Becoming a Physician Assistant in Midlife: Michelle’s Story

After 16 years of teaching high school wellness, Michelle felt ready for a greater challenge to leverage her interest in health. After much planning and preparation, she is now studying to become a Physician Assistant, and loving the journey.

Tell us a little about your background…

I am a married, 41-year-old mother of two boys, ages 6 and 8. I received my BA in health and physical education in 1996 from Ohio Northern University (Ada, Ohio) and taught in the greater Cincinnati area for four years before moving to Chicago.

I finished my Master’s in Education in 2002 and taught at New Trier High School in Winnetka, IL for 12 years. I taught in the Kinetic Wellness department, which, in most schools, is better known as health and physical education. My primary teaching assignment was health education (sex education and personal fitness) but I also taught team sports and women’s health and fitness. In addition, I was very active in departmental activities: I was the sophomore health course coordinator, sat on the hiring committee and the policies and procedures committee, and more.

My boys

When did you start to think about making a change?

When each of my sons was born, I took a leave of absence from my job to spend time with them in their infancy months. With my second child, I did not feel that magical “pull” to return to work. Teaching had started to feel like Groundhog Day, every day; I could do pretty much anything and everything on autopilot. While this made work very easy, it also made it exceptionally boring.

Compounding this issue, I often felt like a second-class citizen at my high school because I did not teach what they considered a “solid” class, like English or math.

I am very curious about health, wellness, and disease, and if I couldn’t use my skills and talents in the classroom, I felt I should find other avenues where I could make a difference. It doesn’t help that I don’t have a lot of confidence in our state and federal government when it comes to public education—be it classroom funding, standardized assessments, or funding pensions. It was clearly time for me to leave teaching.

What is your next act?

I am a member of the 2017 Rush University Physician Assistant Studies cohort. Upon completion of the program and after passing the licensing exam, I will be certified as a Physician Assistant (PA) and will be able to practice medicine as a member of a collaborative team of healthcare providers.

I will become a PA-C, which stands for Physician Assistant – Certified. In every state, in order to practice as a PA, one must take and pass the PANCE (Physician Assistant National Certifying Exam) for initial certification and also take and pass the PANRE (Physician Assistant National Recertifying Exam) every 10 years. Additionally, in order to maintain their license, a PA must accumulate a specified number of continuing education hours each year, as defined by their state licensing board.

Rush’s program is 30 months to complete as it has the unique 6-month advanced practice rotation. Participating in a program structured like this, the graduate is prepared with both strong generalist skills and proficiency in an area of advanced practice. Most other PA programs are 24-27 months (Northwestern is 24, Midwestern is 27, Rosalind Franklin is 24 months).

Despite having very intense academic demands, I can honestly say that I am so happy I made this decision. I love studying medicine and science, learning how disease processes work, using critical thinking and reasoning to arrive at potential diagnoses, and beginning to formulate treatment plans. On the downside, there are days where all I feel I do is study, go to class, eat, study, then pass out from exhaustion – but I realize that this stage is temporary and so worth it! The volume of information and the speed at which it is disseminated is completely unreal; for example, our dermatology unit lasted one week where we spent five days in the classroom, had six Powerpoint sessions with over 650 slides, then had our exam. And, keep in mind that was only for one course! The volume and pacing is just brutal and, at times, I think to myself “how on earth am I going to remember all this?” but then I do review sessions for my certifying exam (two years down the road) and surprise myself with how much I actually know!

Study Carrel at Rush

There has been a huge growth in demand for PAs and in applications to PA schools. Why is that?

Implementing team-based, collaborative care coupled with the influx of more patients to the health care system (likely due to the Affordable Care Act) has emphasized the need for flexibility in care delivery to best meet the needs of patients. PAs are utilized in many areas of healthcare: seeing patients in clinic for routine or acute needs, rounding on patients in hospitals, assisting in surgery, performing various procedures, and providing patient education – often autonomously, but with collaboration from their partner physician.

Becoming a physician assistant, versus an MD, requires fewer years of study while still allowing you to assume a lot of responsibility in the field of medicine and rewarding you with an attractive salary. In addition, job opportunities are plentiful. According to a recent Forbes article, physician assistant studies is ranked the number one best master’s degree for finding a job. Here is a link to the US Department of Labor Bureau of Labor Statistics regarding PA salaries, requirements, outlook, etc. While I can’t speak for other institutions, the program director at Rush did tell us she typically receives six job inquiries from potential employers per student. Currently, 100% of Rush graduates are employed within six months of graduation. Many secure jobs even before they graduate.

With PA Students, in the ER department at Rush

Why did you choose this next act?  What other options did you consider?  

I knew I wanted to do something in medicine, so I initially considered medical school to become a physician. After doing some research and talking to MDs and PAs, it became quite clear to me that the role of a PA was best suited for me. Knowing I would want to start school when I was 41, had I gone the MD route, I would not have begun practicing medicine until I was 50 and then I would have spent the next decade (or more!) paying off medical school debt.

Also, having had the opportunity to gain work experience and learn about the roles various individuals play in team settings, I am very comfortable with assuming a great deal of autonomy within the medical setting but am also comfortable serving as an adjunct in various settings.

Knowing that admission to PA school would be extremely competitive, I had to consider backup options. In the event I did not get into PA school, I also applied (and was accepted) to the Generalist Entry Master’s (GEM) program at Rush University, which would have awarded me a Master’s of Science in Nursing (MSN) and allowed me to sit for the registered nurse (RN) licensure test. I could then choose to complete further studies to become a nurse practitioner (NP), an RN with advanced training in diagnosing and treating illness.

For me, there were three main drawbacks to this backup route. First, the didactic and clinical preparation for PAs and RNs is pretty different: PA school follows a medical model and approaches medicine as an organ-disease system, whereas RNs are trained under a nursing model and approach medicine as more of a lifespan issue. For the most part it means that PAs are trained like doctors and use basic sciences as a foundation for their diagnostic reasoning in the care of patients: They determine the workup, analyze how the patient presents (signs/symptoms), order and interpret various tests (labs, imaging, etc), create a differential diagnosis list (possible underlying causes for the chief complaint), then formulate a treatment plan. I mean no disrespect when I say this next part, but nurses are trained to care for the patients they receive while in the hospital. A patient is admitted to their unit and assigned to them. The nurse follows the orders as prescribed by the MD/PA/NP and takes care of the patient on a moment-to-moment basis.

Second, after completing the MSN program and becoming an RN, I would have to spend a bit of time as a floor/shift nurse before I could work toward becoming an NP. I was not so keen on this work. As a floor nurse, you work three shifts a week for 12 hours at a time and every other weekend. While the responsibility is great, the opportunity to actually make decisions regarding the care of the patient is pretty low. As a physician or a PA, you look at the data given and use your physical/mental assessments to make decisions about the workup and treatment plan. The nurse follows your orders/plans. If something should change in the patient’s status, you have to call the provider and await his or her decision to modify care plans, and sometimes they’re not so nice about this—especially when you’re calling them at 3 am! When I became a Certified Nursing Assistant to get the required patient experience, I learned that while the majority of the providers who saw patients on our unit were tremendously kind, there were some that were just rude and condescending.

The job of floor/shift nurse can be exceptionally grueling, both physically and mentally. I think nurses must possess a very special skill set of caring and compassion, above and beyond what is typically provided by the MD/PA. Nurses are absolutely brilliant caregivers and the best ones have a knack for knowing what to say, how to say it, and when to say it. I know, this sounds really “intangible” if you will. From my experience as a nursing assistant, I saw so many wonderful nurses be able to provide such wonderful care to patients and their families in this manner. I also realize that they do it so much better than I could ever do it!

All in all, in order to work in the capacity that I wanted to, PA school would ultimately be less expensive and take less time, not to mention give me the intensity and focus I was seeking.

Studying in our driveway, while watching our boys

How hard was it to take the plunge? How did you prepare?

By nature, I am a planner. I need to understand processes, chart a course to arrive at my destination, and do lots of preparation to stave off disaster or failure. Once I made the decision to go for it, I began researching, first figuring out which schools in the Chicago area offered PA studies and then learning what I would need to do to present a competitive application.

I had to retake some courses (anatomy and physiology, psychology) and take several for the first time (general chemistry, organic chemistry, biochemistry, microbiology, probability, and statistics). I completed these at City Colleges of Chicago and College of DuPage. Since I hadn’t touched most of these subjects in 20 years, I didn’t mind having to do all this work. Furthermore, my undergraduate GPA was a 3.0 so these additional undergraduate hours (with straight As) would significantly strengthen the academic portion of my resume for my application. Because I had to fit these prerequisites into my schedule, which also included working full-time and being a wife and mom, I took these courses part-time. It took me from spring 2012 through fall 2014 to complete all these class requirements.

As part of the PA application, I also had to gain direct patient contact experience. While there are many ways to do this, I chose to become a Certified Nursing Assistant (CNA) and work at a hospital. Knowing that, I decided to leave teaching in the spring of 2013 so I could acquire as many hours as possible, since most schools really like to see 1,000 hours on the resume.

Shadowing physicians or PAs was another required activity for application. I was able to shadow in internal medicine, infectious diseases, obstetrics and gynecology, and interventional radiology. It was easy to find MDs to shadow but PAs were virtually impossible, as most of the PAs with whom I am acquainted work for medical groups that do not allow shadowing. Ideally, one of the MDs/PAs you shadow should write one of your letters of recommendation. In any event, the experience should shed light on the role that the PA plays in the healthcare team.

Finally, I had to take the GRE, a graduate admissions test, which is basically a math and English test. I had to prepare intensively for the GRE because it had been decades (literally!) since I had done many of the math problems I would be required to solve. I spent 6-8 weeks with a Princeton Review manual to ready myself.

Medical volunteers at Chicago’s Rock’n Roll Half Marathon

What was it like to go back to school to get your prerequisites?

Rarely did I have same-age peers in my classes. I think my background in teaching was exceptionally helpful in forming connections with my classmates. I was often the one organizing study groups outside of class. Also, since many of my peers were taking these classes for the first time, I was able to help them begin to develop good study habits such as creating/using mnemonics and making effective flashcards. I have kept in touch with several of my lab partners and study buddies from my courses.

The other students and my professors were very welcoming. Again, after being on the other side of the lectern, I understand the importance of building good (yet genuine) relationships with my professors. I’m still in contact with two of my instructors, and one even wrote my letter of recommendation.

With other Second Years

When did you possibly find time to become a certified nursing assistant too? Are there other ways to get the patient experience that’s required to apply to PA school?

I took an 8-week course in spring 2013 while I was still teaching AND taking anatomy and physiology 2 as well as organic chemistry. I’m not going to lie—it was BRUTAL. Fortunately, the CNA course wasn’t difficult at all; it was just time I had to spend to get it done and take the state certifying exam. Basically, you pay your $960 fee, buy your blood pressure cuff and stethoscope, pay for your background check, and state exam fee, and you’re done. It was super easy.

Some people come to PA school from another health field, such as being a registered dietitian, physical therapist, pharmacist. In those cases, the individual has earned at least a BS and has had acceptable patient contact. Most people, however, take the “entry level route” and pursue employment as an EMT or paramedic, phlebotomist, scribe, transporter, physical or occupational therapy aide, pharmacy tech, x-ray tech, etc.  Each individual school has their own idea as to what they deem acceptable; it is certainly not uniform across the board.

Practicing casting and splinting (my leg is NOT broken)

Letting a fellow student practice her phlebotomy skills on me

 

 

Tell us more about the application process.

Currently, there are 217 programs that offer academic training to become a PA. I applied to four schools (Rush, Northwestern, Midwestern, and Rosalind Franklin). This is a small number when compared to other students in pursuit of the same degree; because of the competition for admissions, many students apply to 10-20 programs. For example, Rush received 1,200 applications, invited 200 to interview, and offered admissions to 30 (in other words, a 2.5% admit rate). Midwestern, based on what I heard at open houses, receives about 3,000 applications for 86 spots.

All applications must be sent through CASPA.

It’s pretty easy – demographic information, enter ALL your coursework (so your overall and science GPA can be calculated), enter your direct patient contact hours, your shadowing experiences, GRE scores, former work experience, etc. The application fee was about $290.

You must include at least two recommendations but no more than three. Most programs want one from an instructor who can speak to your academic abilities and one from a PA/MD. I got my first recommendation from the infectious diseases physician I shadowed. My second one came from my Anatomy and Physiology instructor who had previously worked in ultrasound/radiology and used to be the director of the radiology tech certification program at her school. My third one came from my manager at the hospital where I worked as a nursing assistant.

The CASPA has one general essay: “Why do you want to be a physician assistant?” I hated it because it was so general and so totally open-ended. I also knew that initially, it would get about 2 minutes of eye-time, so I had to make sure my essay grabbed the reader immediately. Some schools require supplemental questions, like Rush and Northwestern. Basically, for Rush, it was asking, “Are you really serious about our school?”

Whiteboard wall in study lounge at Rush, preparing for an anatomy exam

You were called in for an interview at Rush. What was that like?

The interview went from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. The initial session was informational, with the program director. The 20 of us who had been called in were split into four groups, where our activities rotated. My group started with a tour of the facilities, hosted by a first-year student. Next, we had a paperwork session where we had to submit a photo, unofficial transcripts of any outstanding coursework, and fill out a sheet indicating any change in our direct patient contact hours and shadowing since our application submission. Following that was a 30-minute one-on-one interview. After the interview, we all reassembled for a Q&A session with students in the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd years. Next up was a 60-minute time slot allotted for a 70-question medical terminology exam. Finally, we had a 60-minute time slot to type responses to two essay questions that we had received upon our arrival.

Observing orthopedic surgery

What kinds of things did they seem to be evaluating?

It seemed to be a little bit of everything. Even though the formal interview was only 30 minutes, I’m not naïve to think that the other parts of the day didn’t matter. Here is my take on what they were looking for during each part of our visit:

Arrival and opening session: How comfortable are you socializing with strangers who are all in the same boat as you? Do you seem like the type who might be a good fit for cohort work?

Three-on-one interview: I interviewed with the director of clinical education, a third-year PA student who was currently in her advanced practice rotation, and a second-year PA student who was doing her clinical rotations. All three of them had laptops and took turns asking questions, then immediately started typing once I began to speak.

Medical terminology test: I purposely took a medical terminology class so I could ace this. Luckily, I passed it. If you do not pass it but matriculate at Rush, you have to retake it.

Essay: We had two essays and were given the prompts at the beginning of the day. They were both scenarios one might come across, one while in PA school, another once a practicing PA. During the breaks in the day, I started brainstorming and putting together my ideas. I believe they are evaluating one’s ability to think critically about a complex problem and convey a thoughtful, coherent solution in a concise manner (considering we only had 60 minutes to write both essays).

After our white coat ceremony

Can you tell us more about the three-on-one interview? What kinds of questions did they ask?

Here are the questions anyone interviewing with a PA school should expect:

  • Why do you want to be a PA?
  • What do you think a PA does?
  • Why do you want to study here?
  • How have you prepared to deal with the rigors of this program (academically, emotionally, and do you have a support system in place)?
  • What unique experiences have you had that you can apply to being a PA?
  • The requisite ethical question (mine was: you believe your attending/supervising physician is under the influence of alcohol, what do you do?)
  • Why should we pick you?

I was not terribly stressed out about this interview. In my role as high school teacher, I was on the hiring committee so I spent a good four years on the other side of the interviewing table. I remember what I liked (and didn’t like) to hear and see and could tailor my approach to better read the needs of my interviewers and give them what they wanted. For example, I’d look at their body language: Are they looking away/yawning as if bored or disinterested or are they leaning forward in their chairs, nodding along with me?

I also made a playlist for my iPod and listened to music on the drive to Rush that morning; it really set the mood for me and got me pumped up.  I also spent a great deal of time preparing for the interview by reading through the college catalog. I knew that I could drop keywords that demonstrated my knowledge of the school’s mission, tell stories that illustrated my skills using “their language,” and show enthusiasm. I wanted to be a good “match” for the school, so I made sure to speak to their mission, values, and vision, all of which were clearly defined over and over throughout the catalog. I wanted to leave no doubt that I a) knew what a PA was, b) knew that I wanted to be a PA, c) knew that I wanted to matriculate at Rush, and d) knew that I would be both a great student and alumni.

Our white coat group

How supportive were your family and friends?

I would never be able to do this without the unconditional support of my husband. He is my biggest cheerleader in this endeavor. When I was still teaching full-time AND taking my prerequisites prior to application, he assumed the bulk of the family responsibilities—sometimes four months would go by and I wouldn’t have done a single load of laundry. As a result, I was able to focus on my job and my studies without having to stress about the house or the family.

My boys were two and five when I started doing prerequisites and are five and eight now, as I’m starting PA school. This is “normal” for them. What I like the most is that I get to model hard work, focus, and perseverance in an academic pursuit; I hope they adopt my work ethic and drive. Although I was fortunate to have done well, this was NOT easy, and I’m proud of what I accomplished. I hope they can see that hard work can take you very far in life.

My friends have been very supportive of my desire for change and, I’ll be honest, it is exhilarating to share with my former colleagues that I indeed DID achieve my goal of getting into PA school!

With my husband

What challenges did you encounter?

I tend to be a bit of a perfectionist and was unwilling to accept anything but an outstanding academic resume to present for admissions, so I probably put myself under a greater amount of stress than was necessary. In fact, now that I am in the didactic year of my program, I am finding that I am LESS stressed than when I was taking my prerequisites!

