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Assisted-living-center VP has eclectic background

By Tammy Keith

This article was published November 5, 2017 at 12:00 a.m.

ashley-blankenship-stands-in-front-of-the-fireplace-at-southridge-village-assisted-living-in-conway-blankenship-her-mother-and-sister-co-own-the-facility-as-well-as-three-others-she-was-named-chairwoman-of-the-national-center-for-assisted-living-and-will-travel-six-months-of-the-year-to-educate-people-about-what-assisted-living-is-it-all-comes-down-to-its-their-home-she-said

Ashley Blankenship stands in front of the fireplace at Southridge Village Assisted Living in Conway. Blankenship, her mother and sister co-own the facility, as well as three others. She was named chairwoman of the National Center for Assisted Living and will travel six months of the year to educate people about what assisted living is. “It all comes down to, it’s their home,” she said.

Ashley Blankenship is all about “and.”

She has been a flight attendant, a barbecue-pit boss and a real estate agent and is co-owner of four assisted-living facilities.

And she’s not finished.

Blankenship, who lives in downtown Conway,

is a co-owner and vice president of operations of Southridge Village Assisted Living facilities in Conway, Heber Springs and Cabot and River Valley Assisted Living in Russellville.

She was just named chairwoman of the National Center for Assisted Living, representing 217,000 assisted-living residents and their providers. She will spend six months of the year traveling to advocate for and educate others.

Blankenship isn’t worrying about leaving her job; it’s in good hands, she said.

The Southridge Village facilities’ co-owners are her mother, Liz Blankenship, who is a registered nurse, and her sister, Gretchen

Humphreys, also of Heber Springs, who is the dietary manager of the facilities “Mom was a single parent, so we grew up a little bit of everywhere,” said Ashley Blankenship, 42.

She went to elementary school in Fayetteville, junior high in Oklahoma and high school in Heber Springs.

Her mother was her inspiration.

“I saw how hard she worked,” Blankenship said. “She’s a great mentor for me.”

Ashley Blankenship went to the University of Central Arkansas in Conway, where she majored in marketing with a specialty in health care. However, when she graduated, she started to work at Acxiom Corp. in Conway and was there almost two years.

She said she loves research and statistics.

“I’m a little bit of a nerd, probably a lot of one,” Blankenship said.

But she’s a people person, too.

She saw an ad for a flight attendant and applied, but she didn’t get that job.

“I kind of fell in love with the idea,” she said. “I love to travel.”

Blankenship was hired at Delta Airlines and left Arkansas in 1999 to live in Atlanta, Georgia, for training.

She said the flight-attendant job combined her love of travel with her interest in customer service. She was based in New York City, where she shared a two-bedroom apartment with nine flight attendants — and one bathroom.

She flew home to Heber Springs the night before 9/11.

“When I went back, I worked with the American Red Cross for about a month,” she said. Blankenship went to ground zero to help.

“That was life-changing. I met the firemen and policemen who were having to find their friends. It definitely makes you wake up in your 20s to realize the world doesn’t revolve around you,” she said.

“My parents really didn’t want me to go back, but I’m not going to let anyone scare me away from it,” she said of her career.

There were a couple of scares. Once, before 9/11, a man boarded a flight from San Antonio to Atlanta, and he was acting “extremely odd” and looking at maps. Everyone’s luggage was pulled off the plane, and they changed planes and concourses. Come to find out, he was from out of the country and was coming to train with the U.S. military.

She was a flight attendant for almost seven years, until 2006.

“I saw the world, went to Russia multiple times,” she said. “Besides now, it was one of my most favorite jobs I ever had.”

When she left the airlines, she came back to Heber Springs and helped her mother, who owned a barbecue restaurant and was running an assisted-living facility.

Blankenship also earned her real estate license, and she sold real estate for several years.

When her mother’s assisted-living office manager eloped, Blankenship stepped in.

