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?


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





match.com (also an app)

PlentyOfFish.com (also an app)

OkCupid.com (also an app)


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

seniordating.org (45 and older)



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.



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


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  



Let’s Hear From an Expert: Linda Lowen, Writing Coach

As a writing coach, how do you work with clients? What is your process?

We learn to write in school, but don’t necessarily learn the elements of compelling storytelling. And we frequently write from “headspace,” the voice that centers on I, me, my. Journaling is rooted in headspace—intensely personal, driven by emotion, focused on feelings. Journaling rarely replicates life the way films and TV do–through scene and dialogue–because for the journal writer, there’s no need to describe what just happened. She already knows—she lived it.

Passionately pouring out your thoughts, reactions, and ideas is fine if your goal is personal problem-solving. Journaling is a private endeavor that’s all about connecting to self. Writing is communication—it’s public-facing. Good writing connects to the reader.

When you’re writing for yourself, you don’t need to entertain, delight or surprise. When you’re writing for an audience, it’s about them, not you. If you don’t engage your reader or offer something of interest or value, you’ll lose her. This is true of a blog post, short story, novel, even what you’re reading now—all 175 words thus far.

Many people who say they write do so in isolation. They haven’t taken a class since college, and they don’t share their words in a setting in which they’ll get honest, professional, knowledgeable feedback. They have no idea that as good as they are, they could be so much better—and have a bigger audience.

Sometimes in our writing, we don’t see our ego interfering. Some inexperienced writers inadvertently create obstacles that make it hard for a reader to enter the story, find their own meaning and feel comfortable staying. One of my favorite quotes illustrating this idea comes from Robin Sloan’s bestselling novel Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore: “I realize that the books I love most are like open cities, with all sorts of ways to wander in.”

So, I just took five paragraphs to say that I work with clients who are ready to enter into this process of discovery, who are open to learning and are not secretly hiring me because they expect me to say, “Great job! You’re a great writer and you don’t need anything from me!”

Every writer I know, from first-timers to published authors, can use an attentive editor or writing coach. My best editors—the ones who taught me the discipline of the craft—expected great things because they knew ‘good enough’ wouldn’t do. Everyone writes excessively, and every draft is a chance to cut back. Stephen King’s rule—as he explains in On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft—is to remove 10% of the first draft. I’d go further and say you can lose much more. I was once in a workshop with Jeffrey Eugenides, author of The Virgin Suicides, Middlesex, and The Marriage Plot; I’d heard he wrote extensively and was unafraid to cut much of his work, so I asked him how much. For a novel exceeding 100,000 words, he said he’d discarded up to 70,000 words going through various drafts.

What I do for my clients is simple: I help them see the stories of their lives and identify universal themes that will connect with readers—no matter their age, background, or situation. Good writers provide opportunities for others to enter the story and experience it as their own. Even if you’re writing fiction, truth is based on the realities of human experience.

Tell a story well and you don’t have to say, “I was shocked and hurt by what happened.” That’s headspace, and it doesn’t allow the reader to feel shocked and hurt on your behalf. But if you describe the situation, the events, the sights and sounds, the behavior of others, as a camera—simply recording, not passing judgment about anything, not stating whether you think someone’s bad or good, kind or cruel, just depicting key moments through scene and dialogue—the reader will step into your shoes and experience the moments as you do, because they won’t be told how to feel. The less your opinion is present, the more they can form their own. If you don’t get in your own way, you leave room for your reader to enter and she will be on your side from that moment forward.

The process I teach is simple: together we break down storytelling to examine its components. I help women unlearn habits that get in the way of their best efforts.

There’s a lot of talk about clean eating. Well, writing’s the same way. Clean writing, writing that isn’t artificial or clichéd, writing that’s straightforward and simple, is compelling and engaging. I recommend my students read two books (you’ll get their titles later on): one describes these principles, and the other puts them into practice. When they see what a good simple narrative can do, they understand the process and believe that they too can achieve this kind of storytelling.