Another challenge was planning for a decrease in our family income. Rush’s program costs approximately $100,000. All the programs in the Chicago area are private institutions, so costs would be similar but lower due to the fact that they are shorter in duration. I have taken out student loans to cover the cost of tuition. While they may seem daunting, I am in the fortunate position of having a spouse who works full-time (which means I don’t have to take out loans for housing or living expenses, etc.).  This has meant that we had to modify how we live and how we spend, but the impact hasn’t been too great. It makes me feel a little better about paying them back, knowing that we’ve been able to keep the family afloat while I’ve had no income.

Studying at the pool

Were there times when you thought about giving up? 

I’ll share a funny story here. Typically most PA schools have wrapped up their interview and offer process around the beginning of the year. On January 5, 2015, when I hadn’t heard from the PA schools where I’d applied, I decided that I would contact the GEM nursing coordinator and let them know I’d like to matriculate in the fall. I felt as if I had gone through the Kubler-Ross five stages of grief and decided I needed to begin moving forward with Plan B, nursing. I accepted that I could be happy with this decision knowing that I had done everything to try to pursue PA school. The very next day, I was invited to interview at Rush for a spot on the waitlist. Of course, I jumped at it—what did I have to lose? I interviewed on February 6, learned I was on the waitlist on February 17, and got the call from the director on February 19 with the invitation to join their program.

 

What did you learn about yourself through this process?

Spending 16 years teaching has made me a better student than I ever could have imagined. I understand learning and how to learn, and it’s been a huge help.

I’ve also learned just how supportive my husband is. He is a great partner, father, and my biggest cheerleader.

 

Celebrating the end of a quarter with friends at Coopers Hawk

What words of advice do you have for women seeking reinvention in midlife?

It can be very scary and risky, so be sure to have backup or contingency plans. That being said, don’t let your fear of the unknown stop you from pursuing something when you know it is the right decision. Before making the leap, grab lunch or coffee with people in the profession to learn as much as you can. Don’t be shy asking them about the grades, experiences, and finances involved. Put together a reasonable plan to accomplish your goals—many of you might have a family that also needs you.  Build a solid support network around you that includes people who are enthusiastic about your choices.

 

What words of advice do you have for those interested in pursuing your path?

Get good grades, pursue interesting and appropriate clinical experiences to earn the hours needed for application, start networking with physicians and PAs who will let you shadow and perhaps eventually write your recommendations.  Get into a hospital and make sure you see some of the most disturbing things: newly amputated limbs, trauma sites, infected wounds, gushing blood – these are all things that will be commonplace in your future career so get used to them now.  I’m at the point where NOTHING surprises me anymore!

Find the right PA program for you. Currently, there are 217 programs that offer academic training to become a PA. A list can be found here. Clearly, some programs are stronger than others. Interested students should look for ones that offer a masters level of education, as opposed to bachelors or associates. Also, the PANCE (Physician Assistant National Certifying Exam) first-time pass rate should be strongly considered as it sheds light on the rigor of the program.

Be absolutely certain to attend any open houses provided by the schools you wish to attend. Take your spouse or partner with you so they, too, know what you may be getting into.

My final project for my mental health rotation

What resources do you recommend?

­ PA Education Association

CAPSA or Central Application Service for Pas: This is where prospective students apply plus it has a wealth of other information

Follow the American Academy of Physician Assistants.

The Ultimate Guide to Getting Into Physician Assistant School by Andrew Rodican. I bought it and read it cover to cover numerous times.

 

What’s next for you?

Right now I’m focused on surviving my didactic (academic/classroom) year of PA school, which means being in class from 8am to 5pm on a daily basis for the next year. Once I get through the program and settled into a career, I think my next act will be retirement (in about 25-30 years!)

 

Contact Michelle Roush at mrsmichelleroush@yahoo.com

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Becoming an Advocate for Refugees: Helen’s Story

When Helen hit midlife, she felt the need to contribute more and to expose her children to real-world issues. After volunteering for RefugeeOne, she accepted a full-time position overseeing many refugee programs for this Chicago nonprofit.

 

Tell us a little about your background.

I grew up in South Africa. My family was originally from Scotland and immigrated to South Africa in 1820, when the British colonized South Africa. I have two siblings, an elder sister and a younger brother. Today my sister lives in Australia and my brother in Botswana. My father was a patent attorney and my mom stayed home with the kids. I grew restless in our small white South African community and needed to spread my wings so applied to do my masters in Urban and Regional Planning at the University of Oregon, Eugene (UO). I was accepted and flew across the world, not knowing a soul in the USA.

UO was a wonderful experience, where I met an international group of people who are still my closest friends. I first came to Chicago with the South African Tourism Board.  I got myself a job promoting tourism to South Africa at the Chicago office.  I spent one year in Chicago and then moved to the Los Angeles office.  After one year in Los Angeles, I came back to Chicago to be with my husband to be!

My father has since passed away and my mother still lives in Durban, South Africa. I try and visit her once a year. I am married with three children – ages 21, 23 and 25. Besides my masters in Urban and Regional Planning from UO, I am also a trained shiatsu massage therapist.

Childhood photo

When did you start to think about making a change in midlife?

In my mid-forties, I was working part-time as a shiatsu massage therapist at a holistic clinic in Evanston, while caring for our three kids. Most of my clients were affluent, and I was just not getting the job satisfaction that I had been hoping for in this field. As I listened to the “problems” many clients faced, I found myself thinking that these are just rich people problems. I wanted to work with people who had more “real” problems, whatever that meant, and I was also looking for some way to expose my children (entitled suburban kids) to the realities of the world.

I looked long and hard for volunteer opportunities that we could do as a family. Many places would not take children as young as mine were at the time, but I finally stumbled upon RefugeeOne (Interfaith Refugee and Immigrant Ministries, as it was called then) on a volunteer website. I called and they invited us to join a Thanksgiving celebration they were having for the refugee kids. We went along and I knew immediately that that was where I was supposed to be. I remember being up all night after the event thinking about ways that I could contribute. The next day I signed us up to do family mentoring and myself to help with an ELT class (English Language Teaching).

My kids, Chris and Anna, with the kids of a Somali family we mentored

What is your next act?

I am the Director of Resettlement for RefugeeOne, the largest refugee resettlement agency in Chicago. Our mission is to provide opportunities for refugees fleeing war, terror, and persecution to build new lives of safety, dignity, and self-reliance. We provide all the services needed to successfully integrate into life in the USA. These services include case management, employment, English classes, computer classes, mental health services, youth programs, mentorship, medical case management, and immigration services. The biggest challenges for resettlement in Chicago is finding affordable housing and employment.

We resettle about 500 refugees a year. Most recently, the largest number of our clients are from Syria, Burma, Iraq, and Congo. In 2017, we had hoped to be resettling up to 9000 in the US, but the election changed everything. The number of US refugee arrivals has been cut from 110,000 to 50,000 for this year, which drastically reduced the number of refugees we will be resettling in Chicago. Coupled with Executive Orders actually shutting the refugee program down for 120 days and limiting the countries from where refugees can arrive, the US refugee program is facing new and serious challenges.

Senator Dick Durbin visiting our RefugeeOne office

In my position, I now oversee the case management program, seniors program, medical case management program, cultural orientation, housing program, intensive case management program and the women’s program.

I love everything about the job. I am able to help people who have faced incredible challenges to get to the USA, and their challenges are far from over when they arrive. Living in the USA is not easy, and there are multiple hurdles to overcome, but I am able to help in many small ways, guiding refugees through the many hurdles they face.  It doesn’t take much to change someone’s life and I am fortunate to be able to do this every day.

Sharing holiday gifts with a Somali family

How did this you go from volunteering to working for RefugeeOne?

I began as a mentor. I started with a single mother from Liberia. She had fled civil war and was bringing up three children by herself. Life was very challenging for her, especially as she had severely arthritic knees and could barely get herself up the stairs. I worked with her on getting a double knee replacement, rehabilitation at the Rehab Institute of Chicago, and got her on her feet again. My family was also matched with a couple of different Somali families that had had all fled Somalia in 1991 and had spent many years in refugee camps in Kenya. We worked on English and had lots of fun with the families at the beach, downtown Chicago, at soccer games, and more.

After mentoring various families and women, and teaching part-time at the ELT class, I was offered a position as Women’s Program coordinator at RefugeeOne. I took it immediately. I was responsible for arranging various events, classes, and the mentorship program. After two or so years, I was offered the position of Adjustment Program Manager, overseeing the case management staff and other services offered to refugees upon arrival. I was recently promoted to Director of Resettlement.

Orientation, teaching how to use a mop

How hard was it to commit to this new work?

It was the easiest decision I have had to make. I was ready to do something different and accepted immediately. I had been home with my kids until they were in middle school and knew that I was ready to do something for myself. Massage therapy was not providing me all I needed, so when this opportunity fell at my feet, I jumped right into it. It was scary at first, I had many self-doubts about how I would do, could I do it, would I make mistakes etc. But I knew I had to give it a try.

Exhibiting our clients’ artwork, with Burundian ladies

How supportive were your family and friends?

They were all very supportive and encouraging. When we were matched as a family with a few families from Somalia, my kids enjoyed getting to know the Somali children and teaching them English and the ways of American children. They have helped out since then with a variety of things including clothing drives, school supply drives, transporting clients to various appointments, and airport pick-ups. It has definitely opened their eyes to life outside the North shore suburbs of Chicago and made them appreciative of the privilege they were born into.

My husband offers his time and resources whenever needed. He has two businesses, a painting company and an adventure travel company (www.nwpassage.com). He recently offered our staff an evening kayak paddle, which was great fun. He has donated time and paint to various painting needs we have had, and continues to welcome any opportunity to help RefugeeOne and our clients.

Friends have helped out in so many ways. Whenever I have needed something—a bicycle, clothing for a family that arrived with nothing, extra furniture, car seats, the list goes on and on—all I have to do is put out an email blast and I get everything I need delivered to my garage.  They have given financial donations, attended our annual benefit, and are always available to help out with anything I ask.

Family trip to New Zealand

What challenges have you encountered?

One challenge is time. While I am very good with time management, the lives of refugees do not end at 5 pm, and responsibilities do creep into after-hours time. This is the nature of my work; it is not a job for a clock watcher. My phone is always on, and I am happy to respond to client needs after hours.

The time issue has crept into our family’s love of travel. Since my husband runs an adventure travel company, he likes me to travel with him. Having a full-time job suddenly meant I was not as available to do that. Time off was now limited and had to be carefully planned. This took some getting used to. I was also suddenly not available to pick up sick kids from school, take the dog to the vet, all those sorts of things. Luckily my husband works close to our home, so when he was home, he took over. When he was gone, I had to call on friends.

A huge problem is that the US refugee resettlement program is underfunded. It always has been, and probably always will be. We do the best we can with what we have. Community support in Chicago is amazing; we work with many congregations who provide co-sponsorship for a family. They raise $8,000 and collect all the household items needed to furnish an apartment. They provide mentorship and friendship to our families, and we are blessed to have them all be a part of our mission.

Despite these challenges, I never have thought of quitting. I couldn’t imagine not working, and especially not doing something as fulfilling as what I am doing. The ability to change lives on a daily basis keeps me going through the most challenging of days.

Field trip to Garfield Park Conservatory with Bhutanese ladies

What did you learn about yourself through this process? Would you have done anything differently?

I would rather be working and crazy busy than sitting home. I am just not cut out for playing paddle tennis and doing lunch. Looking back, I would have done a Master’s in forced migration or international studies. And I would have kept up my high school French.

 

What advice do you have for women seeking reinvention in midlife?

What makes you feel most alive? What touches your soul? What has kept you up at night excitedly churning ideas of what you could do? What makes me cry the most is when I see the generosity of the human spirit. I knew that I had to do something that makes me give 100% of myself.

Think of the books you chose to read, the movies you chose to watch. I always seemed to pick books and movies about human struggles, war, rebellion, genocides—cheerful things like that!  I wanted to be able to understand the struggles others have gone through as my life has been so blessed.

Sewing class

What advice do you have for those interested in learning more about the plight of refugees?

UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency is a wonderful website to learn about current refugee issues. There is just so much information on the web available nowadays.

If you are really interested in studying the refugee situation in depth, I would recommend a Masters in Forced Migration. There are various schools offering this around the world. DePaul University in Chicago offers this program.

I also recommend these books:

The Middle of Everywhere: Helping Refugees Enter the American Community – Mary Pipher

Outcasts United: The Story of a Refugee Soccer Team That Changed a Town – Warren St. John

Of Beetles and Angels: A Boy’s Remarkable Journey from a Refugee Camp to Harvard – Mawi Asgedom

A Long Walk to Water: Based on a True Story – Linda Sue Park

Dangerous Sanctuaries: Refugee Camps, Civil War, and the Dilemmas of Humanitarian Aid – Sarah Kenyon Lischer

The Other Side of the Sky: A Memoir – Farah Ahmedi

The Lost Boys of Sudan: An American Story of the Refugee Experience – Mark Bixler

The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down: A Hmong Child, Her American Doctors, and the Collision ofTwo Cultures – Anne Fadman

Cooking class

How can my readers get involved with RefugeeOne?

Start as a volunteer. That way you don’t have to commit too much until you are sure it is right for you. Working with refugees can be very challenging for a variety of reasons. Not speaking a common language makes communication difficult. When I was a mentor, I wanted to fix all the problems and issues that the refugees had, but had to learn quickly that I could not do that.  Being a good volunteer means being flexible, open to new cultures, willing to share of yourself, being comfortable with being uncomfortable, and being creative in solving problems. There are many volunteer positions available, and they are listed on our website.

 

Connect with Helen Sweitzer

Email: hsweitzer@refugeeone.org

RefugeeOne Website

RefugeeOne Facebook Page

RefugeeOne Twitter: @Refugee_One

RefugeeOne YouTube

RefugeeOne LinkedIn




Let’s Hear from an Expert: Sue De Santo, Relationship Coach

You are a relationship coach. Tell us more about your work.

My work as a relationship coach grew out of my personal experience, actually. I was working as a therapist, was married, and had two young children. And then I got divorced.

In that process, I came to understand what I didn’t want in my next relationship. But I was unclear about what I did want—and how to go about getting it. I came to believe that in order to find someone to share my life with, I needed to be a successful, fulfilled, and happy single person.

That insight prompted me to work with a relationship coach who took me through the very same program I now use to guide my coaching clients.

The experience was awesome! I learned tons about my patterns in relationships—and how to use my new awareness to recognize and avoid them when they cropped up. I also gained the confidence to pursue one of my passions (swing dancing!), and I started dating. I felt happy, and I had clarity and confidence around the type of life partner I wanted. In time, I met the man who became my current husband.

The one-on-one coaching program I use provides a roadmap for my clients to understand the unconscious barriers and beliefs that hinder them from reaching their relationship goals. Relationship coaching is unlike therapy. My coaching clients are actively engaged in writing and talking about what keeps them stuck. With my ongoing support and coaching, they can move through the barriers so they no longer have to struggle and feel alone.

To date, I have worked with two basic groups: heterosexual women in their late 30s and early 40s, and women in their 50s and 60s. Yet I believe this program will work equally well for men as well as those in the LGBT community, and I look forward to diversifying my practice.

 

Are there unique challenges and opportunities you see with women in midlife when it comes to dating and relationships?

Generally, the women I see are driven, smart, financially successful, and professionally fulfilled.  In their careers, they are collaborative, passionate, and they feel confident about their skills. Yet that clarity and confidence doesn’t always transfer to their personal lives.

Many women put 100% into their professional lives, inadvertently putting their personal lives on hold. Either they believe that once they decide it’s time for marriage and family it will come easily to them, or they’ve put off dating because it felt difficult or uncomfortable. But eventually, if you are someone who really wants to be in a successful relationship, you come to realize that you have to address it.

What’s interesting about working with slightly older women is that they see their lives as completely their own now. If they’re divorced and their children are grown—or even if they’ve never been married—they come to recognize that life is finite. If they want a special someone to share their life with, they need to take action.

The opportunity for women in midlife, I believe, is their determination to achieve a sort of balance between their personal and professional selves. The good news is that the traits that make them successful at their career can be put to work for their personal fulfillment through relationship coaching.

 

 

What are your thoughts regarding online dating for women in midlife?

Hardly a week goes by that you don’t hear about a couple that met online, so obviously online dating has its successes. So far, my clients do it, but really don’t like it.  Either they can’t figure out what to say and how to describe themselves in their online profile…or they’re afraid of getting it wrong and wasting their time. For some, it feels threatening to put themselves out there in such a personal and vulnerable way.

Women who are opposed to the idea of online dating still want what they see as the reward. So while they say they prefer to meet men organically and naturally, they don’t really believe they can find anyone that way either! It’s a classic catch-22.

So one of the strategies I use is to invite them to talk about their hobbies and the places they like to hang out with friends and encourage them to start participating in those things. As the saying goes, you can meet your partner anywhere—you just need to be looking for him! I know people who married their plumber, who met on airplanes or who, like myself, met their husband swing dancing.

 

What’s your best advice for women who are just getting back into the dating scene at 40 or later?

It’s never too late to have the relationship you want! My advice to women over 40 is to allow themselves to be open to whoever shows up. Naturally, you don’t have to accept every invitation you get, but don’t say no to someone until you give yourself a little time to think it over. In other words, don’t react too quickly.