“That’s when I got into this business full time,” she said.

For about six months, Blankenship said, she juggled working for her mother in the assisted-living facility and the restaurant, and selling real estate. She managed the barbecue restaurant.

“I was a waitress, a short-order cook, and I smoked the meat myself,” she said. “Those were long days back then, 20-hour days. But it only lasted about six months.”

Her mother leased the restaurant, and Blankenship continued to work at the Heber Springs assisted-living

facility, which was built in 2000. They opened Southridge Village in Conway on Nov. 2, 2009. The Cabot facility opened in 2011; Russellville’s facility opened in 2014.

“We have amazing administrators; they run them like they’re their own,” she said.

As vice president of operations, Blankenship educates and provides orientation for all new employees in all the facilities.

“I love it; I do. Our residents here have choices; it’s based on their wants and needs. We want to focus on the individual, not the whole. If that person loves horses, we need to figure out how to get horses in here — a petting zoo, an equestrian magazine or a stuffed horse.”

She is passionate about the value older people have, too.

“The elderly are our history. It’s one thing I hope the younger generation understands,” she said. “There’s the potential of losing so much if we don’t stop and take the time and listen to our seniors. They know a lot; they’ve seen a lot. They’ve seen technological advances from cars to cellphones. They’ve gone through so many wars.”

Blankenship stopped and looked on her computer for a quote from the late Andy Rooney, a 60 Minutes commentator.

“He said something like you learn more at the knee of an elderly person than you do in a textbook,” she said.

“When you go out there and they give you a big hug and a smile, I love it. It’s not about me; it’s about the residents, and it’s about the staff. I’d rather call them co-workers,” she said.

For example, Blankenship sang the praises of Anita Harris, the activity director in Conway.

She said Harris has fun activities for the residents and even sings for them.

The first thing Harris said about Blankenship is, “She’s got a lot of energy — a lot of energy.”

Harris said although Blankenship may seem “hard-nosed and tough, … she’s got a real soft spot, and she loves the residents. She would do anything for them.”

Blankenship was a board member of the National Center for Assisted Living for nine years, and she said becoming chairwoman of the national group was one of her goals.

“I think I can assist in effecting change,” she said. Blankenship said she wants skilled and assisted-living providers to be a unified group. “We can be a voice for our residents. … That’s kind of my platform, unity.”

As an executive-committee

member, she has traveled three or four times a year to Washington, D.C., to the National Center for Assisted Living office. As chairwoman, she will make six to eight trips to D.C.

“It is my responsibility to educate on what assisted living is,” Blankenship said, “[teaching] that it’s the residents’ choice and it’s their home, and everything assisted living can do and understanding the limitations, and that education is for physicians, hospitals and families.

“We’re there to provide the residents assistance medically, emotionally and socially.”

Assisted-living facilities are regulated by states throughout the country, not federal government, and Blankenship wants to see it stay that way.

“A lot of things have come up, like the flooding that happened in Florida. Legislators wanted to jump and run and create policy,” she said.

The national board members talk to its membership and bring in experts when issues arise, she said.

“Let’s not jump,” she said. “Let’s all work together.

“I’m blessed because I have an amazing group here. We have some amazing providers in this state.”

Yes, there are poorly run facilities, she said, “but we shouldn’t all be lumped in with the bad apples.”

Blankenship also serves on the American Health Care Board of Governors as the assisted-living representative, and her first meeting is Monday in Arizona where she’ll learn more.

She sees herself staying in long-term care, but Blankenship always has other ideas.

She wants to learn to play the piano, like her mother does. She wants to go to culinary school, and she’s on the waiting list for cooking classes at UCA.

“I have so much on my bucket list,” she said, laughing.

In her office, she has four wooden wall hangings that each feature a black ampersand.

“I like these, because it’s and, and, and,” she said.

Senior writer Tammy Keith can be reached at (501) 327-0370 or tkeith@arkansasonline.com.

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