso says her work gives her more satisfaction than she ever thought possible.
From the client who needed support after her employer harassed her for allegedly faking her illness, to the woman who needed to relearn how to use her scooter after she injured her shoulder, Jasso’s focus is on raising patients’ self-esteem while imparting practical skills.
“We want to help people understand what they can do, not what they can’t do,” the 59-year-old administrator said.
Jasso’s can-do approach was inspired by her mother, who grew up picking cotton in Mississippi as a sharecropper.
“She braved snakes and boll weevils,” Jasso remembered. “It was very hard work.”
A single mom determined to create a better life for her only child, Jasso’s mom moved to Chicago to enroll in a nursing program, only to discover later that it was unaccredited.
So she worked two factory jobs to afford to send Jasso to a Catholic girls school, which offered a better education than the local public school.
Living in a one-bedroom apartment in a downtrodden Chicago neighborhood, along with bugs and rats, Jasso didn’t have much of a concept of a better life until a well-off suburban family shared their home with her for two weeks as part of a program for inner-city children.
“I was 11 years old, and it changed my life,” she said. “Up until then I didn’t know anything about going to a swimming pool or how to set a table or the concept of dessert. Sometimes, we didn’t even have dinner.”
The family also helped her financially when a fire burned down her apartment building when she was in sixth grade.
“My mother and I lost everything we had and had to start all over,” she said.
Starting at age 13, Jasso worked in city-run teen programs as a summer camp counselor, then got her first “real job” at 16 as a cashier at Sears.
She snagged a full-ride scholarship to DePaul University, hoping to become a nurse, but dropped out in her sophomore year.
The two train rides every day to her after-school job were just too exhausting, Jasso recalled.
So she enrolled in a junior college while working for an insurance firm, selling funeral and life insurance policies.
Because most of her inner city clients didn’t have checking accounts, she was obliged to collect payments in person, even at notorious public housing projects like Cabrini-Green.
“I’d go to collect on Saturday mornings before the dangerous types were stirring,” she said. “I’d dress down and carry a paper bag to hold the money, not a purse.”
After collecting in projects where she sometimes had to climb many flights of stairs to reach her customers, Jasso decided to try a different line of work.
She never had finished junior college, so in the mid ’90s she joined the Quaker Oats Company in a low-level job in the coupon redemption center.
Over the next several years, she moved up the ladder, helping to process as many as 20 million coupons a month.
Eventually she headed a team that made sure grocery stores weren’t scamming the company by clipping and redeeming more coupons than customers actually brought to the store.
“Most people don’t realize there’s big money in coupons,” she said.
After several years, coupon processing finally was outsourced to third-party providers in Mexico. Over a hundred workers were laid off, but Jasso was one of six employees kept on as an auditor of the new providers.
But by then, Jasso was married to her husband, Alberto, a machine operator, and was the mother of three.
“I was burnt out,” she said.
So the family decided to reboot their life in a warmer climate and moved to Cape Coral.
“I was tired of meeting the corporate bottom line. I wanted to do something meaningful,” she said.
Jasso enrolled in what was then Edison College, but she didn’t finish. That’s because in 2002, Jasso got a job with the Community Foundation as a program manager, where she worked for the next six years.
“I was in heaven,“ she said. “I learned so much about the needs of the community.”
From there she joined several nonprofit boards in various capacities and took on roles at other nonprofits — as operations manager for Healthy Start of Southwest Florida and as a grant writer for Goodwill Industries of Southwest Florida.
In January 2015 the executive director position at the MS Center opened up, and Jasso snagged the job.
That same year, she finally fulfilled her long-delayed dream of completing college, receiving a bachelor of science degree in management from Hodges University.
With a lifetime of successful managerial experience, Jasso didn’t really need to get a late-career degree.
But she did it in memory of her mother, who was her role model and lived with her for several years before succumbing to Alzheimer’s disease in 2007.
“It was always my mother’s dream that I finish college, but I didn’t have the determination to do it when I was younger,” Jasso said. “I finally did it.”