Yes, the dating world has changed, but that doesn’t mean you can’t meet someone with depth and great character. And in some ways, it has been made easier because all you have to do is go on your computer and find an activity of interest and go meet people. There are also many meet-ups organized around particular hobbies and singles events. Have fun in the process!

 

What are your favorite resources for dating and relationships?

Books

The 5 Love Languages: The Secret to Love that Lasts by Dr. Gary Chapman

Getting the Love You Want: A Guide for Couples and Receiving Love: Transform Your Relationship by Letting Yourself Be Loved by Harville Hendrix, PH.D

If the Buddha Dated: A Handbook for Finding Love on a Spiritual Path by Charlotte by Kasl, PhD

Intimacy: Trusting Oneself and the Other by Osho

Websites

YourTango.com 

zoosk.com

EliteSingles.com

match.com (also an app)

PlentyOfFish.com (also an app)

OkCupid.com (also an app)

eharmony.com

ourtime.com (50 and older, also an app)

seniordating.org (45 and older)

seniormatch.com

Apps

There are many online dating apps; research costs and benefits and get recommendations from friends. Here are some of the ones I think deserve a look: Bumble, Tinder, Coffee Meets Bagel, Hinge, Stitch, Sapio, Happn, Siren, Hitch.

The key to successful dating—and especially to finding and creating a long-term, successful relationship—is knowing what you want. If you’re not clear about the vision for your life, your relationship goals, and your non-negotiables, you’re less likely to have a positive dating experience.

If you fall into that camp, there are a lot of resources available to help you. As the lists above prove, the Internet is overrun with resources (although be discerning about what you read), and professional help is everywhere. While therapy is often helpful, what I found most helpful about seeing a relationship coach is that that work is very focused.

 

Contact Sue De Santo, Relationship Coach and Therapist

Email: Sue@suedesanto.com

Websites: http://suedesanto.com/ and www.DeSantoCounseling.com

 

 Sue De Santo didn’t know when she started swing dancing after her divorce that she would eventually meet the love of her life and help others do the same. Not until she focused on finding her true joys and passions in life was she able to create a space for her husband of eight years.

After 20 plus years as a clinical social worker and her experience as a divorcedmother, she found the real reason that so many people fail at finding love… They think they’re “ready” to be in a relationship but they aren’t. How does she know this to be true? She was one of those people going on eight first dates because she kept connecting with the wrong men. She did not see her own blind spots in her relationships. After these painful experiences, she was determined to find out if it was possible to have a good intimate relationship and how to make that happen. Once she understood what the hidden barriers were to her finding love, she started living her life with passion and fun. During that journey, she found out that we don’t have to give up ourselves for a relationship—we ultimately can’t; we must embrace ourselves and open our hearts to love!

Sue has a three-month one-on-one coaching program, a proven system that provides a roadmap to understand these barriers and move through them with ease and support, so you no longer have to struggle and feel alone.She is dedicated to helping other singles create the best version of “me” so they can create the best version of “we.” When we are centered within ourselves and enjoying life, the most amazing things happen!

Sue DeSanto is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker with over 20 years of experience with a private practice in North Center Chicago and provides relationship coaching for singles.

 

 




Publishing a Collection of Short Stories in Midlife: Jodi’s Story

Two decades into a teaching career, saddled with health problems, Jodi chose to embrace her love of writing. She has since published a book, They Could Live with Themselves and is working on more short stories, novels, and poems.

 

Tell us a little about your background…
I grew up in the rolling hills of southeast Pennsylvania, in Wyeth country, playing in fields and streams with my sisters and the children who lived near us. I read a lot and drew pictures. I was passionate about school. It was no surprise that I went to college in Pennsylvania and studied to become an elementary school teacher, but after doing my internships in a traditional, rather cloying, public school setting, I came away with a deep knowing that public school teaching wasn’t for me, at least not in a school like the one where I had studied.

After some travel and a few years trying on a number of alternative jobs–––living and teaching in a collaborative outdoor learning community, assisting a teacher in an urban Montessori school, and teaching nature programs at a center–––I went to graduate school in New England to get a degree in environmental studies. I loved being outdoors and New England felt more like home than home. The irony there was that just as I was ready to embark on a completely different professional trajectory, I got a teaching job in an alternative public school in a small town in Vermont, the kind of school I dreamed of, the kind of school I had hoped to one day start. So that’s where I landed. Eventually, my two daughters came along and I juggled being a devoted mother and career teacher.

When did you start to think about making a change in midlife?

I felt lucky to live in a beautiful place with a wonderful school where I could both work and send my kids, and I relished that life for many years. My job allowed me full freedom of creative self-expression on multiple levels and the ability to serve others in some way, my two goals in life. But things began to change. Demands on teachers and mandates from the state first trickled, then rushed in, while at the same time, basic needs in a number of children were less and less met at home. Social economic and academic gaps seemed to widen, or perhaps I just became more aware of the gaps. Tolerance in the more resourced families gave lip service to liberal views that did not always play out in action. I was heartbroken. An ideal I held about children and schools, our little school, began to erode.

A few years earlier, I had become a single mother. I experienced a great loss of innocence in both family and career. I zigzagged from feeling stressed, exhausted, and at times, completely deflated, to getting charged up over a new idea, a new kind of yoga, a new design idea for the house I was having built; I was completely overdoing it. Health practitioners came up with a host of diagnoses–––thyroid malfunction, liver and adrenal compromise, hormonal shifts, autoimmune, Lyme disease–––and I don’t discount the truth in any of those assessments. But no matter what conventional or alternative medical tracts I was on—seeing specialists, adding supplements, subtracting certain kinds of food from my diet—no matter how much therapy I experienced, stress was the constant factor that did not change.

I’d been in a winter writing group for many years and began to see metaphors in my poetry about life paths and choices. I was writing a lot about exhaustion, empty vessels, and barren landscapes. Sometimes the poetry seemed sad, but mostly I sensed it was expressive of a need for change and the exploration of new opportunities. One night, I wrote a poem titled, “The Suitcase.” It was epiphanic. The next day, in the spring of 2008, at the age of 46, I resigned from an 18-year teaching position.

What is your next act?

I’m the author of They Could Live with Themselves, a collection of linked short stories set in the fictional town of Stark Run, which was published in 2015 by Press 53, a small literary press out of Winston-Salem, North Carolina. These stories delve into the inner lives of ordinary people with trouble in their hearts. Often a strange alliance arrives on the scene to shake something up or help move the protagonist forward in his/her emotional evolution in some way. There are eleven stories that take place over the course of one year, from May to May. A main character in one story might show up as a supporting character in another, so as you read along, the overall sense of a place is developed. Place becomes an exterior landscape that mirrors the inner lives of the individuals. One reviewer said that when read together, the stories become a whole that is greater than the sum of their parts.

My next act involves writing full-time, teaching writing, and working with clients as an editor and writing coach. I spend anywhere from ten to sixty hours a week working on ideas, drafts, and edits for my next books, another story collection, this time set on the coast of Maine, a novel, and a Young Adult novel. The hours I spend in the worlds I create are my happiest. I also work with private clients, individuals, and small groups, as an editor and writing teacher. I run these sessions from my home, usually over the phone or on a video chat, but also in person in my studio space. I love the flexibility I control in my schedule. And I need the personal interaction, as writing is often a lonely task. Deciding how much time I want to allot to “this kind of work” or “that kind of work” meets a need I have for variety.

During the exploration phase, my first year at home, I took a coaching certification course that taught me to trust all of the transitions in my life. I recognized that we are often in transition. This can be viewed as a challenge or an exciting opportunity for growth. As well as writing, editing, and coaching writers, I work with clients seeking change in their lives through the exploration of their unmet need for creativity. The work is fun for me, and helps my clients bust through barriers in ways they couldn’t imagine.

At one point, I had considered becoming a certified therapist and perhaps some day I will. I chose writing, the less practical of the two careers, at least for me so far. Coaching and leading workshops meet my need to work with people, so I feel as if I have the best of both worlds, being a writer, a workshop leader, and a coach.

 

How did your book come about?

In addition to writing poetry, I decided I wanted to learn how to write fiction. After exploring many avenues, I chose to go back to school and earn an MFA in Writing. Out of that program and a few more years of toil, drafting and editing and re-drafting, I compiled a series of linked short stories and published them in a debut collection, They Could Live with Themselves. The book opens with a story about a middle-aged woman, Molly, who is questioning her next steps when her youngest son begins his process of fledging.

I never considered self-publishing. I entered my manuscript in a contest and was a finalist. In the end, the editor of the press running the contest agreed to publish the book. So in a sense, this was not the path of finding an agent who would then shop the book to a big publishing house. There are more and more ways to approach publication. I was honored to have a small press take the time to treat my book with care.

 

Why did you choose this next act?  

2008 would be the first September that I did not “go to school” in one form or another since I was five years old. Besides school and loving my work with children, I also loved reading. I spent much of my spare time over the years reading books, mostly novels, but as I approached a middle of life transition, I also read books about the spirit and the soul. I read poetry, lots of poetry, and I listened to stories in the car with my kids and read to them every night. More than anything, I had a dream of one day making a book that others could read and enjoy as much as I have.

 

How hard was it to take the plunge?

I am fortunate to have a supportive second husband who encourages my work. The two of us, though nervous about giving up a second income with benefits, decided that I needed to heal or my illness would become debilitating. As I felt more and more well, I took some workshops and went to seminars and read books about things that interested me. I’m aware that not everyone has the luxury to take such steps, but I encourage as many people as I can who feel stuck in their lives to try and do a little every day, to do more of what they love, and to do it a little bit more as they can. Nowadays, there are many inexpensive options to study new areas for free or for little money, online, to watch You Tube videos to learn how to start painting or turn a bowl, to take a on-line Daily OM class for $10.

Another big step was to create a space of my own. Together, the September I did not go to school for the first time in 40 years, my husband and I built a tiny house in the woods. We called it The Poetry House. It’s quite magical! As we built the house, I wrote the lines of my favorite writers and books into the support beams of the tiny house. I spent many mornings that fall doing nothing but sitting in that space in the woods with my trusted dog, listening to the birds. Sometimes the best preparation is silence. We were sad to say goodbye to such a space. In 2014, after 25 years living in Vermont, we moved to the coast of Maine. That’s a different story for another day.

How supportive were your family and friends?

My friends were very supportive, as was my husband as I have said. My daughters were curious. My little one didn’t think it was fair that I didn’t have to go to school anymore and she did. She wondered why I wore pajamas all day.

 

What challenges did you encounter?

Two challenges. One: How do you train a career teacher to create a schedule for her time, her curriculum, as it were, now that she has all the time in the world to do as she decides? Well, mostly. Time management is still a challenge, but I get more and more used to letting go of a certain definition of structure. I’m learning to trust both the creative process and the practical work to develop as a flow.

Two: I no longer have a job with regular pay and benefits. That’s a challenge in terms of counting on a certain income every year and relying on health insurance that may no longer be affordable in future.

 

Were there times when you thought about giving up?  

I think about giving up every day, but I haven’t yet. I trust my role in telling certain kinds of stories, stories about small towns with great heart and an underbelly, stories about families and relationships, the expected and the unexpected. I believe in the power of fiction to paint multi-dimensional portraits of flawed characters, to teach empathy, and teach us more about ourselves as we view the realistic lives of made-up people. What I have known all along through experience has now been proven by studies in neuroscience. It’s so exciting to me when science proves the ineffable.

 

What did you learn about yourself through this process?

Every day I learn something new about myself, as I get closer and closer to living the way I want to live. The biggest lesson has been that I have choice in directing my life. Nothing and no one holds me back except for me. That may sound like a privileged stance, because it is one. Growing up, we weren’t rich, but we worked hard and I am grateful for my parents who supported my curiosity through education. In school, I developed an imagination.

I’m grateful for everyone who encouraged me to develop a work ethic, from family to teachers to friends. I see in my work ethic a balance of creative process and product. I get to control that balance. If I can do it, so can anyone. I’ve also had to learn to accept the gift of support. The challenge of becoming dependent on another, to trust that person with my life, and to soak in the generosity, the deserving of it, has been a roadblock I could have never imagined.

Looking back, is there anything you’d have done differently?

In the past 10 years, I would have spent less and less time on social media. I look back on this dilemma everyday. I will tell you the same thing tomorrow. If I were to go all the way back to 1980 when I became a freshman in college, I think I would have studied English Literature. There is a part of me that wonders what it would have been like to teach high school English or English Literature in College, to have been an editor in a big house in NYC. Perhaps someday I will.

 

What advice do you have for women seeking reinvention in midlife?

As I mentioned earlier, try to do a little more of what you love every day. Start small, use what you have, take a step in the direction where you see yourself when you envision a different existence. Get outside. Get quiet. Do both of those things a lot!

Find at least one good friend who supports your dream; better yet, start a small group where you meet to share your dreams and encourage each other. Be creative if you’re not normally a creative person; and if you’re often creative, try something more left brain, like learning to do your own taxes. If you have the time and resources, hire a transition coach whose mission and personal aesthetic lines up with yours. The main thing is to be aware, pay attention to what your higher awareness and your body are trying to tell you, and to be brave. For that, you need to pause and breathe, to do and be, to act and rest.

With friends from my writing group

What advice do you have for those interested in pursuing writing?

My best advice is to read what you love and read lots of it. Books are wonderful teachers. Also, read interviews given by writers. Listen to podcasts of writers talking about their processes. But mostly, sit down with the blank page and get started. Turn off all editors and write. It can get messy. Try and flow through that.

If you’re interested in freelance writing, find five people in real life who do what you see yourself doing and take them out for tea ands scones. Interview them. Pay them for their time if that’s required. Think about what they are really saying and not what you want to believe they are saying about pay, time, and clients. For some people, freelancing is a snap. For others, it’s a slog. For me, it’s a little bit of both.

What writing resources do you recommend?

Writing and Editing

Here’s a list of my favorite magazine and media sites that have everything a writer needs to get started and keep going in all aspects of the work, from the spark of an idea to a book contract:

Books I couldn’t have done without along the way:

These are a few places I recommend solidly, where I studied the art and craft of writing:

At the Vermont College of Fine Arts

 

Transition and Creativity Coaching

The following centers, all located in New England, were places I visited to take courses in personal exploration and growth as I sought inspiration for a next act career:

 These three books sit among other giants on my shelf that are written on the topic of creativity and following a passionate life path:

 

Teaching an art class

Facebook Groups and Pages

There are a number of Facebook Groups in support of writers of all kinds. These two are the ones I used the most often. Once you get going in Binders (for women and gender-nonconforming writers), you will be led to more and more specific private groups on topics ranging from writing poetry to book promotion. I curate Short Stories, Every Now and Then. If you read or write short fiction, you will find on-going resources to good reading materials.

 

What’s next for you? Do you think you have another next act in your future?

Three things…

One: I failed to mention that during the first year of my transition, what I call my discovery phase, I took a painting class at the local art school and found that the process of making without a need to produce something acceptable and consumable made me feel euphoric and sharpened my creative aesthetic. The act of creating in an area that is not my main practice, writing fiction, has proven to be very beneficial to my work. Lately, I am leaning towards more and more art-making. I took a course on Soul Collage and have fun with that at one of my stations. I have found collage and mixed media art to be freeing. But now, I am painting and my canvases keep getting bigger and bigger. In my third act, I hope to produce art that can give other people enjoyment when they hang it on their wall.

Two: I love to design houses. My husband and I have designed, built, and renovated a total of 7 houses between us, not counting the sheds and shacks and tiny houses. We have a dream of creating at least one more house together.

Three: More books. I am currently working on a second collection of short stories, a novel, a YA novel, and collection of poetry. I like to have this many projects going at once. It’s not recommended. I trust the process.

 

Connect with Jodi Paloni
Email: jodipaloni@gmail.com
Book: They Could Live with Themselves
Website
Facebook
Twitter: @JodiPaloni




Let’s Hear from an Expert: Margaret Morganroth Gullette, Age Activist

You write and teach about ageism. What has made you so passionate about the subject?

I wasn’t originally passionate about ageism. Quite the contrary. I was looking for progress stories. “Midlife Exhilaration,” the first mainstream article I wrote, for the New York Times Magazine in 1989, reported some giddy new surprises about feeling good about growing older. Midlifers were being seen by writers and pundits as more competent, more assertive (and sexier) than anyone anticipated. The book I published, also in 1989, was called Safe at Last in the Middle Years. Many thought the so-called Baby Boomers would change old age as well as midlife decline ideology.

But I soon found that the Boomers couldn’t make it happen. People in their middle years were being dropped out of the workforce. Many long-unemployed midlife men in their fifties were committing suicide. “Anti-aging”—those cosmetic responses to ageism—turns out not to be a protective strategy. Today, ageism is hitting people younger than ever. The book I recently published, Ending Ageism, is subtitled How Not to Shoot Old People.

 

So as a cultural critic, writer, and scholar, over 25 years, you observed grave changes in the United States. What factors are responsible for these observations?

Not my own aging past midlife. I do identify with old people now that I am old enough to be a victim of ageism (and I have been a victim), but I’m fine in terms of health, work, and love. What has changed in painful ways is our society. It has made aging-past-youth darker and more painful through its concerted ageism. This ranges from micro-aggressions like calling me “young lady” to true violence. Some of it shocks me, some of it is appalling to anyone, but worst of all much gets ignored. We don’t know what ageism is.

