Cheryl Ash: Positive Powerhouse
by JiJi Russell
Spending some time with Cheryl Ash is to experience a balance of opposites: She’s sophisticated yet folksy; bohemian but fully grounded; confident yet self-effacing. When I sat down with her at the Barns of Rose Hill on a recent Saturday afternoon, she gave me the impression that she’s come by each of these qualities quite honestly in the many roles she has played over the last half century.
Like many of us, Ash seeks balance in a world full of competing priorities and demands. A wife, mother of two, and grandmother of two, she’s quick to point out that she has chosen to live the way she does. Her abundant family and professional roles find her serving as executive director at the Barns of Rose Hill; living with and attending to the daily assistance of her elderly mother; and managing, alongside her husband, the farm where she grew up—to name the top three.
Ash recognizes that these days present a cluster of challenges around maintaining health and fitness: “The metabolism slows; the occupational demands increase . . .” Perhaps her earlier career in bodybuilding and fitness has helped to fortify Ash’s resolve and dedication to the challenges of today.
In 1986, Ash was the first place winner in the West Virginia State National Physique Committee Female Body Building Competition. She left the bodybuilding scene, however, “just when things started to become unhealthy for women,” she said, referring to the loss of stature of the feminine body image in deference to large, sculpted, more masculine muscle development.
Ash seems to have gracefully repurposed her energy and skills from the fitness industry, where she has taught classes and managed and owned several health clubs over the years, into the many and diverse roles the Barns and the workload of rural daily living require.
As the Barns’ executive director, one of only two paid roles there, Ash finds herself spending long work weeks, sometimes as many as 70 hours, tending to the myriad tasks involved in running operations for a nonprofit organization.
Her days, in which her home and work responsibilities seem to overlap, begin about 6am., with the care of dogs, barn cats, and a goat at home on the farm. Between daily vacuuming and spot mopping at home, to keep her mother’s respiratory issues at bay, and many housekeeping duties at the Barns, Ash serves as a veritable “house mum.” She launders sheets and makes beds in the Barns’ guest quarters, does dishes leftover from events, and more.
These tasks appear to be a labor of love for Ash, who said one of her favorite parts of her Barns’ role is “pampering the artists.” She would love to find a grant to support greater artist hospitality at the Barns, recognizing that life on the road can be arduous for musicians—and a little comfort when the artists land in Berryville is so well appreciated. Between the vintage clothing grab bag for artists, occasional birthday parties when birthdays coincide with performances, and other personal touches, Ash has earned the adored “Mom” title by many visiting artists, according to Logan Van Meter, a volunteer and former employee at the Barns.
In between housekeeping duties come meetings (one to two a day) at the Barns, voicemails, emails, performer vetting, performer contracts, the electronic newsletter, events calendar, ticket presales. And of course, the performances themselves, which translate into nights that do not end until midnight, perhaps up to three times a week.
Anyone who has been following the growing explosion of arts that characterizes the Barns of Rose Hill must surmise that someone around there is doing some serious heavy lifting. The infectious enthusiasm of Van Meter would pin the prize on Cheryl, if only she would accept it. Throughout our conversation, which was punctuated by playful banter between Ash and Van Meter, Ash kept diverting the spotlight from herself to other players who make things tick around the Barns, including Kelli Hart, development director, and a host of dedicated volunteers.
One word kept coming back into the conversation I had with Ash when she spoke of the challenges of balancing her many roles, her own needs, and a voracious interest in the arts. She came back to a description of the feeling she returns to each morning when she rises.
“There’s such serenity to wake up on the farm I grew up on, looking out at the Blue Ridge, the trees, the garden,” she said. “And knowing that my mother is growing stronger and healthier with each day. We have temporarily closed up our home and moved in with her to be there when she needs us. In spite of our work schedules, we try to create as much normality as we can.”
Indeed, Ash believes the garden played a role in a miraculous recovery that her mother, Jane Barb, recently made from grave illness. While she was in a critical care unit suffering from respiratory failure and connected to three different machines, Ash and other family members started talking to Barb, who is 77 years old, about getting the garden going for the season—what they wanted to plant, and other matters of the home.
“It was amazing,” Ash said. “The color just started coming back to her face.” Ash seemed to believe it only when her mom wrote “I love you” on a tablet her daughter had handed her, after 14 days of limited communication and doctors’ doubts clouding her chances for survival.
“She’s an extremely positive person; I don’t think she could have done that if her mind hadn’t helped her,” Ash said. “She’s definitely an inspiration to me.”
And Cheryl Ann Ash, too, relies on the power of positive thinking to maintain balance and composure even when life gets busy. Now, if she could only get back to her exercise program (teaching Spinning again ranks as top fitness goal), she might feel like she’s really accomplishing something.
JiJi Russell, a yoga instructor and Integrative Nutrition health coach, serves as the wellness coordinator for American Public University in Charles Town, W.Va. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org