Carlene Ashworth had never considered massage as a tool for relieving post-traumatic stress disorder.
But visiting the Center for the Intrepid, the American Legion Auxiliary national president saw massage therapy helping veterans who were recovering from burns, limb trauma, and amputations.
After ending her American Legion Auxiliary service, she knew she couldn't return to accounting. Instead, she enrolled in San Jacinto College's massage therapy program, wanting to help veterans and others improve their health.
Now as the program settles into its new space at the South Campus, Ashworth not only chairs its advisory committee but encourages the next generation of therapists.
Beginning with the best
San Jac was Ashworth's natural choice for massage therapy training in 2012.
Ashworth had experienced great instructors at the College in the 1980s, and the two-semester program offered a more well-rounded curriculum than other programs she found, with classes in business ethics, kinesiology, and pathology.
"The more classroom hours you get, the more you'll succeed in the real world," she said. "I think it's the best program around."
After finishing at the top of her class, Ashworth worked three months for an established practice. Then she found a massage business with a room for rent, so she switched to working as an independent therapis — eager for more hands-on hours.
Two years later, she took over the building lease, becoming owner of Pasadena's Therapeutic Massage and Spa. Now four other independent therapists rent space from her.
Ashworth enjoys helping longtime clients maintain health and new ones experience pain relief for the first time — like one man in his 60s who finally got a massage at his wife's urging.
"He told me, 'I can't believe I've gone my whole life without doing this,'" Ashworth said.
She encourages clients to pursue a maintenance program of at least monthly massages.
"It lowers your blood pressure, helps relax you," she said. "There are so many benefits people don't understand or know about until they experience it themselves."
Gaining elbow room
When she is not kneading muscles and working out tension, Ashworth chairs the massage therapy program's advisory committee. She, other therapists, and massage chain representatives update San Jac instructors on industry trends.
Committee members also toured the program's former space at the Central Campus and shared what students needed to experience in their curriculum.
In fall 2020, the program moved to the new South Campus Cosmetology Center. While the building features natural daylight and state-of-the-art equipment throughout, massage therapy also gained an embedded classroom and larger massage cubicles for its internship area.
"We have more space, which allows students to practice without bumping into each other," Professor Shelley McCaul said. "And the rooms feel more open and modern."
Former phlebotomist Sandra Luna started in spring 2020, before the program moved. For her, solid instruction tops off the new "welcoming" atmosphere.
"The professors here help you," Luna said. "They take the time to address the difficulties you have and make sure you're comfortable — that you've got it."
Combined, McCaul and the four other instructors have about 125 years of massage experience. Beyond seasoned instructors, the program offers extra training at 640 hours (the state requires only 500), and students may qualify for financial aid and earn college credits.
Paying it forward
When it comes to self-care, Ashworth enjoys getting a massage herself at San Jac, helping students clock their internship hours. She encouraged the last intern to pursue sports massage, which she felt the student had the right touch for.
"I've had some really good massages there," she said. "I felt they really were going to make good massage therapists."
Ashworth feels the new space goes hand in hand with dedicated instructors to improve students' outlook on massage therapy and their career options after graduation.
"It's a great field if you're not pursuing medical — to be a part of the good health' world," she said.
Learn more about San Jac's massage therapy program.