Many enemies of later life are never reproached for ageism, even though their effects on old people are nasty or lethal. Congressional neoliberals, for instance. I watch the constant attacks on the safety nets translated into scapegoating old people for budget deficits that come from Congress having lowered taxes on the corporations and the rich. Republicans recently attempted to end Meals on Wheels, famously little more expensive for millions of recipients annually than Trump’s visits to Mar-a-Lago would be over the same period. I feel the nation needs to wake up to this most accepted of biases.

 

What are the most pervasive issues you’ve uncovered around aging in the US?

Familiar though I was with an array of ageisms that include unrelenting Congressional attempts to unravel the safety nets of Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid, people started relaying personal stories that shocked and upset me. They reported everything from casual insults, threats of bodily harm, to real violence. And sometimes, but parsimoniously, their feelings. I started listening harder.

Here is a friend who is a respected lawyer, a gorgeous woman in her mid-seventies with beautifully coiffed white hair.

I had my first ageist assault yesterday. I was in a convenience store paying with a credit card on a machine. I hesitated, thinking about whether I wanted to get cash and this young punk thrust his arm across my face, aiming his finger at the no button. “Just say no,” he said. I had to physically push his arm away to keep him from taking over the machine. “Leave me alone,” I said. He said, “That’s what I do for my grandmother.” His arm within millimeters of my face was a physical assault and his assumption that he knew what was best for me was even more enraging. All I wanted to say was “F*** you,” so I said nothing. The anger was intense.

I call know-it-alls like him “Young Judges.” They have internalized ageism. They have absorbed too much of the magnificent imaginary power conferred on them by the Western world’s cult of youth.

Behind this young man’s arrogance and invasiveness lie much worse for people aging past youth: nasty fantasies, hostile regulations and laws, practices, disdain, avoidance, invisibility and hypervisibility, intolerance of our appearance, lack of audiences for our grievances, underestimation of our trials, dislike of our alleged characteristics or disgust at our apparent weak­nesses, and unwillingness to look us in the eye or spend time in our company.

The Internet empowers hysterical young men to publish hate speech against elders, as in, “God forbid these miserable once-were-people not [sic] survive as long as possible to burden the rest of us.” This fantasy wish—that a large and easily identifiable group, “miserable once-were-people” should die prematurely for the convenience of youngers—can be matched by many other Web slurs.

Careless bullies on streets, on bikes, even on college campuses, make walking while old, as I call it, dangerous. One 65-year-old white acquaintance wrote to me about sidewalk encounters, “I feel like it’s a battle of wills as we close in on each other, and eventually one of us steps out of the way. I often feel invisible…” She feels the risks of having “less muscular flexibility to duck and weave.” One 80-year-old man I know, a retired CEO, was shoved down subway stairs and endured a knee operation, opioids, rehab, and a cascade of problems thereafter.

The shootings, when I discovered them through research, were the most appalling. Men—men over 55—are shooting their sick wives and calling it a mercy killing. Sometimes they kill themselves too, but if they don’t, the law is lenient to an old white man with a gun.

Medicine. If you get breast cancer, the odds of your surgeon not recommending chemotherapy if you are a woman over sixty-five are seven times greater than for a woman under fifty. Medical neglect, medical undertreatment—this is ageism.

Business. Through outsourcing and downsizing, corporate global capitalism is depriving midlife workers—not just in the Rust Belt factories or on farms, but across the professions, in Silicon Valley, in Hollywood—of employment and decent jobs. Letting people go, keeping people out of work, refusing aid to select groups because of age—that is all ageism.

Media oblivion. The media raise the fear of Alzheimer’s, erroneously equating it with aging into old age. Older women, who live longer, are tasked as particular “burdens.” This is ageism and sexist ageism.

Speaking at the University of Graz, Austria

 

How can we as a society change attitudes around aging?      

Recognize the harms, first of all. The law and society recognize that sexism and racism can be violent. We need to recognize the violence of ageism. Sometimes the attacks are invisible—or perhaps it would be better to say, they go unseen.  And often the victims are silent, or rather their cries go unheard. We old people are supposed to appear dignified, which means uncomplaining. We are not permitted to take offense. We are not allowed to be violent. So it behooves those who have hearts to be vigilant. One way to become more human is to listen to the pain of others. To try to hold ourselves steady to listen to the pain of being shamed, the ignominy of being a target. To report the biases and the sufferings.

Ending Ageism, or How Not to Shoot Old People, my new book, ends with a short Declaration of Grievances. At an international conference in Austria, a brilliant designer named Carolyn Kerchof came up to me after I read the Declaration as part of my keynote and she offered to make a poster of it. Now the Declaration she designed is available to download and print (in English and Spanish) for free on Facebook. Memorize it and apply it to what needs to be done.

 

How can individuals combat ageism as we encounter it?

Don’t be silent, like my friend was in the convenience store.

Learn what counts as ageism—perhaps from thinking about the Declaration of Grievances, perhaps from direct observation—and be prepared with a riposte when it happens to you, or to a friend. Your response can be polite or crude. It can be brief or a short speech. It can be preventative: “Never call me ‘little lady’.” When in doubt, go to Ashton Applewhite’s Website, Yo, Is This Ageist, and ask her. It’s interactive, and she’ll answer. And watch your back, if you are aging past midlife. Your aging is the trigger for their ageism.

If you have children and grandchildren, teach them anti-ageism in whatever ways you can.

It’s a bitter irony that the Age of Longevity—when we should be proud of having so many people growing old, and glad to have them with us, enjoying life in these extra years—should be driving the terror of growing old. It’s a harsh fact that ageism has grown so much worse, while most of the public has yet to learn what the word means.

What resources do you recommend about ageism?

Set up a Google Alert for the word ageism, and read, week after week, what comes straight to your inbox. This week, age discrimination against relatively young people in Silicon Valley was covered twice. Ageism adds to the stigma faced by adults with HIV—and HIV/AIDS rates are growing fastest among older people. Jessica Lange, like many other stars, has complained about sexist ageism in Hollywood. In the admissions process at an Indian university, if two candidates have the same grades, the younger one will be chosen. (This can happen in graduate school admissions in the US also, or in choosing adjuncts.) The range of ageisms observed on these Google Alerts is not yet as wide and bad as those I reveal in Ending Ageism, but it is growing worldwide. These are global issues of behavior and rights.

Ask friends and acquaintances of all ages whether they have experienced ageism, and be patient as they try to figure out whether what bothered them was it. Get these conversations going, reassure, give support.

Books and websites can be great. I return to recent readable books like Peg Cruikshank’s Learning to Be Old, Ashton Applewhite’s This Chair Rocks: A Manifesto Against Ageism and Anne Karpf’s How to Age. If you are a teacher, join NANAS, the North American Network in Aging Studies, which sends you a monthly list of blogs and academic writing in age studies

But knowing your own mind, understanding your own experience, and listening to others are basic to changing our society. Then, get active. Start an ageism-consciousness group, a reading group, join or start a chapter of the Gray Panthers.

 

Connect with Margaret Morganroth Gullette

Email address: mgullett@brandeis.edu

Academia.edu

LinkedIn

Facebook

Twitter

Her Books:

Ending Ageism, or How Not to Shoot Old People

The Big Move: Life Between the Turning Points

Agewise: Fighting the New Ageism in America

Aged by Culture

Safe at Last in the Middle Years: The Invention of the Midlife Progress Novel

Declining to Decline: Cultural Combat and the Politics of the Midlife (Age Studies)

 

Margaret Morganroth Gullette, an internationally known age critic, essayist and activist, is the author most recently of Ending Ageism, or How Not to Shoot Old People. Her prizewinning books include Agewise: Fighting the New Ageism in America, a 2012 winner of the Eric Hoffer Book Award and Declining to Decline(1997) which received the Emily Toth Award as the Abest feminist book on American popular culture. Aged by Culture(2004) was chosen a Noteworthy Book of the Year by the Christian Science Monitor. Her essays are often cited as notable in Best American Essays, and she writes frequently for the mainstream and feminist press and literary/ cultural quarterlies. She is a Resident Scholar at the Women’s Studies Research Center, Brandeis.




Let’s Hear from an Expert: Johanna Wise, Founder of the “Return to Work You Love” Conference

You’ll be hosting your 11th conference this October. Tell us more about your program. 

This Return to Work You Love Conference is targeted at professionals interested in changing careers or returning to the workforce after a career break. We offer hands-on, small-group workshops on topics ranging from “Unleash Your Hidden Brilliance” to “Go from Bored, Burned-out, or Unfulfilled to Doing Work You Love” to “20 Networking Tips from 20 Years of Networking.” Our goal is to help attendees accomplish as much as possible during the conference in order to develop a plan of action with next steps, beginning the following day.

We have many success stories. Previous conference attendees, for example, found an engineering position at Tesla after a 6-year career gap, created a marketing position at a mid-size company after a 14-year career gap, transitioned from a mid-level position to become VP of Sales, and started their own companies.

For those unable to attend, we offer the online resource ConnectU, where we post workshop and keynote videos of prior conferences.

 

You also work with clients one-on-one. Who do you work with and how?

My typical client feels the need to complete “unfinished business.” Some clients have worked in a field for many years and want to apply their skills elsewhere. Others stepped out of the workforce and are seeking to re-enter, but not necessarily into the same field they left. Most have found that applying for positions online or via HR departments is a dead-end.

I provide a network of senior level executives who will speak or meet with my clients to help them find their next opportunity, either at the company where they work or via referrals.

Successes of which I’m particularly proud? I coached a finance professional who had been out of work for almost four years and, after meeting with 40 senior-level professionals over a 3-month period, found a very lucrative position as CEO of an Alibaba-funded company. I’ve also helped stay-at-home moms start successful companies, incorporating flexible work schedules into their lives.

 

What challenges and opportunities do you see that are unique to women in midlife as they seek to return to work after an absence?

Everyone has skills to offer and there is someone, somewhere searching for those skills. What I do is bring those two together. It’s important to have a clear sense of what you seek and what you offer; the more specific you are, the easier it is to find someone who needs your help. Too often job seekers cast a wide net: “I’m looking for a job” vs. “I’m seeking a marketing position where I can incorporate my branding and writing skills to grow a company’s influence.”

Those returning to work often focus on areas where they feel “lesser than:” career gaps, not keeping up-to-date on skills, etc. Instead, focus on what you demonstrably have to offer and sell the benefits of that. Employers are interested in attitude and aptitude: Will you make sure to get the job done and do you have the ability to do it or find a way to do so? Everyone, no matter their career path and how long they have been in the workforce, experiences on-the-job training.

Every life experience offers life skills. Those returning to work after an absence have grown in ways that those who remained in the same job or career could not have. It’s important to highlight that learning and translate it into demonstrable, valuable skills. Here’s a blog I wrote, demonstrating how to translate skills learned as a stay-at-home mom into skills on a resume.

 

What resources do you recommend besides your own?
ReacHire does an incredible job of training women returning to the workforce after a career break.

I regularly listen to the Nancy Gaines Show: Gain the Advantage! podcast. Nancy kickstarts our entrepreneurial flame by providing tools and resources to get us going.

I love the work of Natalia Oberti Noguera, CEO of Pipeline Angels. Her company trains women to be angel investors in startups.

I have highlighted the work of hundreds of fabulous coaches at my conferences. Feel free to contact me if you’re seeking a particular specialty. One unique and needed offering is by Karen Bigman, Founder of The Divorcierge. She helps people through the tough process of divorce, which often includes career transition.

There’s a wonderful community out there to help you. Connect with someone who is collaborative in the return-to-work community and interested in helping you find the resources which best suit your needs.

 

Connect with Johanna Wise

Email: wise@connectworkthrive.com

Website: https://connectworkthrive.com

Video from 2016 NYC conference: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HGS1ffe1tvU

LinkedIn

Facebook Page

Twitter: @ConnectWorkThrv 

 

Johanna holds an MBA from the Graduate School of Business at Stanford University, a BS in Applied Mathematics from Yale University, and a Certificate in Small Business Management from New York University’s Stern School of Business. Johanna was born and raised in New York City and is also a proud graduate of Hunter College High School.

Johanna’s career includes:

  • Management Consulting at Bain & Company in Boston, MA and Strategic Decisions Group in Menlo Park, CA
  • Mergers and Acquisitions and Financial Analysis at Goldman Sachs and Lehman Brothers in New York City
  • Brand Management at Frito-Lay in Dallas, TX.

She has served on numerous Boards including M&G Piel Securities, Illumai, Western Ballet, The Junior League of Palo Alto Mid Peninsula, and Lyceum of Santa Clara County.

Johanna is a founding Council member of Yale Women, a Global Network of Yale Alumnae and the immediate past President of the Yale Club of Silicon Valley. She also serves as a contributing writer at the Huffington Post.

Johanna curates and hosts highly successful conferences including Return-to-Work Career Transformation Conferences and Summits, The Workforce Diversity Summit™ at Microsoft, and local and national celebrations of 40 Years of Women at Yale.

After a career sabbatical to raise two children, Johanna founded two companies in addition to Connect•Work•Thrive™ LLCKeep Me Tax Free™ LLC, which secures tax-exempt status for non-profit organizations and Wise Consulting, a boutique firm which provides strategic planning, operations, marketing, and financial expertise to growing businesses.




Becoming a Couples Counselor in Midlife: Liz’s Story

With her kids leaving the nest, Liz realized she’d need something new to fuel her, staving off potential boredom and creating a new professional identity in the process. She’s done just that in her new profession, where she enjoys collaborating with couples to help make their relationships as strong as they can be.

 

Tell us a little about your background…

I was raised in the south suburbs of Chicago (Country Club Hills and Frankfort), the second of five kids. My father was an electrician and my mother was a 3rd-grade teacher. In her own second act, my mom got her master’s degree and became a principal and assistant superintendent. Interestingly, my mom and I went back for our higher degrees about the same time in our lives and I now drive a car the same color my mom drove at the time. I totaled that car of my mom’s, so I’m hoping that’s where the comparison ends!

My parents weren’t a good match; they divorced when I was 18. It’s very openly acknowledged in the counseling community that most people enter the psychotherapy field because they (at least subconsciously) are seeking healing or knowledge about human relationships. Maybe it’s no surprise that I’m working as a couples counselor right now; I’m learning a lot that I wasn’t able to learn from my parents!

I attended DePaul University to study classical voice performance and after graduation, I made some money in the music world: singer/dancer on the Great America main stage, summer stock theater, and productions with Light Opera Works. I also delivered singing telegrams for two companies; that was a trip, driving from town to town before the GPS came along (sometimes for miles in the snow!). Music jobs didn’t pay enough to cover my bills, so I worked secretarial jobs during the day and rehearsed/performed at night.

Singer/Dancer on the main stage at Six Flags Great America, 1982

One of my secretarial jobs was in an all-women real estate office in Old Town (Beliard, Gordon). It was very empowering to see all those independent, cultured women making good money – and they made their own schedules, which was very appealing to me. I was tired of working day and night, and I didn’t really have the passion (or talent, probably) to make music my life. At age 25 I got my license and began selling real estate for Beliard, Gordon. It was hard to change roles in the same office and the licensing process really didn’t teach me how to do the job; I was nervous—my eye twitched for the first couple of months! My favorite part of being a realtor was hearing my clients’ life stories as I drove them around. I also got to look in everyone’s closets. In those ways, it was a natural precursor to my current job.

I sold real estate for a few years until I got married, after which I quit my job to gut our house and raise our family; I had always wished my mom was more available to me, and I wanted to be available for our kids. I’m glad I made that decision and I loved the independence being a housewife afforded, but staying home was dull for me: I always had some little project going on the side like selling Pampered Chef, singing weddings, serving on PTO or church committees (where I actually learned quite a bit about business).

When did you start to think about making a change?

I was about 47 when I seriously started thinking about my second act. We have three kids who are now 27 (Jackson), 25 (Casey), and 20 (JoJo). They’re really good people and I’m so proud of them! As they left for college and needed me less, I started thinking about my next act. The void that I knew was coming made me uncomfortable: I feared boredom (I knew that housekeeping and socializing alone wouldn’t make me happy, and I was tired of volunteering). I also felt an urge to have a professional identity and hated the idea that I couldn’t support myself well if I ever needed to (that didn’t fit my self-image).

I wanted a career that had a lot of meaning, afforded me independence, was conducive to part-time work, and would welcome someone my age. This list makes me sound very rational, but my final decision was emotional too (I’ve learned since that we actually can’t make good decisions without the use of our emotions).

I decided to do some career exploration by taking classes at Oakton Community College. My plan was to take starter classes in several fields to see what I liked and broaden my education. I started with macroeconomics for two reasons: 1) I was tired of being economically illiterate and felt it was somewhat of a civic responsibility as a voting citizen to understand economics; and 2) my son was taking it and I thought it would be fun. It wasn’t. Of course, it was fun being a student with Jackson, but economics was a language I had to work very hard to learn (we both got A’s—the same exact score in fact—but I had to study so much harder than he did!).

Our young family, 1999

One day when driving home from class, I expressed the opinion that everyone must like psychology classes better than macro, and Jackson, who was double-majoring in economics and psychology, said, “No, Mom. They don’t”. It’s embarrassing now to think that I actually believed everyone else would have an affinity for the same subjects that I did, but it was a pivotal moment for me: I realized that my struggle with econ was information that I should use to guide my career exploration. I signed up for Psych 101 the next semester and felt very at home and engaged. After taking Abnormal Psychology the next semester, I felt even more confident that I was in the right “career zip code” for me.

Another pivotal moment came when Dr. Sara Schwarzbaum, who was running the Northeastern Illinois University informational meeting for prospective grad students, told us that many people get counseling degrees for personal growth reasons, never intending to practice; this was a huge relief to me because I was worried about taking a spot in the program and deciding later that I didn’t really want to work after all (it had been 20 years since I had worked and I wasn’t sure I would like it!). Having my ambivalence accepted freed me to proceed.

