By Linda Haase
Betsy Owen has a powerful message: “As long as one child in the world has polio, every child in the world is at risk.”
Owen, a 70-year-old coastal Delray Beach resident, is a polio survivor — and she’s passionate about helping others avoid the disease. Her efforts are worldwide — including immunizing children in Chandigarh, India, in 2009. “It was such a worthy endeavor,” says Owen, a retired teacher who contracted polio and rheumatic fever when she was 18 months old (her two older brothers also were afflicted simultaneously).
Her tireless work was lauded by the Rotary International board of directors, which recently honored her with its highest honor, the Service Above Self Award, which recognizes Rotarians who embody the group’s motto of “Service Above Self.”
“I knew nothing about getting this award. It was a great honor and I was so shocked that I could not speak,” recalls Owen, whose father was also a Rotarian. “I opened my mouth to talk and nothing came out — and my friends will tell you that is most unusual.”
Owen, a Florida native, also was given the International Service Award for a Polio-Free World.
Community service has always been a part of Owen’s life. She always had the most community service hours among her peers at school for volunteering at orphanages and other places, and as a child, her family spent every summer in the Bahamian islands where they would help her father, an orthopedic surgeon, offer free medical care for the residents.
She and her brothers would take turns helping her dad, her mom and other volunteer medical personnel. But when they weren’t helping, they swam in the warm waters with the Bahamians.
“We didn’t realize it but we were doing exercises to help rejuvenate our muscles (which had been weakened by polio),” explains Owen, whose bout with polio weakened her left leg and right arm. “ I wouldn’t be walking around today if hadn’t been for the natives helping me strengthen my limbs,” says Owen, who has returned the favor in many ways, including getting computers, books, magazines and other items to donate to Nassau and other islands.
Owen, an Emory University graduate, doesn’t let the remnants of her polio impact her life — she walks 3 miles a day down A1A and she and her husband take up one new sport every year. They’ve been ballooning, kayaking, dog sledding and race car driving. They are also avid fishing enthusiasts and sailors.
Owen, who taught English, photojournalism and mass media for more than 40 years (20 of them at Spanish River High School) is also involved with The Children’s Home Society, the Executive Women of the Palm Beaches and many Rotary literacy projects. She especially loves helping children, and is thrilled when she crosses paths with former students, who called her “Grandma.”
Although she and her husband travel frequently, she has a soft spot in her heart for Delray Beach.
“The people here are very laid back, it’s a hometown attitude. We are here to help each other. That is what life is all about.”