Resident Spotlight: Lea Koonce


Lea Koonce, Kirby Pines resident


Imagine riding in a one-engine plane with your 70-year-old mother who had just received her license to fly! Such were the experiences of Lea Koonce who grew up as the only child of parents who seemed determined to live life to its fullest. Both parents were professionals as well as artists and collectors. Her mother was an accountant; her father, an electrical engineer, was also a musician, making many of his instruments. Lea’s childhood was unusual but her underlying belief of helping others came from a sound religious upbringing. She credits her maternal grandmother as the one who instilled the belief in “The Golden Rule”. “Put simply”, says Lea, “I enjoy helping someone if I can”. A close friend has said, “Lea would give you her last dollar if she thought you needed it”.

Lea Anna Koonce was born in Memphis, Tennessee, in July 1953. The family moved to Huntsville, Alabama when she was 5 ½ years old. Her father was employed with a company aligned with the space endeavors originating in Huntsville.

During her childhood, Lea developed a love for animals, especially horses. She had her own horse and enjoyed riding as well as water-skiing and boating. While in high school, Lea did volunteer work with the Police Department. Soon the Police Department organized a program to allow other high school youngsters to ride along with policemen on non-dangerous calls. Lea was instrumental in designing the uniform for the group.

Following graduation from high school in 1971, Lea first attended junior college and then transferred to the University of Alabama at Huntsville. As often happens, she met an attractive, young man in the Air Force. A beautiful wedding occurred and the couple traveled for the next 5 years. While in Washington State, Lea enrolled in cosmetology school and became a hairstylist.

Lea Koonce
Lea Koonce pictured here in 1971

However, as sometimes happens, the marriage dissolved in 1978 and Lea moved back with her parents until she could become stabilized. During this time she combined hairstyling with other employment. For several years she worked in electronic supply companies, becoming quite adept at making and repairing circuit boards, telephones, etc. She was part of the Quality Assurance Department when she retired.

By 2011, health problems compounded by mobility issues made it necessary for Lea to require a motorized chair for transportation. Her father passed away and it was only Lea and her mother taking care of each other. Then in 2014, Lea’s mother passed away. The extended family (of which there are many) decided that Lea should move to Kirby Pines so she would be closer to them and situated in a place capable of meeting her needs. Lea did not want to come to Kirby Pines. She laughs and says, “I came to Kirby Pines kicking and screaming all the way. Especially, after the first night here, I saw that 7 murders had occurred in Memphis and I wondered ‘what have I got myself into?’ I was ready to go back to Huntsville. I finally realized I was as safe here as anywhere. I love it here now, it is my home”.

Soon after moving to Kirby Pines, Lea realized that she did not need all the paintings and artwork acquired by her parents. She reserved the LCR and displayed all except the one piece she wanted to keep. She invited her extended family to come and select their choice. Although some were quite valuable, she wanted to make sure that they were given to those who would love and treasure them.

Lea’s beautiful crocheted, beaded and cross-stitched work became noticed. Lea had finally found her niche at Kirby Pines. She was invited to share her crochet work with the residents in Job’s Way. This progressed to making pillows, hats for the 4th of July, picture frames and Christmas tree decorations. Slippers were made to give out as Christmas presents to residents in health areas. She eventually extended her visits to The Manor to play games and cards with the residents there. Occasionally, she gets called to help with a project in Assisted Living. Somehow, Lea discovered that several residents were unable to access or read the menus on TV. Now, she handprints the menus and distributes them so that residents will know their weekly menu.

Because of her disabilities, Lea has made it her goal to be able to walk again. She would need a hip and possible knee replacement. To accomplish this, Lea has lost approximately 115 lbs in a little over a year. She has done this with sheer will power!

To sum up the story of Lea, these are her words: “I have been known to encourage a smile rather than a frown. I want to get the Sunshine Group back in action. Perhaps that is why some people jokingly call me ‘trouble’ when they see me coming. I think Roadrunner might fit.”

The hours Lea spends helping others is admirable. She is always doing a favor for someone and she especially sees a need to interact with our fellow residents in the health areas ~~a lesson we could all learn.

Someone has said, “You can’t judge a book by its cover”. Likewise, one must truly look at the heart of an individual to find the gold therein.

Written by Joan Dodson, Resident, Kirby Pines