Several other people provided encouragement at pivotal moments—this encouragement always helped me to take the next step. Lail Herman, an older friend at church who became a psychotherapist for her own second act, encouraged me and served as a role model when I was considering grad school. A couple of professors also broadened my thinking, dismissing my concerns about being too old. “Why not?” was the message they gave me, and it meant a lot. I learned from these mentors that I didn’t have to be sure of the outcome… I just needed to start on the journey and stop throwing roadblocks in my own path!

I went to Northeastern Illinois University (and only applied there) for a few reasons: 1) they offered a marriage and family concentration; 2) they were CACREP accredited; 3) they were inexpensive; and 4) they were reasonably close.  Northwestern University is also close and has a family program but their program is full-time, which would have been too intense for me while raising a family.  They are also quite expensive and investing that much money at my age didn’t seem prudent. Other options I looked into were: Adler University and Chicago School of Professional Psychology.

 

What is your next act?

I am a marriage and family therapist working at Couples Counseling Associates on Michigan Avenue in Chicago. The practice is owned by Dr. Schwarzbaum (mentioned above; the head of the marriage and family counseling program I was in), who offered me an internship, and then a position. Most of my clients are couples, but I also see people individually. Couples come in for many different reasons: premarital counseling, to better their distressed relationship, to prepare for the changes a baby will bring, or for help in learning to co-parent even though they are not together anymore.

I really love couples counseling! I have been leading small groups since childhood—I produced and directed a musical version of Hansel & Gretel when I was in junior high; we performed it for the community, complete with painted sets—so working with couples is a similar dynamic. It’s very independent work, which also suits me, but it isn’t lonely. There’s a connection that happens between me and the clients, and between the couples themselves, that feels very spiritual. There is a lot of teaching involved in this job, and I do have teaching in my blood! I enjoy the teaching component and the fact that I can be as creative as I want in conveying the information. Working to guide people in learning how to best love each other is very rewarding. Even if couples decide to split, I feel I have done them a service by creating the space in which they can safely have difficult discussions.

Another thing I like about the job is the growth component. I am constantly being challenged to grow as a professional and a person. The nature of the job demands this, and the state also mandates continuing education to maintain a counseling license. I do a lot of extra, non-mandated professional education though, because learning and being good at my job is very important to me.

 

Why did you choose this next act?  

As part of my master’s, I took a career counseling class, which required me to do many tests/exercises that are used with clients who have career concerns. One of the exercises was to research other careers we might be interested in. I researched several careers that were highlighted as a result of the tests: sign language interpreter, adult literacy teacher, and divorce mediator—as well as couples counselor. I did this with an open mind, and it ended up affirming my decision to be a counselor.

I considered being a career counselor since I ran a couple of career counseling groups and loved doing it, but my current opportunity presented itself, and it’s a good fit for me.

 

How hard was it to take the plunge?

I don’t think I actually took the plunge: my process was more like entering a lake from the shore than diving into a pool, and I had my toe in the water testing the temperature for a couple of years. I kept managing the expectations of myself, my family and friends, warning them that I might not want to work after all—but that the investment would be worth it even if I didn’t work because I would be a better person and family member (which is true).

By way of preparation, I reduced my volunteer commitments and created an academic schedule designed to minimize stress: I didn’t want my studies to interfere with my physical or emotional availability as a parent/spouse. I asked people about the stressors involved in my grad school program and mapped out a path in which I took 1-2 classes at a time with summers off when possible. This meant that it would take me 5 years to get my masters. I timed it so that my year-long internship would happen when our youngest child was a freshman in college; I’m so glad I did that because the internship year was very emotionally difficult and I would not have had much energy for my kids had they been home. A bonus was that our newly-quiet house didn’t make me sad because I was drained when I got home.

I knew people in my program who had full-time jobs and young kids at home—they did the program in three years. They coped by prioritizing their non-school commitments and lowering their academic standards. I respect that choice, but it wouldn’t have worked well for me; it would have been more stressful for me not to be able to give my studies my all (and I wasn’t in a rush), so I created a plan that reflected my particular needs.

 

How supportive were your family and friends?

My immediate family was incredible—especially my husband, who was very excited for me and said that I was a much more interesting person as a result of my journey. I was in college and job-hunting at the same time as my oldest son, and the parallels in our lives gave us a wonderful point of connection. I studied with my younger kids sometimes, and one of them later used my old note cards for Psych 101. They all told me they were proud of me. I did have to let them know how important the graduation ceremony was to me and insist they come; they didn’t place much importance on their own graduation ceremonies and wouldn’t have known that I needed them there if I hadn’t told them.

My extended family and friends were mostly very supportive, but there were times I felt judged and misunderstood. Some didn’t understand why I would want to have a second act since it added chaos to my life and I didn’t need to go back to work for financial reasons. My mom was diagnosed with stage 4 cancer when I was taking a class at Oakton and some didn’t understand why I didn’t drop the class: they didn’t understand the therapeutic value it held for me.

 

Recent family photo

What challenges did you encounter?

I had to take the GRE as part of my application for grad school, and I hadn’t had any math for about 30 years! I bought a GRE prep book and re-taught myself math concepts (I found out after the fact that for my program very basic competence was good enough).

I still knew how to study well, but the incorporation of technology into education was really new to me: I didn’t know how to research online or use online tools to communicate with fellow students and teachers. The first time I had a timed online final, I forgot to note my start time and I was wigging out; I was afraid I wouldn’t submit my answers in time and get a zero!

Internship year was rough! I didn’t get chosen for the first two that I interviewed for and that was an ego blow (but I did learn from what I did wrong). I ended up with two internships, which meant learning two systems—and the personalities and technologies that went with them. In addition, there wasn’t anyone designated to answer my questions. This ended up being much more challenging than the actual counseling work. It was also a rough year because I don’t like feeling less than competent—and of course, that’s how you feel when you start something new.

Although my husband never complained, it stressed me out not to be able to keep up with my domestic commitments: My house was dirty and I wasn’t cooking much. We ended up hiring someone to clean (a surprising solution arrived at as a result of a career counseling exercise!) but we are still struggling to figure out how to best deal with feeding ourselves.

Another hard thing was that I was too busy to maintain my friendships well while I was in school.

My hiking group

Were there times when you thought about giving up?  

Yes, and it surprised me! I never thought of myself as someone who would consider giving up, but it happened, and it gave me much more compassion for others who consider quitting things. It happened late in my master’s program while taking a research class. It was a notoriously difficult class, and I was struggling with it. I was also struggling with life balance, and generally tired of schoolwork always hanging over my head. My husband really encouraged me to not quit; he said I’d be disappointed in myself (which was true). I suspected he would have been disappointed in me too, which also motivated me to push through my discomfort.

 

What did you learn about yourself through this process?

One of the goals of counselor training is to understand yourself. In order to help others, you need to be aware of your own values, biases, and triggers (the awareness helps keep you from projecting them onto your clients). I was asked to write about my genealogy, life journey, relationships, and struggles—and to connect them all to material presented in classes. I understand myself much better now, and that understanding has also led to more self-acceptance.

I learned that I’ve had a relatively easy life with little intercultural interaction (that has changed). I learned that I’m more impulsive than I used to think I was, and that I need to consider others’ points of view more. I learned that I often take on too much responsibility for outcomes. I think I am a little humbler because some parts of the process were—and continue to be—humbling.

Our practice’s waiting room

 

Looking back, is there anything you’d have done differently?

I am happy with my path; my “mistakes” were minimal and I needed them to learn. Part of me does wish that I began my second act sooner. What I learned would have really helped me with raising kids and made me a better partner to my husband. I would also be further along in my career, with time to really become a master before I retire. On the other hand, it’s hard to have regrets since things are turning out well so far.

 

What advice do you have for women seeking reinvention in midlife?

Get some career counseling, especially if you aren’t sure what you want to do! I was really surprised at how much the career counseling class I took helped clarify my goals. You can usually access free/reduced individual career counseling at your college alma mater or at the community college your taxes go to. Colleges often have classes you can take that serve the same purpose. Sometimes good libraries have career centers that can be helpful. Or find an individual counselor who enjoys doing career counseling.

If you have been a homemaker, I would recommend recruiting help with your domestic duties—whether it’s your family or outside help.

 

What advice do you have for those interested in pursuing a counseling degree?

Before I went back to school, someone advised me to get a social work degree instead of a counseling degree. I ignored this advice and luckily things turned out well for me. I would consider a social work degree if I was doing things over: counselors and social workers have similar training, but social workers—and their lobbyists—have been around longer. This means that they are more recognized by governmental bodies and it’s easier to get a job as a social worker. The VA is now technically hiring counselors, but change happens slowly in government, so counselors are not well represented in the VA in spite of excellent qualifications.

If you definitely need a job, consider growing fields: alcohol and drug counselors and rehab counselors (helping those with disabilities) are in higher demand than those with general mental health degrees.

 

What is the difference in training and outcome for an MSW for Counseling degree vs. PsyD vs. Ph.D. in psychology vs. masters in psychology?

This is an excellent question, and you could write a whole blog just on this subject. I’m afraid to say too much about this since I haven’t thoroughly investigated the paths of the other degrees, but here’s what I believe to be true:

There is a difference between a counselor and a Licensed Professional Counselor. I’m a Licensed Professional Counselor, which means that I have graduated from a master’s program, and met state requirements to be licensed in Illinois (often a national exam, among other things). I think (though I’m not sure) that anyone can call themselves a “counselor” without meeting standards.

A social worker (MSW), Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC or LCPC), psychologist, PsyD, Marriage and Family Therapist (AMFT or LMFT) and psychiatrist overlap in that they are all trained to do psychotherapy (talk therapy).  Although what they do seems to be merging, they come from different traditions, so the training may have different emphases, i.e. psychologists have more emphasis on research and psychological testing than counselors.

There are slight variations in what each profession is legally allowed to do. Psychologists can do a few types of testing that counselors aren’t allowed to do. When organizations look for administrative jobs, I notice they are looking for social workers; I’m not sure if this is because of tradition, or if social workers have training in doing administrative work.

I believe you need a doctorate to teach at the college level; I’m not sure if you need one to teach at a community college.

Dog-sitting our son’s dog, Dierks

What resources do you recommend for those interested in a counseling career?

Classroom opportunities:

Community college courses can help you discern if you like the counseling subject matter. I’d recommend Psych 101 and Abnormal Psych.

Oakton Community College in Skokie, IL offers a CADC program, which trains drug and alcohol counselors. As of now, you only need an associate’s degree to do this work, but I’ve heard that they may soon require a bachelor’s degree. Taking a couple of those classes might be helpful for career exploration.

Northeastern Illinois University allows people to take the first class in the counseling master’s program without being admitted to the program. It’s a very general class, and it would give anyone considering entering the profession a good feel for it.  You would be paying for a college course, but NEIU is relatively inexpensive as colleges go. Learn more here.

Volunteer opportunities:

Volunteering is a great career exploration tool, but because of confidentiality issues and the need for training, there are few substantive volunteer positions available in the counseling field. Here are a few that could help you a) figure out if you are able to be with people in crisis; b) narrow which area of mental health you think is a good fit; and c) build your resume, should you decide to get into the mental health care field. These opportunities deal with very heavy issues; if they don’t end up being your thing, remember that there are less intense areas of counseling you could enter!

Midwest Palliative and Hospice Care Centers provide free 2-day volunteer training, with no obligation to become a volunteer. If you decide to volunteer, being a Care Companion & Vigil Volunteer allows you invaluable experience with death, grief, and chronic health issues.

Lake County Crisis Center has a 40-hour self-paced online training for those interested in becoming advocates for victims of physical or sexual abuse. There’s no obligation to volunteer after the training, but if you’d like to volunteer you would be qualified to take crisis calls or accompany victims to the emergency room. I believe organizations like this exist in every county.

Suicide hotlines also train non-degreed people to man hotlines, etc.

Youth Service of Glenview/Northbrook has volunteer opportunities that allow some client contact.

To learn about careers in psychology and counseling:

The American Counseling Association has information about counseling careers that might be helpful.

The American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy website will help couples find a therapist, as well as guide therapists/aspiring therapists in choosing a master’s program and/or furthering their career.

On Being a Therapist by Jeffery Kotler.

 

What are your favorite resources for couples?

The Gottman Institute has a wealth of information including lists of therapists trained in Gottman method as well as information and resources for couples.

Come as You Are: The Surprising New Science that Will Transform Your Sex Lifeby Emily Nagoski, Ph.D.  An easy-to-read book about female sexuality, and how to deal with sexual desire discrepancy in couples. Everyone should read this, both men and women, since it dispels a lot of myths. I learned a lot!

Beyond Addiction: How Science and Kindness Help People Changeby Foote, Wilkins, Kosanke & Higgs. Written for people who love someone with an addiction issue, it advocates for an approach that is different from the “tough love” approach many have been taught.

After the Affair: Healing the Pain and Rebuilding Trust When a Partner Has Been Unfaithful, 2nd Editionby Janis Abrams Spring is a good book for couples dealing with the aftermath of an affair. Not Just Friends by Shirley Glass, Ph.D.  is another good book on this subject.

With my husband, Ken

What’s next for you? Do you think you have another next act in your future?

I’m open to it, but I doubt I’ll have a next act (other than grandma/world traveler!), but I’m open to it.

I am continuing to rewrite my current act. This year, I completed Level 3 Practicum Training in Gottman Method Couples Therapy. John and Julie Gottman are premiere couple researchers/therapists and have developed a couples counseling method based on their research findings and clinical work (they studied what happy couples do that unhappy couples don’t do).  I’ve found their training extremely useful. I may continue with their training and become a Certified Gottman Therapist. There’s another training method I am considering as well.  It’s very important to me to work towards mastering my craft.

Another thing I’ve considered is leading workshops on certain subjects. I believe there’s a need for preventive care at transitional points in couples’ lives, particularly when they get engaged or are starting a family. Couple satisfaction drops dramatically when a baby arrives, and wedding planning often leads to conflict in families. Societal roles are changing, and there are no longer hard rules about who does what when planning a wedding or caring for kids; this means that much more communication of expectations/needs/dreams is necessary to avoid conflict. My script re-write may include running groups in which I raise awareness of common pitfalls during these transitional times and facilitate communication about them.

I’m a little worried that my husband’s retirement plans will clash with my second act: he dreams of golfing year-round when he retires, which isn’t possible in Chicago. What if he wants to move or become a snowbird, but I’m still loving my work here? I’ve decided to cross that bridge if we come to it.

 

Connect with Liz Garvey

Email:  Lizgarvey14@gmail.com  

Website

LinkedIn




Becoming a Children’s Musician in Midlife: Jeanie’s Story

After careers in horse training and film editing, Jeanie found her midlife passion in composing and performing fun songs for young children with her band Jeanie B! and the Jelly Beans!  

  

Tell us a little about your background…

I grew up in East Grand Rapids, Michigan, the youngest of five kids. We were a handful for my dear mom and dad, who are still alive and kicking at 88 and 89 years old—Mom still plays tennis twice a week and does Pilates! I want to be like her when I grow up! My parents have the fairytale marriage of 65 years and are still in love. Such a blessing and a joy to see, and for them to still have each other this late in life is amazing.

My two brothers and two sisters all still live in or around Grand Rapids. They raised 15 wonderful nieces and nephews for me and I am now a Great Aunt seven times over—with more to come! I contributed grandchildren #16 and #17! I love my big family; we love to dance and play and have a good time together. Every family has its trouble but for the most part, we get along and take care of each other emotionally and physically when needed. I feel very blessed to be part of such a big brood. I am the apple that fell from my Dad’s tree, he and I are wired the same and share the same silly sense of humor and a predisposition for puns!

I was very fortunate to spend most of my childhood on beautiful Reeds Lake in East Grand Rapids. Our house was set up on a hill that was like a ski slope down to the lake, great for sledding in the winter. And of course, the summer was spent boating and waterskiing and doing all things lake adventurous. I learned to be a very strong water skier and have enjoyed it for most of my life. Reeds was a small residential lake so I had lots of friends around the lake too. We lived near a small ski resort called Cannonsburg and I was an avid snow skier and enjoyed the sport almost daily in the winters. I attended East Grand Rapids High School and was a good student, graduating in 1977.  I was too tall for cheerleading so I played powder puff football instead! I was on the girls’ basketball team and the ski team.

My strongest interests as a child were horses and music. I started riding horses (English) when I was about six and fell in love with those majestic creatures. I had my first job mucking stalls when I was 11, started to show horses early on, and also got paid to braid horses’ manes and tails for the horse shows. I exercised and hot walked Polo ponies to make extra money to show Hunters. I was always very tall (5’10” by 8th grade), so finding horses large enough to offset the length of my legs was always a challenge. No pony riding for me! I became a very accomplished rider and had my sights set on the Olympics at one time. It takes a lot of backing and expensive horse flesh to afford that endeavor. Who knows if I ultimately had the talent but I had the desire. Upon moving to Chicago in 1981, I got a job as a stable manager and assistant trainer. I bought and sold horses for clients and trained and showed them as well as taught lots of lessons. Eventually, I focused just on show jumping horses and going on the road to show them. I had horses up until just about 7 years ago when the last of my retired show horses passed away. I stopped show jumping when my first son was born because I no longer had time and it was very dangerous. I sold my two show horses at that time and kept two retired pals until they passed. I taught my children how to ride on them and they were introduced at a very young age. We all miss our beloved Sam and Ranger.

