By Pamela Dozois

Contributing Writer

Barbara Owens has a passion for health and fitness, and she has been teaching a women’s exercise class called “Exercise for Life” for the past 35 years at Crossroads Church in Buellton. She is also a cancer survivor.

“I started the class as a ministry to the church,” said Owens. “I’m a volunteer. I just wanted to do something for ladies to help them stay healthy and fit. A lot of ladies don’t like to go to a gym because they feel intimidated, so I provide a workout that is geared to all ages. My youngest student is 20 and my oldest is 78 at the moment.”

Owens explained her workout routine by saying that the group starts off with stretching, then transitions into cardio and weights, then sculpting and body toning, with leg lifts and abdomen exercises, followed by a cool down stretch.

And she leads the workout even if only one person shows up.

The classes run from 9:15 to 10:15 a.m. on Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays. Child care is provided for anyone who calls in advance.

“I’d started the exercise class at the church in 1984 and it was shortly thereafter, at age 34, that I was diagnosed with mediastinal lymphoma, an extremely aggressive and life-threatening cancer,” Owens recalled. “At the time it was considered a very rare form of cancer with only 50 recorded people having the same type of cancer that I had, which was considered terminal. Out of those 50 I am the only survivor.”

“I was teaching class and on a routine check-up at the doctor’s. They found a mass in my chest area. On March 5, 1986, I had surgery to remove the tumor. Unfortunately, it had spread to other parts of my body.

“The form of cancer I had was originally misdiagnosed. A doctor, Thomas Lossing, whom I had never met before, was consulted and he said he had just been to a conference on a rare form of cancer and he thought that was what I had.

“I went through chemo for seven months and had to postpone my exercise class. It was a rough year and I almost died twice from complications from the chemo, but I finally pulled through. I was in the hospital from November through December with complications.

“Just prior to Christmas the hospital called my husband and advised him to call my family to come to the hospital and say their last good-byes. I was in a coma and doctors didn’t think I would pull through. My family went into the chapel in the hospital to pray for me. Dr. Lossing came into the chapel and said to my family, ‘I don’t know what you are doing, but keep doing it.’

“I woke from my coma two days later, on Dec. 27. Then on New Year’s Eve the doctor asked me if I wanted to go home and of course I said ‘Yes’. My children were 2 and 5 at the time and my husband told them it wasn’t Christmas until I came home. When I entered the house I saw the tree was up and decorated with all the gifts still unopened under the tree. I was thrilled to be home,” Owens recalled.

“I soon started rehabilitation, as I had lost the ability to walk as my muscles had atrophied. I recuperated after three months and in March I slowly started my class again and have been doing it ever since,” she continued.

Owens’ parents, Jim and Lenora Ruggiero, started the church in 1966. She was 14 at the time and participated in youth groups there.

“I call my parents ‘Church Starters’,” she said. “There was really nothing in Buellton in 1966. There were a few other churches, like the Mission Santa Ines, the Presbyterian Church and Bethania Lutheran Church. We figured there were about 5,000 people in the whole valley at that time. My parents wanted to start a full gospel church – Assembly of God.

Her parents had put an ad in the local paper about starting a new church and got some responses back, she recalled. They started meeting in their home and then when the group began to grow they moved to the Women’s Club in Solvang. The church kept growing so they moved to the Dania Hall, which is now a restaurant in Solvang.

They continued to grow and then the property in Buellton became available and the Ruggieros knew they needed to build a church. They started by building the multipurpose room in 1972, then in 1980 they built the parsonage house, and the main sanctuary was built in 2004. Crossroads now has two services on Sundays, one at 9 and the other at 10:45 a.m.

“I truly feel I experienced a miracle,” said Owens. “I thank God for his mercies and healing. I have been cancer-free for 33 years.”

“The ladies that come to my class feel a connection to each other. If someone has a need to talk or is in need of prayer, we are there for each other,” she said. “They are a great bunch of women and the class is a wonderful way to meet new friends.”

Anyone interested in the class can come to the multipurpose room at Crossroads Church at 236 La Lata Drive in Buellton or call Owens at 805-325-3673.