Music was always a passion and my first form of self-expression. I started composing songs in the style of Carole King and Neil Young when I was 15. I still have my first guitar that I got when I was 12, and play it almost every day. It sits in my office next to my desk like a faithful dog, always ready and willing to please. I have written the majority of my songs on this guitar. I always say it has the songs in it just waiting for me to discover them.

After high school, I went to Michigan State University and studied Pre-Vet the first year, thinking it would parlay well with my horse interests. I realized I was more interested in showing horses than caring for sick ones, so I transferred the next year to Lake Erie College, a small private women’s college in Painesville, Ohio. I tried their equestrian science program but found that it was aimed at women who didn’t know much about riding or horses, and I was underwhelmed. I was even asked to give clinics for the other students and be a teacher’s aide, instructing in bandaging and giving shots, etc. I couldn’t justify paying them for me to be teaching, so that didn’t work out.

While I was there, however, I minored in music and started a weekly coffeehouse in an empty building on campus. It gained popularity, and in just a few months was attracting wonderful musicians from all around the area, including Cleveland. I was able to collaborate with some wonderful folk musicians and was even asked to host a radio show on a Cleveland radio station in May of 1979. I declined as I had decided to leave Lake Erie College in pursuit of a different degree and to be closer to my then-boyfriend and future husband, Jay Bonansinga.

As fate would have it, not only did I walk away from that amazing opportunity (silly ignorant young lass) at the radio station but, in the summer of 1979, I had an accident while working a summer factory job and cut off the ends of 3 fingers on my left hand, starting with my index finger. I was told in no uncertain terms I would never play the guitar again since these are the fingers that hold the strings down. Jay (harmonica) & I had just landed a great gig playing weekends at a restaurant—my first real paying music gig—and was devastated. Of course, I have learned that when I am told I can’t do something, it becomes a challenge to prove that I can. The only thing standing in most people’s way to success is the will to succeed. I am very strong willed and truly believe you can do what you put your mind to doing—and have proven it over and over again!

While I was recovering, a good friend of mine—Stuart Hartger—also a guitar player and a bit of a geek, experimented with making fake fingertips for me. He landed on a formula that I still use to this day exactly as he first made them. I make fake fingertips out of plasti-dip, the same material you would dip your tool handles in to coat them in a rubbery compound. I’ve tried other things but in the end, this works the best. I cannot play the guitar (well) without them, they are bulky and cumbersome compared to natural fingertips and of course I have absolutely no feeling through them; this limits some of what I can do on the guitar and I need to be able to hear myself play on the stage and be able to see my hand so I know that my fingers are in the right place! I have proven all the doctors wrong, not only would I play the guitar again, I’d make my living playing the damn guitar!!

After a brief stint at Hope College in Holland, Michigan, I arrived back in East Lansing at good old MSU and graduated from there with a major in TV & film and a minor in music. I promptly moved to Chicago in 1981 along with my boyfriend Jay, who was going to attend graduate school at Columbia College. We looked at Northwestern for graduate school and fell in love with Evanston, where I still live to this day.

My first full-time job in Chicago was as a receptionist at Swell Pictures. It was the late and wonderful Walt Topel’s vision of a full-service film center, where you could shoot on a soundstage and edit all in the same building. It was housed in the old Marshall Field’s carriage house on North Halsted, which is now Walt’s true love and life’s dream, The Briar Street Theater.

While I answered phones by day, I rode horses every night after work. I also played in coffee houses and small venues that were looking for live music. Jay Bonansinga and I continued our romance and married in November of 1982. He played harmonica and sang with me as well. We were The Bratch and Bono Band! We played a lot of original music and a good string of covers.

My wedding

As my interest in film increased, I gravitated towards the editing process. I was fortunate enough to talk Walt into letting me apprentice with his top editor, the amazing John Fogelson. He was hands down the most respected editor in Chicago and had trained some of the upper-tier editors around town too. He was a gruff old man (with a very soft heart) who was a task master and had no mercy, but damn he knew his trade. His nickname for me was “Nursey”! Everyone called him the film doctor, so I guess that fit! We were actually cutting film and taping it back together back in those days. He taught me all the tricks of the trade and, after two years of putting up with his gruff self, I landed the assistant editor job for Joe Sedelmaier, just as he was gearing up to shoot the now infamous “Where’s the Beef?” spot for Wendy’s. I rode that wave for three years while his career skyrocketed, keeping the film flowing through the Moviolas on a daily basis. Sedelmaier slowed down in 1986 to pursue feature films and I left to be a freelance editor.

Sidebar: Joe’s was a 9-5 shop, which is very rare in film, and allowed me to have a night job as a stable manager and assistant trainer. I taught lessons starting at 7 every evening then close up the barn. I also spent my weekends there; I bought and sold horses for clients, trained and showed them, eventually focusing on going on the road to show the show-jumping horses. I had to stop teaching when I left Sedelmaier and was swept up into the reality of the film business, which is 24/7/365. I owned a horse by then and continued to ride and show when I could.

From 1986-1989 I traveled from production company to production company with my splicer and cut whatever needed to be cut—mostly commercials at that time. And then I got into the union and was hired to work on some feature films and a TV pilot. I was working on Poltergeist III when poor little Heather O’Rourke died! What a disaster and such a heartbreaking story.

Features and TV keep a grueling schedule and I spent many nights sleeping on the cutting room floor with my good pal Treva Bachand, who was my partner in crime at that time. We kept the dailies flowing!!

After too many hours in the union world, I focused once more on advertising and rented my first office space, with a cutting room adjacent, at Zenith DB studios on La Salle St. I started a humble little business called Edit Sweet, Inc., that was just me and freelance assistance when needed. I had an old DOS computer and did my books by hand. I truly was the first female-owned editing house in Chicago among a good-old-boy network of editors, who I felt were a little too macho for my taste. As my popularity grew as an editor, I expanded and moved next door to Cutters, which was an up-and-coming premiere edit house. They had all the finishing tools I needed for my creative edits so being next door to them was a plus for me and I was a good client for them. My good friends Tim McGuire and Chris Claeys still own and operate this now international hot shop that is respected worldwide.

With Edit Sweet Staffers

I grew Edit Sweet slowly and by 1998 had 7500 square feet of custom office space at 515 N. State Street, with 25 full-time employees which boasted  8 editors including me, and about $4.5 million a year in billing. I was having the time of my life and running a fun and fair company with a feminine touch. My employees were my family and I loved them all. I tried to treat them with respect, provide an opportunity for growth, include them in profit sharing and also give back to the community with the riches that the business was creating. I owned four horses by then and had grown my music into a larger band now called Angel Paint. We were playing some clubs and I was writing original alternative rock songs about everything in life.

Angel Paint

When did you start to think about making a change in midlife?

Enter pregnancy…

I had taken on the roles of CEO, COO, CFO and all the responsibilities that go along with owning a business, which kept me at the office about 70 hours a week. Now I was about to add Mom to my titles. Kids change everything.

My beautiful Joey, my pride, was born Dec. 30, 1998; by May of 1999, I had had my heart broken by phone calls from my full-time nanny too many times, reporting all the “firsts” that I was missing at home. I retired from doing editing work myself that summer so I could keep regular office hours and be home to see my little man by dinner time and enjoy weekends at home too. I sold my two show horses and retired the two older guys at a friend’s farm. Angel Paint was put on a back burner. Life as CEO/Mom began in earnest.

With Joey

During that time, I started the LA office of Edit Sweet because one of my partners, Jim Staskauskas, moved there after divorcing the pop singer Liz Phair, who had taken their child to LA. I had always considered doing this and here was the push to do so. While I was flying to and from LA to get that underway, I found myself with baby #2 on the way. Joey was just 12 months old!! In fairness, I had to get going on #2 because I was 39 when Joey was born and had been married 16 years. The clock had stopped ticking; it was now on alarm mode!

On September 17, 2000, Bill, my joy, was born. Now I had two kids under the age of two and was a bit overwhelmed by the tug on my heart to be with these precious people, who I had brought into the world, full-time. I decided the best route would be to sell my company and started looking for buyers for my little editing empire. In the fall of 2001, I signed the papers that sold Edit Sweet to one of my competitors, Optimus. It was a hard-fought deal and they took all my employees on except two, which was not too bad considering how things like that can go.

Joey and Bill

Two days after signing the deal, 9/11 happened. The bottom fell out of commercial real estate, advertising came to a screeching halt, and editing companies started going out of business one by one. The deal I had only covered my rent for 18 months to give Optimus time to move and merge the businesses and for me to find a sublet. There were no sublets anywhere to be found and I took on the burden of $18,000/month in rent for the space, while I tried to settle with my landlord over the eight remaining years on my lease. In the end, we settled and I walked away with far less than originally foreseen. My lawyers got a good chunk and the landlord took more than I would keep.

That said, I got to stay home with my kids and find life after advertising. I had enough saved to get them through early childhood before I would have to earn any real money again. Jay was doing okay at that time too as an author, so we had enough to be comfortable.

 

What is your next act?

I am a children’s musician, composer, band leader, and music teacher. I have my own band, Jeanie B! and the Jellybeans!

Motherhood was the catalyst that got me out of the editing business but the way I moved into my next career was totally at the hand of God, the Universe, whatever you want to call it. I had ramped up my band, Angel Paint, again while I had the luxury of full-time motherhood and, while out playing a casual coffee house gig one night in 2002, I was approached by the very talented musician and songwriter Julie Frost, who had opened a little studio for kids featuring music and yoga. She and her partner, Ann McGinley (yoga guru), were at that concert and asked if I played children’s music. I told them that I wrote songs for my two kids but not publicly. They replied that my style was perfect for children’s music and they had a job opening for a music teacher with their mom & tot classes, at their studio, Happy Child. It was right down the street and just two classes a week. I said I’d give it a try and after the first day, I knew that I had found my calling. I LOVED playing for these little duffers and the moms/caregivers had a blast with me too. The hours were much more in keeping with parenting because I wasn’t playing in a club until 3 am then coming home to get woken up by my little pea pickers at 5:30 am! All the hours are kid-friendly and so are the shows and the songs. I could take my kids to work with me! My son Bill had a game he played with me where he would say “mommy sing a song about ______” and believed that I knew a song about any topic he chose. Turns out I could make them up on the spot, they rhymed and were fun and catchy, and he loved them. I thought, hmm I may be onto something here!

At age 42, this was the beginning of Jeanie B! and The Jelly Beans!

Angel Paint was made up of guys who were mostly single and had no interest in playing for kids, so I looked around and created a new band made up of kid-loving, fun-loving folks who were ready and willing to take on the knee-high audiences of the world. The first incarnation of The Jelly Beans was my husband Jay on harmonica, Lisa Crowe on bass, and Teresa Drda on drums. Being a veteran at marketing after all the years at Edit Sweet, I started by recording a CD (“I’m a Kid”) so I had a product to market and a sales tool, then set about researching where I could get paid to play for kids.

I had the luxury of the proceeds from Edit Sweet to take the time to learn and grow this business without having to have a “day job” like so many musicians do. We got some nice gigs and by 2004 were playing about 30 shows a year and I had started teaching at Creative Kids Corner in Chicago, owned by the lovely Linda Kusel. Happy Child went out of business and I was glad that Creative Kids Corner was looking for a new teacher.

I continued to write, record, and market my songs and today, I play over 100 shows a year around the Midwest and teach music in five schools, two of which are for Ravinia’s outreach program, Reach, Teach and Play. I also offer school assemblies and teacher and librarian seminars on how to use music in the classroom/storytelling environment for young children. I have now recorded five CDs of children’s music, with a new one on the way in 2017. I have taught hundreds of guitar lessons to kids of all ages and my current eldest student is 80 years old! She just composed her first song, a love song for her husband.

My school age music students range in age from 16 months to 3rd grade. I’ve also kept my hand in Angel Paint and have recorded 3 CDs of original music for adults. I have also become a songwriter for hire and have had the honor of writing multiple songs for an organization called “Songs of Love,” which is partnered with Make a Wish Foundation to create original songs for and about children who are faced with extreme medical conditions, some terminal.

To say I love what I do would be an understatement of grand proportion! I adore what I do, I am passionate about teaching young children how to sing, dance, and create music. I know it enhances their ability to learn and it unlocks their creative centers, which is essential to self-expression and self-confidence.

I sometimes forget to ask for my paycheck when I’m done with a concert because it was just so much FUN to play music and dance and sing and inspire kids and families! They say if you love what you do you’ll never work a day in your life. I don’t buy that line entirely, it’s a ton of “work” to get to the good stuff, but well worth the sweat.

I have also been available to my own children on their schedule all these years and now they are amazing teenagers and musicians themselves, who started out by my side on stage as toddlers, singing and dancing along. Now Joey is my bass player and is now attending Chicago College of Performing Arts in the music conservatory, to study jazz bass as a profession, and Bill is a drummer. They both tour with me and we rock those babies like nothing else. I have the great honor to spend time teaching my kids about the music industry and playing alongside them while encouraging people to enjoy and have fun with their own kids!  I have had the honor of playing at some fabulous venues like Lollapalooza Millennium Park, The Bandshell in Rockford’s Sinnissippi Park, Ravinia, Chicago Botanical Gardens and many, many more.

To be fair, while Joey is my bass player most of the time, the official Jelly Beans! now consists of the great Michael Krayniak on bass (and electric guitar when Joey is on bass) and the ever timely Paul Bivans on drums. They hail from many bands, including Trigger Gospel, and are the backing players in multiple bands along with my go-to guitar/mando/all-things-strings player, Andon T. Davis, who has co-produced every song I’ve ever recorded. These are some of the best players in the Midwest and I feel honored every time we share the stage. Smart performers surround themselves with players who are better than they are, so it makes them look better.

I have from time to time hired people to help me with booking shows—like my agency, Bass-Schuler Entertainment, that handles booking park district events for me—but I handle 90% of my show’s itinerary and marketing. I am the chief cook and bottle washer and carry lots of gear and drive many, many miles, and coil cables like a pro. I had always dreamed that I would make my living writing and singing my songs—ever since that missed opportunity back in Cleveland and the severed fingers and all the detours. I didn’t know it would be with children, but that is the biggest gift of all. I love kids, they love me, we speak the same language, and I am passionate about education and my educational tool of choice is music.

During this rise of Jeanie B! and The Jelly Beans, my marriage fell apart and when I felt that I could support myself and my boys alone through music, I filed for divorce in 2010. The next few years were a struggle but the Universe once again took care of me and led me to all the gigs I needed to be ok and live in a nice little bungalow with a finished basement, where all the sound gear, drums, rack of guitars, collection of basses and amps, and a million kid-friendly props live. There is always someone playing music in Jeanie’s house of happiness and, like I said, that first guitar is sitting by my side as I write this memoir, begging to show me another song that it has hidden in its cracks and grain. My trusted friend that I have held all these years and told all my secrets to. It has been bathed in my tears and rejoiced in my joy and taught me how to share all those moments in song.

How hard was it to take the plunge?

Transitioning to the music business from the film business was not a far stretch in terms of the business end. I added a new bank account to my QuickBooks and set up a new corporation, and got all that in place pretty easily. I had already been in a band playing my original music for years, so the music changed and the purpose changed, but that was all fun and great. The biggest challenge was learning about the children’s music industry and the various areas that you could specialize in and how to make a living doing it. I was confined to a small region when I started, due to having young kids at home, whereas now I travel the full Midwest and will cover the country once my kids are out of the house. I also teach a great deal and will expand that as my boys fly the nest as well.

I already knew about recording music, and knew all the studios in town, since everything I had edited required music at some point. The recording software is editing software minus the visual aspect so I totally understand the technical end of recording and creating the tracks.  I recorded my first Angel Paint CD in 2001 so had completed the process once before Jeanie B! ever stepped into the studio. Marketing is marketing; you just need to find your audience and convince them that you are worthy of the gig. Then my job is to put on a great show and leave them wanting more. These days, my marketing is more about opening up new markets to explore and expand, but the shows pretty much come to me. I never take that for granted and am always reaching out to past and potential clients and venues. I continue to write and come up with fun activities for my shows and teaching so that it’s fresh for me and I can learn about the creative process more and more. It took nearly eight years to really get enough going that I was self-sufficient and established, and now 15 years into it I still have to cultivate new clients every day! The big difference between adult audiences and kid audiences is that kids will outgrow my music so I am always cultivating new kids but I’m really trying to reach the parents!! Kids can’t ever be a fan if I don’t get the parents attention first.

How supportive were your family and friends?

By the time I started declaring that I would make a career out of this, my friends were all on board, bringing their children to my shows and giving me song ideas. It was a foregone conclusion that Jeanie B! was here to stay. My family had learned from experience that I was tenacious so they did not doubt my ability to parlay my experience into this new venture. They were very supportive and still come to as many of my shows when I’m playing near them. Who doesn’t love music? I was determined to prove that I could be a viable musician and feed my kids, even as a single mom, doing what I love and making a difference in the lives of children.

With my mom

My silly dad

What challenges did you encounter?

Every business has its challenges. That’s what drives entrepreneurs; we love a challenge and the opportunity to overcome it. Managing a band is always a challenge. I have a very busy schedule as do all my bandmates. When I book a show that requests my band, I have to make sure they are all available on that date and we have to rehearse, learn new material, and be a cohesive group.

Very often, we are all too busy to rehearse so it is not uncommon for me to send a rough recording of a new song (just me and my guitar) to my band, a chord chart with lyrics, and a request they show up a few minutes early for our sound check at the next gig to run down the song. We usually go through it three or four times (the guys have listened to it, made notes, and figured out their parts beforehand) then play it live at that show for the first time. It’s a HUGE thrill the first time I hear my band play a new song with me. I have the song in my head and hear it a certain way, then they always bring more to it and I get goosebumps. I love the thrill of playing something we just learned and making it work. We hone the songs live until they finally settle into what they want to be. I usually don’t record a new song until it’s been road tested multiple times.

The challenge of bandmates is also very real, especially when someone needs to leave the band for whatever reason. I have had folks quit and I have had to fire some too. That leaves you with gigs where you need to get someone up to speed on real quick, and auditions, and looking for that perfect player who fits all the criteria of being a Jelly Bean! It is not just being good on your instrument. You have to be fun, easygoing, love children, spontaneous, willing to play with kids all around you—including sometimes walking up to your equipment and playing with the dials—punctual, and available to play during the daytime hours. My concerts are almost exclusively original music, so you have to learn my catalog so you can play along to any song that is requested or that I call for during a performance, when I’m reading the audience. Like any business, it’s about personnel—I’m still the HR department!

My biggest challenge is time. I do everything myself, so budgeting my hours between marketing, writing, recording, accounting, performing, teaching, lesson plans, travel plans, writing contracts, and writing songs for hire and raising two kids means I am never without something to do and always behind. My website has information on it that’s way out of date but I haven’t found time to rewrite the bio, etc. It’s a more than full-time job although the time I’m actually on the stage is the minimal part of it, except in June and July, when I play two or three shows a day and make half of my yearly income in just eight weeks!

Were there times when you thought about giving up?  

Yes, I have considered giving up many times, mostly because it’s very hard work both mentally and physically. Playing a show consists of carrying heavy gear, setting it up, tearing it down, loading and reloading my van over and over again, and tons of energy on stage to engage and be present for the audience. I run and jump and dance and get down on the floor and run up into the audience throughout the show. I even gallop around like a horse for one whole song! Teaching is exhausting too and just managing young children in large or small numbers is a constant demand on your focus, energy, resources, and patience.

The fluctuating bank account can be daunting. All of us children’s musicians have tumbleweeds in September until things start to ramp up for fall festivals and the holidays, and there are times when I wonder how I’ll pay the bills. I am single and have two kids headed to college now and the uncertainty of income is stressful. Luckily, I have always managed my money prudently so am fine, but I’m far from banking what Beyoncé does!

I cannot tell you how many times I’ve thought I needed to look for a “real job” that had steady pay, benefits, paid vacation, a retirement fund, and all those perks. The truth is, what keeps me playing music full-time is that every single time I have considered quitting, someone will contact me out of the blue and tell me that one of my songs touched their lives or their children’s lives in a profound way, and thank me for doing what I do. Or I’ll get a video of a young child singing and dancing to one of my CDs and the joy that I see on their face and the faces of the parents is priceless to me. When I go to a concert and a flock of kids runs up to me calling out “Jeanie B!, Jeanie B!” and my legs get hugged like I’m Santa Claus, I can’t stop. Those kids may outgrow me someday but I’ll never outgrow them. The good news is that you can keep playing music until you fall over dead and just keep getting better and better at it. Kids don’t care how old you are, they just want to be engaged and have fun and learn. Also, and maybe most importantly, my own kids have followed my footsteps and become musicians. I am so proud that they were inspired by me and I’ll never forget one day when my boys were maybe 8 & 10, they were both taking piano lessons and Bill wanted to stop. Joey had already chosen the Bass as his instrument and he turns to Bill and says “You can quit piano but you have to choose another instrument to play because that’s what we do… we play music!” Yep!

I have been self-employed since 1986 and I know that business ebbs and flows and I’ve learned to live with that uncertainty. I am an advocate for musicians to get paid fairly and believe that people should pay for the music they download. Everyone loves music, and life would be very dull indeed without it, yet we have raised our citizenship to think that they are entitled to it for free. You cannot get a plumber to come work on your house for free and you shouldn’t expect musicians to donate their music to you when it costs a ton to make it and performing is not just about being paid for the hour you’re on stage. It’s the years leading up to it, honing your skill, writing, rehearsing, buying and setting up gear. It’s not an hourly wage; we aren’t flipping burgers here. If the mentality is that music should be free, then there won’t be any more musicians. We have to feed ourselves and our families too. If you want us to be good at what we do, you have to let us make a living doing it.

 

What have you learned about yourself through this process?

I have learned that people who follow their dreams are risk takers.

I have learned that giving back and sharing your knowledge with people who are up and coming will not be a threat to your success but will come back to you in spades. I am not in competition with other musicians, I am in harmony with them.

I have learned that, when my job gets hard and seems impossible to continue, I will be given a gift from someone, somewhere, that spurs me on.

I have also learned to be resilient, believe in myself and my abilities, challenge myself, step out of my comfort zone, and push myself to the next level.

I have learned how to take criticism as a gift and disappointment as a motivation to try harder. I have also learned that my kids are watching and see me struggle and see me succeed so they have learned about working hard for your dreams and the struggles that will include.

I have most importantly learned that I see the world differently than other people. I hear the world as a song. People will say something and I will hear a song. This may be the most important thing I have learned about myself: Songs are gifts; they come from the muse and when the muse chooses you to write a song, you honor it, immediately, at that moment, before it’s lost.

I have songs come to me at all hours of the day and night and I always have a recording device or a way to write lyrics down wherever I am. I have lost many ideas by not grabbing them and documenting them immediately, thinking they will return. They often don’t, and the muse gives them to someone else. If a song comes to me, I go to my trusted guitar and ask it to guide me in its creation. It still takes my breath away to compose and get that lightning strike out of the blue. It’s like being touched by a mystical being, silently, softly, and profoundly.

I have a dual existence when it comes to songwriting. My children’s music is reflective of children’s journeys and joys, their hunger for adventure, fun, and knowledge. My grown-up music is full of heartache and the struggle of human existence. I write love songs and songs of loss. I have written multiple songs for people who have passed and send them as condolences for family members. My work with Songs of Love has given me more opportunity to bring joy to heartache and honor a family that is struggling. The opportunity to touch lives is boundless; this is why I love what I do and feel so, so blessed that God gave me the gift to be a songwriter. I’m glad I was brave enough to accept the position.

 

Looking back, is there anything you’d have done differently?

Sure, there are always things we can look back and say “wish I’d known then what I know now…” but we didn’t, so we make our move and hope for the best.

Here are the few things I might have done differently:

I would have stayed in Cleveland to see where the music would have taken me BUT then I would have missed a fabulous film career and Edit Sweet and I would not have met my BFF Monna O’Brien who was my best client there!

I think I should have kept Edit Sweet and hired a CEO so that I could keep a hand in it but be home with my kids and still have a paycheck. However, with 9/11 knocking editing businesses down with a baseball bat, I could have lost everything.

If I have any “regret” it would be that I was reluctant to file for divorce when it was clear my marriage had run its course. As much as we would like to think we have met the love of our life and that part of our lives is all set, relationships are either for now, for a while, or forever. I took a vow and wanted to believe that I was going to be married forever. You can’t force forever. If the formula no longer serves you and your partner, the best and the hardest thing to do is call it quits. I felt that the last thing this world needed was another 50-something divorcée with young kids to raise, but that’s exactly what it needed and I could not be happier to have reunited with myself free from a troubled relationship! We are both better parents to our kids because we are divorced.

I have learned that whenever I jump off a cliff in life, my parachute opens with grace and I land on my feet. When you know in your heart that “it’s time,” trust yourself, it is. Know that what lies ahead is an awesome adventure! I have lessons that have come to me throughout my life and I embrace where I’ve been and hope that I am blessed with enough years ahead to fulfill more of my dreams and look back at a wonderful life, rich with love and music and struggles and triumphs. My dear friend Liz Stitely, who just passed away, told me that what she had learned, as her life was being cut short, was that all that matters is love. So I try to remember that every day. Love will show you the way and dreams don’t have deadlines. Never give up hope.

Skiing with my boys

What advice do you have for women seeking reinvention in midlife?

I firmly believe that we are allowed to have multiple interests in our lives and multiple passions. I have been a horse trainer, a film editor, and a musician so far. I was passionate about these endeavors and let that passion guide me. I was, of course, prudent about making it work and would go bag groceries if I had to in order to make ends meet (although I’d end up managing the store before too long, knowing me!).

Follow your dreams, learn everything you can about your desired industry, get the education and hone the skills you need, talk to others who have successfully done what you want to do and hear their story. Your path will be different but there is much to learn from those who have blazed the trail. Believe in yourself and your ability to overcome obstacles. Never get complacent; keep pushing yourself and challenging yourself.  Make friends with your banker and lawyer and other key professionals who you need along the way. Imagine your life just the way you want it to be and go for it! Just remember it may not turn out the way you imagine it but even better with all the gifts and surprises along the way. We are each powerful forces and yes, one person can make a difference; all successful people started out with a desire and learned how to turn it into a reality no matter how big or small the venture. Every journey starts with the first step.

What advice do you have for those interested in pursuing a career as a children’s musician?

I think if you’ve read everything up to this point in this article, you know what it takes. Tenacity is essential, musical ability, creativity, love of children and teaching, and a head for business and marketing. A never-ending smile and a fountain of joy inside you help along with patience, patience, patience. As my favorite songwriter Darryl Scott once said to me “music is a hell of a way to make a living, but it’s a great way to make a life”! Call me! I’m happy to help!

A great place to start is The Children’s Music Network! This international group of children’s musicians are far and above the nicest people on earth and are ready willing and able to guide you to your path of success as a children’s musician.

 

What’s next for you?

My dream “next act” would be to write songs for other artists, be a writer-for-hire, and dig deeper into my songs for grown-ups. I adore writing songs and would love to be in Nashville writing for other people and communing with the songwriting community down there with the likes of Darryl Scott and other greats. I need to get my kids out on their own first and keep Jeanie B! going forward for a good while and start to merge the two. I think I am a better songwriter with each song I pen so someday I will be worthy.

Music Education is very dear to my heart and I may get more involved in that from an administrative standpoint someday—when jumping around on the stage gets to be too much for my aging bones!

 

Connect with Jeanie Bratschie
Email: jeanieb@jeaniebmusic.com
Jeanie B! and The Jelly Beans Website
Jeanie B! and the Jelly Beans Facebook
Angel Paint Website
Angel Paint Facebook
Twitter: @JeanieBmusic

 




Let’s Hear From an Expert: Marci Alboher, Encore.org

You are one of the nation’s leading authorities on career issues and workplace trends. What challenges do you see for women in midlife who are seeking to re-enter the workforce or to change careers?
I see two main issues — confidence and ageism, and they are quite related. When you’ve been out of the workforce for a while, everything seems different, and everyone seems younger (it is and they are!). People work in new ways, are using new tools, and even if you’re returning to a field you worked in previously, it’s very easy to feel out-of-date. So that’s why women (and men too) who’ve taken time out from the paid workforce can feel insecure as they prepare to return. On top of that, anyone over forty knows that ageism is real; and it’s not just what others think, we tend to question our own ability to keep up with younger folks, who just seem more plugged in.

All that said, I think the solution to both issues is the same: Figure out how to develop new skills that will ensure you’re ready to work in new ways; and begin to re-cultivate a network filled with people of all ages, who can help you navigate what work looks like today. For many parents, this is where grown kids can come in very handy. I don’t have kids of my own but am constantly learning from younger friends and relatives. Of course, they learn from me as well, about things like how to navigate relationships and manage tough situations. Those cross-mentoring relationships are crucial.

 

Why is this a time filled with opportunity for these women as well?
As we hit midlife, life feels precious and there’s a new sense of urgency many of us experience. So often we’re drawn to work that has greater meaning. It’s very common to think about legacy — work that will live beyond today. And often, with that new work comes new roles, new learnings, and new ways to be a student or beginner again, while also passing on life experience to younger people. If you have the right mindset, it can be invigorating.

 

 

You work with Encore.org. Tell us more about this organization and what it seeks to do.
Encore.org is a small nonprofit building a movement to tap the experience of those in midlife and beyond to improve society.
We do three things:

  1. We’re helping to reframe extended midlife as a time to be a change agent.
  2. We’re creating and promoting new pathways to pursue purpose-oriented work in later life, like our Encore Fellowships, a one-year program to help people nearing retirement move from corporate jobs to roles in nonprofits and other mission-driven organizations.
  3. We’re building a movement of like-minded individuals and organizations. One example of that: Our Generation to Generation campaign, which seeks to mobilize a million people over the age of 50 to stand up and show up for vulnerable young people.

 

Can you give us a few examples of success stories of midlife reinventions supported by Encore.org?
So many. For ten years, we awarded the Purpose Prize, a $100k award for social innovators over the age of sixty (that prize is now operated by AARP). Ysabel Duron is a great example. As a successful news anchor, she began to change her focus and priorities when she was diagnosed with cancer. She turned the camera on herself and became a subject — documenting her treatment as a journalistic project. And she started a nonprofit on the side, Latinas Contra Cancer, to bring cancer awareness and support to Latina women. Once she retired, she dedicated herself full-time to that venture. The Purpose Prize helped her to do that.

We have a rich storytelling section of the Encore.org website that has examples of so many everyday people using their life experience and skills to make a difference in their second (or third) acts. If you have a story like this, we’d love to hear from you!

 

 

What resources do you recommend on the subject of midlife career reinventions?
A few favorites:
Unretirement: How Baby Boomers are Changing the Way We Think About Work, Community, and the Good Life by Chris Farrell
Designing Your Life: How to Build a Well-Lived, Joyful Life by Bill Burnett & Dave Evans
The Power of Meaning: Finding Fulfillment in a World Obsessed with Happiness by Emily Esfahani Smith
Boundless Potential: Transform Your Brain, Unleash Your Talents, Reinvent Your Work in Midlife and Beyond by Mark Walton
The Episodic Career: How to Thrive at Work in the Age of Disruption by Farai Chideya
Anything by Kerry Hannon, such as:
Great Jobs for Everyone 50+: Finding Work That Keeps You Happy and Healthy … And Pays the Bills
What’s Next? Finding Your Passion and Your Dream Job in Your Forties, Fifties and Beyond
Getting the Job You Want After 50 For Dummies

 

Connect with Marci Alboher
Websites:
Encore.Org
Heymarci.com

Books:
The Encore Career Handbook: How to Make a Living and a Difference in the Second Half of Life
One Person/Multiple Careers: The Original Guide to the Slash Career

Facebook
Twitter: @heymarci
LinkedIn

 

Marci Alboher is a leading authority on the changing face of work and a Vice President at Encore.org, a nonprofit making it easier for millions of people to pursue second acts for the greater good. Her latest book The Encore Career Handbook: How to Make a Living and a Difference in the Second Half of Life (Workman Publishing, 2013) was hailed by the AP as ‘an invaluable resource.’

Prior to joining Encore.org, Marci worked as a journalist, creating the Shifting Careers column and blog for The New York Times and the Working the New Economy blog for Yahoo. Her articles have appeared in scores of national publications. Her earlier book, One Person/Multiple Careers: The Original Guide to the Slash Career (originally published in 2007 and re-released in 2012), popularized the term “slasher” to refer to those individuals who can’t answer “What do you do?” with a single word or phrase.

Marci makes frequent appearances in the media, offering advice and commentary about slashing, encore careers and other workplace trends. She has been featured on numerous broadcast outlets – including NBC’s Today Show and Nightly News and National Public Radio – as well as countless print and web publications. Marci is on the board of Girls Write Now, which mentors underserved high school girls in NYC; she also serves as a mentor-editor for The Op-Ed Project, which focuses on increasing the number of women and minority voices in public conversations.

She holds a bachelor’s degree in English from The University of Pennsylvania and a law degree from the Washington College of Law at American University. Earlier in her career, she spent a decade as a corporate lawyer.

 A bit of the personal: Marci grew up on the Jersey Shore, living above her family’s motel, and has lived in Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., and Hong Kong. She always finds her way back to New York City, where she has spent more than 15 years. In her free time, she reads, travels, walks (excessively) and plays low-stakes poker. She lives in Greenwich Village with her husband, an entrepreneur/designer, and their French bulldog, Sinatra.

 




Launching an Online Retail Business in Midlife: Starla’s Story

After working long hours for many years to support herself and her son, a health crisis would force Starla to slow down and find another way to make ends meet. She opened Southern Rich’s, honoring all things southern.

Tell us a little about your background.
I was born along the Gulf Coast in Mobile, Alabama to a typical southern family. I was a Daddy’s girl: My father was a hard-working man, a skilled machinist with a keen eye for detail and precision. He was a strong provider and protector of my mother, younger brother, and me.

Our family was traditional. My mother was a southern June Cleaver, who kept our house spotless, our meals well-prepared, and never sat as long as there was something in the home that required attention. All the women in my family were strong southern women, who perfectly balanced feminine charm, Southern belle etiquette, and quiet strength. Daddy tended to everything outside the house – the car, the yard, repairs, the garden etc.

I suppose you could say my childhood was extremely sheltered and structured. Children were raised to respect their elders. I learned southern belle etiquette before I was old enough to even know what the word meant. While I was a “girly girl,” I also had much of Dad’s personality in me—a strong will and a stubborn streak.

Age 3

When I was twelve, my mother went to work as a bookkeeper, which caused one change in our household. I had learned to cook from some of the best southern cooks around (both my grandmothers and my mother) and since Dad got home from work before Mom did, he and I would get in the kitchen together and start “supper” for the family. I still love cooking and entertaining to this day.

My family was a very religious family, and faith was at the center of everything we did. Both my parents were leaders in our church and my brother and I “cut our teeth on the pews,” as they used to say down South. Their leadership in our church and in our community instilled in me both a strong work ethic and a generous heart. Children flocked to our house as Mom was always the perfect hostess with snacks, and Daddy’s unassuming ways and dry sense of humor always made them feel safe and protected. It was those childhood experiences and examples that developed my people skills and my gift of encouragement early on.

Early family portrait

Our extended family were all very musical and involved in church music in one way or another. I began piano lessons at the age of nine and practiced for hours each day. Everything growing up pretty much revolved around church, music, family, neighbors, community, and school. We were always singing! Because I had a natural talent and a love of music, it was a given that I would be either a church musician, a performer, or perhaps a music teacher. There was never really another path made clear to me even though I had other skills that I had not tapped into.

I have lived in other areas of the South, but have been back in my hometown of Mobile, Alabama since 1999. My parents, my 25-year-old son, most of my extended family live either in town or within a day’s drive from me.

During my formative years, I was an excellent student. I entered Lee University, a religious liberal arts college in a small town outside of Chattanooga, TN, on a piano scholarship. I eventually realized that the last thing I desired was to perform on a professional level and that I had little patience for teaching children. After getting a work-study job in the Public Relations Department of the University, and tapping into my writing and interviewing skills, I changed my major to communications, with an emphasis in public relations.

My college senior portrait

After graduation, I returned home, secured office administrative work, married, had a son, and (ironically) became involved in faith-based singing, public speaking, and performing. My passion for writing fell by the wayside though my love of public speaking continued to be a part of my career choices. After ten years, I ended my marriage. Now a single parent, I made many career choices based on what served me best in caring and providing for him. There was a great deal of “living” from that time until my “after 40” life change. My last two jobs, prior to the beginning of the change of course in my life were in Executive support roles in the telecommunications industry. I served as a Facilities Coordinator and then as an Assistant to the Regional Retail Sales Manager before life began to take an unexpected turn.

During the worst days of my illness, with my sweet son Josh

When did you start to think about making a change?
Sometimes life changes because of a strong desire for change or an “aha” moment, and then sometimes it changes out of sheer necessity. In my case, it was the latter. After relationship transitions and a personal health crisis, I was forced to make a change from the fast-paced corporate world that had completely eroded my health. I was working as much as 90 hours a week to progress financially for both my nine-year-old son and myself.

I ended up flat on my back, unable to get out of bed for no more than an hour at a time. All my independence came to a screeching halt. During the many months that it took to get a proper diagnosis (fibromyalgia and peripheral neuropathy) and find a path towards managing my health, I was forced to take a long look at another way to live and provide for my son.

What is your next act?
I am the co-owner of Southern Rich’s, which promotes the southern lifestyle, history, and tradition, through a variety of products. I launched this business in April 2016, at the age of 55. Southern Rich’s is a family business co-owned with my son Joshua. My father contributes through the creation of his one-of-a-kind wood handcrafted designs of tables, bowls, lamps, plant benches, coat racks, picnic tables, rocker/gliders, etc. We also have a private line of all-natural jams and butters that have no preservatives and are gluten free. Within that line, is a selection of naturally-sweetened jams for diabetics and those who do not want sugar in their diet. Those jams are sweetened with white grape juice instead of organic sugar. This product was a huge success over the Christmas holidays. We place great value in natural products and promote a healthy lifestyle. The jams are a private label for our company, manufactured by a wholesale distributor that grows the fruits and manufactures the jams and butters on their family farm in Georgia.

My dad’s handcrafted wagon wheel rocker-glider

Southern Rich’s does not have a retail storefront; all the work done on our handcrafted creations and subsequent inventory is kept in a shop on our private property. We sell online, but our customers primarily consist of contacts in our local community through churches, beauty salons, neighbors, friends, family etc. We are in the process of working with a local retail shop owner who is interested in displaying and promoting our products in her collectibles store. We are seeking to expand the jams to a regional grocery chain that showcases local businesses and their food products. In the last couple of weeks, we have also signed on for a new exclusive label product—all-natural soy candles that are infused with essential oils. The candles offer a variety of aromas that are reminiscent of life in the South such as Magnolia Blossom, Southern Sunshine, High Cotton, Ocean Breeze, Sweet Tea & Currant, Peach Nectar, Sage & Sweetgrass, Oakmoss & Amber, etc. These candles come in both feminine, masculine, and gender-neutral designs of mason jars, tumblers, and tins. We hope to have this latest product available within a month.

A major goal of ours is to “pay forward” our success by taking a portion of our proceeds and building a foundation that we call “Blessings For Belles.” Our mission is to help women and children in shelters and safe houses, or those who are living on their own after suffering abuse and abandonment. We have helped a limited number of women who were out of work and struggling with paying rent, groceries etc. but hope to fully establish the foundation and expand its scope as our business grows.

I am also a writer. I am re-launching my first book Journey Within My Heart and am working on the launch of my second and third books. My books are all related to Southern Rich’s in that they are an extension of the life I treasure as a true “southern belle.” Journey Within My Heart is a look back into my own life and struggles, both with my health issues and a time of domestic abuse. It’s also a journey to reconcile those experiences with my childhood memories, in an effort to discuss self-esteem and worth. My second book, Southern Whispers is a lighthearted look at life in the South as told by a true “southern belle.” It is filled with humorous anecdotes and family stories and experiences. The third book in the queue is titled Halo & High Heels and explores the role of women and their struggle to be true to womanhood, motherhood and more, while being unique and authentic. It makes the claim that it is possible to be a lady and all-woman too; and that while it is true that “little girls are made of sugar and spice,” sometimes we find we are much more spice than sugar! It is written from the expectations I personally experienced being raised in the South by southern women.

Aside from writing as a book author, I am a blogger for Fibromyalgia Living Today and a health contributor for the New Life Outlook online health network—both owned by Perk Media out of Canada. I maintain my own blog and discussion forum through my website and on my Facebook page.

Writing about what I treasure and sharing products that evoke memories of those treasures, makes what I do anything but work. It is simply sharing what I love. Walking this next act journey with those I love in a family business just makes it doubly rewarding. And did I mention I LOVE being my own boss! The creative and artistic side of me despises routines and schedules and having someone to answer to or hover over my shoulder. I suppose I lead much better than I follow. Also, due to some of the health challenges I have dealt with, flexibility is paramount.

How supportive were your family and friends?
The one thing I know without a doubt is that I would not have made it had it not been for the encouragement, support, and care of my family and close friends. My parents literally nursed me back to health and helped with day-to-day tasks. They, and other family and friends, patiently listened to me and encouraged me with each new idea I developed along the way.

The family business came through my sweet Daddy turning his wood crafting hobby into beautiful pieces that I could couple with my marketing skills to promote and sell. He was giving of his talent and what he loved to do, using it to help me financially and to help me find a way forward. As my son Josh grew up, he jumped in with a desire to learn skills from his “Paw Paw” as well as a desire to simply spend time with him in his wood shop. His ideas on how to reach a young market and trendy tricks of the trade have been immeasurable. He is a computer geek so he helped me with technical things that would bog me down when I had computer woes. He is also the one who encouraged me with the writing of my first book telling me to “think big” in my audience outreach. He believed I had a message for everyone, and challenged me not to think too small or to write to a narrow group of readers.

Finally, I had a couple of close friends who supported me beyond expectations. Laura challenged me to find my voice and my confidence in what I had to offer. She gave me constructive criticism and “tough love” when I needed it. She pushed me to enter an international “transformation contest” hosted by the Early To Rise organization. During that contest, my journaling was a part of our daily exercises towards transformation—the words in my little “journal” were being read by 47,000 people! At one point in the contest, the President of Early To Rise, Craig Ballantyne, asked me to be one of their featured contestants on their Friday “stories.”. This is where I found my courage to begin writing my first book!

The other friend instrumental in my life during my “next act” was my friend Clint. He was my encourager and esteem-builder. I had gone through so much that I had kind of lost “me,” and he helped me to see beauty again in myself, my gifts, my heart, and my spirit. I had really dwindled in self-esteem with the setbacks I had encountered. He was my kindred spirit and my resident fan club.

What challenges did you encounter?
As I stated, I think the biggest challenge was finally getting a proper diagnosis in my health issues so that I could find my new “normal” in life to balance my energy in such a way I could begin to reach my goals. Many people with health challenges tend to live in a state of denial for a while, wanting to get their “old” life back, and it takes time to realize that some detours take you on a path completely different—never to return to where you were before.

The other challenge for me was financial. Because of setbacks and of my responsibilities as a single parent, I didn’t have a huge financial foundation, especially when it came to launching the business Southern Rich’s. Writing was easier, in that you simply put yourself out there and research writing opportunities until you find the right niche and following. But launching a new “products-based” retail business was another thing altogether. As the adage goes “you have to have money to make money” so finding a way to develop a product line and even have minimal money to market it was challenging.

Handcrafted Deluxe Captain’s Table

Were there times when you thought about giving up?
I suppose I felt like giving up in my weakest moments, but when you really have no other option, it isn’t a thought you dwell on for very long. Each person who takes that step towards their next act should really look at it as a point of “no return.” If we are too comfortable in mediocrity, then we often do not find the courage to keep going and pursuing our dreams and goals. There are no shortcuts—and “easy outs” are very self-defeating.

What/who kept you going?
That is the easiest answer for me: my son, Josh. He and I had been through “hell and back” from the time he was born three months premature. I was in an abusive marriage to his father and then faced with a preemie baby towards the end of that marriage. I didn’t know if Josh would live or die, so my life had already been motivated and conditioned by that big brown-eyed little boy, my miracle baby. I developed the motto “Never give up!” When life had finally settled in and had become good again—only to be turned upside down with health issues—it was that sweet little boy who had grown from a fragile preemie baby to an energetic nine-year-old, who kept me motivated! It was also my faith in God and my family’s faith in me that kept me going.

With Josh, my right-hand man

What did you learn about yourself through this process?
That I didn’t have to be perfect and that messing up sometimes is a part of the process! I also learned that I didn’t have to have everything all figured out to take a step forward. I just had to have courage for that one leap of faith. I realized that I didn’t fully know who I was inside until I was squeezed a bit and what was in there oozed out! I learned that the very things I had spent a lifetime being afraid of were the things that pushed me forward and that they were mere shadows holding me back with no substance. Finally, I learned what really mattered to me and how to let go of those things that didn’t matter so much.

Looking back, is there anything you’d have done differently?
I would’ve listened to the “whispers of my heart” sooner! I spent way too many years trying to please others with life choices and also second guessing my own desires and choices opting for what was “expected” or “safe.”

What advice do you have for women seeking reinvention in midlife?
It isn’t always easy but it is liberating! If you find something that you love, then no matter how hard it is to obtain, it will never seem like a chore. Also, you must fully believe in what you do or in what you have to offer before you can expect others to. You must sell yourself first! Passion combined with need, desire, determination, and joy in the process will give you much of what you need to change course.

One thing that I share with people along their journey is to be kind to yourself. Sometimes we are our own worst critic and if we feel nothing is ever just right, then we lose heart. On good days, be your own cheerleader. On bad days, your own nurse, refuge, or encouragement coach. It is so important to take care of yourself in the process of “reinventing” life. Women tend to be all things for everyone else in their lives and spend no time on themselves. But what I have learned is that if we don’t treat ourselves well, and if we give all we have to others without giving to ourselves, then we aren’t at our best and everyone suffers! It takes times of rest, solitude, reflection, and honest soul-searching sometimes. It is the “being that energizes the doing.”

I wasn’t able to move forward into the areas I desired until I was brutally honest with myself. Transparency is necessary so that we can discover our true beauty and worth. Also, if we aren’t up to par physically then we struggle to reach our goals as well. Our worth isn’t tied up in our health, but our energy level is.

Historic Southern charm: Bienville Square in downtown Mobile, AL

What advice do you have for those interested in starting a product-based business?
If you are interested in a career path that takes you into the collectible retail market, find products that have meaning. Don’t just look for things you think others will like or that might be big sellers. People shop for everyday items out of necessity, but collectible or novelty items out of emotion and sentiment. Whatever products you choose, let it be something that you would love or want or that evokes special memories for you. Don’t cut corners. Make sure that what you offer is quality above quantity always!

Also, do your homework. There are fewer excuses with the Internet, Google, and YouTube. Educate yourself as much as possible. See what others have done and how they have done it. Then tailor that to your lifestyle.

Finally, realize that “no man (or woman) is an island.” Solicit help when needed and involve those around you. No one is successful trying to do everything themselves. You’d be surprised how many around you are waiting to be asked for help!

What selling products out of your home looks like

Any advice on starting a business with family?
Going into business with family does have its own challenges as well as rewards. Sometimes the family roles do not coincide with the business roles and the lines become a bit blurred at times. For instance, my father is the creative genius of our handcrafted creations. His love of the hobby and desire to bless others with his designs have produced a greater challenge for me in sales to our network of acquaintances. He had given away so many pieces as “gifts” prior to the launch of our business, that it has made it more difficult to sell to those who have not received a gift from him. Everyone wants something for free!

Also, because his expertise is in the design while mine is in the marketing, sometimes I have to take a more dominant role to ensure that he adheres to what we have established in the way of pricing, offers, etc. We can’t relate typically as father/daughter but as designer and business owner. So far, he has not caved in by reducing the pricing that I have set! Because of limited knowledge of retail pricing versus collectible designer pricing, he tends to want to sell the collection pieces for much less than their true value.

My advice is to make certain everyone understands and respects their roles in the business. My son, as a millennial, has many creative ideas and perspectives that I value and respect. We cannot allow his youth and my experience to deter us from finding the most innovative and productive ways to market our products. As with my relationship with my father, so it goes with my son as well. We are not mother/son but co-owners.

Lastly, it is inevitable that as a family business develops, there are outsiders—extended family members—who are not a part of the business, who see the growth and suddenly want to become a part of it. It is important to hold your ground as owner. Just as you would not allow outsiders in your public business just because they want to “get in on the action,” nor should you allow relatives. A family business has its many rewards; just remember though, it is a business and should be treated with the same professionalism as any other business.

The team: with my dad and son

What about advice for those interested in writing?
My advice is what I told one of my writer friends and penned in my book Journey Within My Heart. Here is the quote: “One thing I have come to understand as a writer, is that the words that come forth must be expressed regardless of who reads them, or even if I am the only one who reads them because a writer writes.”

I shared this thought with my friend Anita, who is a fellow writer, not too long ago. Here is what I told her “…if my words fall on one ear that is ready and in need of what I have to say or a thousand, I have given birth to a thought that is meant for someone, somewhere, or maybe even just meant for me to realize from the deepest part of me.”

If your words touch you, they will touch others who are meant to hear them. It is kind of like “if you build it they will come!”

My “writing den”

What resources do you recommend?
Writing:
The best way to develop your skills and techniques is to write, write, write! Also, you need to find your “niche” by researching companies, media groups, publications, etc. that are interested in contracts with freelance writers. After my time of illness, I felt that some of what I had learned could be of benefit to others in their own health struggles. I came across a few networks that were looking for health contributors, one of which was New Life Outlook based in Canada. They have sections for most of the major illnesses and health conditions and welcome application from freelance writers.

If you aren’t certain which genre you want to pursue, you could use a network such as the Freedom With Writing Resource Network. When you subscribe, they send out weekly writing opportunities to explore.

There are a few bestselling authors who offer valuable insight into the world of writing. I highly recommend Brendon Burchard’s books and seminars.

If you are interested in exploring the world of an indie author (self-publishing/independent publishing,) Amazon’s self-publishing division CreateSpace is a viable and inexpensive option to get your early writings into print or ebook form. They offer many services and tips along the way as you learn about the process and the world of writing… Through CreateSpace, you will be listed as an author on Amazon and can format your book in electronic form for Kindle Publishing also.

My books of inspiration

Retail Business:
Concerning launching your own retail business, it is of utmost importance to research the laws and regulations of your state. Go to your state’s Department of Revenue website and research business licenses and information. You can also learn a great deal from the Small Business Administration.

If you are not creating your own product solely but looking for products to sell, research viable distributors who accept wholesale customers. Some wholesale companies also offer “private labels” or exclusivity options, where the product is manufactured by their company but distributed under your company name. Make sure you do your homework on reviews and history of the companies you are considering. Those who will provide a sample of the product before requiring an order are usually the ones with a stronger business ethic and easier to work with.

If you are offering a product for consumption such as food, drink, or something like a perfume or body lotion, it is important to research liability insurance for your company should someone become ill or have a reaction to something you sell. Liability insurance isn’t all that expensive, but necessary. Contact your insurance agent or any local agent that offers business liability insurance.

What’s next for you?
I hope to turn my story into one seen on the big screen. I am talking with an independent writer/producer to see if it would make a good video or not. I want to branch out to doing more personal videos as well as blogging and life coaching.

I also have a strong desire to pay it forward. In addition to “Blessings for Belles,” I want to help people who are dealing with chronic illness and loss of income. My idea is to tap into the talents and skills of those who have faced lifestyle changes, not so much out of a desire for a “next act” but out of necessity for a “next act.” I want to build a network for them to showcase their talent and skills so that they can find hope and a hand up from their situation.

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