I also work with bloggers; I’ve been a successful blogger in the past with a #1 ranked site on Google for the niche I specialized in. And I do business writing, working with clients from established companies like Verizon and Nielsen to small internet startups.

If you blog or write for business, you may feel your ideas are solid yet you’re not getting the response you expected or the social media engagement you’d like. Chances are you’re doing something that’s putting readers off, even though you have expert knowledge and content.

I personally know a handful of women who believe they’re good writers, but they don’t get shares or comments, and I itch to tell them what they’re doing wrong. But just like a client who’s writing her memoir or novel, they have to be in the right place to hear that critique, so I don’t offer it openly—I wait until they come to me. In most cases, it’s nothing major, just a couple of small tweaks and changes in writing style and approach, but it has enormous impact.

If you do this type of writing, be conversational. Couch things in common, everyday terms that people can understand. Here’s an example of something that reflects my approach to blogging and writing online content: Unpack the Basket: 7 Tips to Increase Productivity, Enhance Creativity. 

Class Space at my studio for Always Wanted to Write

When it comes to women in midlife and beyond, what types of writing do you find they are yearning to do? What are the challenges and opportunities they face in telling their stories?

For the past five years, I’ve taught at the Downtown Writer’s Center in Syracuse, NY, which is affiliated with the local Y. In 1990, YMCA launched a national initiative, The Writer’s Voice, with dozens of programs across the country. Today the Downtown Writer’s Center is among the top three most successful YMCA community-based writing centers in the U.S.

Typically 80% of my students are women midlife and beyond. They tell me they’ve been talking about writing for many years and finally have the time to do it, so that’s why they’re here. But over the course of an 8-week class, a deeper truth comes out: Writing is their way of coming to terms with both the good and the bad of who they are.

Most want to tell a specific story that has shaped their choices and directed or redirected their paths. Sometimes it’s about their own mother. Sometimes it’s a traumatic experience they want to acknowledge and let go of. Sometimes it’s a health crisis they want to share so their stories can help others.

The number one challenge they face in trying to tell their stories is going it alone. When you write in isolation, you don’t get feedback. You don’t have someone else’s input to say what works and what doesn’t, what moves the story forward and what causes it to bog down and become unreadable. You don’t have a nurturing environment to discover your voice, you don’t have peers on the same path as you with whom you can compare notes, and you may expend a lot of effort on work that ultimately won’t serve your story, your intent, or your goals.

Writing is not easy. It’s not fun. It requires discipline, focus, and commitment. The good news is that it’s a skill anyone can develop and improve over time. Anyone. Write a million words and you will be that much better. That’s no joke. You can’t help but be. In my freelance career as a non-fiction writer, I’ve counted my output and can safely say I’ve written three million words. That’s what it takes.

Unfortunately, the fantasy persists that a new writer can do it absolutely right the first time without training. Think about how crazy that is. You wouldn’t hire an attorney who hasn’t attended law school. You wouldn’t let a surgeon operate who hasn’t gone through medical school. There are specific tools and skills and techniques that writers apply to their work to get the results they seek, and yet most wannabe writers who work alone are writing by the seat of their pants. That’s fine if all you want is a record of your thoughts. But if you want to publish, if you want to sell a story or a book, if you want to connect with readers who become passionate fans, you need these tools and the guidance of others to improve your craft.

For me, one of the hardest things is to encounter someone who says, “I wrote a book!” They’re so proud of their efforts, but when they show you the first chapter, it’s clear what’s wrong. You realize there’s a story there but it’s buried under verbal clutter. You’re sidetracked so often it’s a tough read.

For the person who’s willing to listen, to learn the elements of plot and story arc, character motivation and inciting incidents, the rise and fall of action, the necessity of structure, that’s half the battle. They have to be prepared to go back and revise, edit, and cut. When I see a student or client do this without prodding from me, that’s a golden moment. They’ve acquired the tools to reshape their work, and my editing and revising will be that much easier, because they can see what’s wrong themselves and they can fix it.

But for the person who is hurt by well-intentioned critique, who is too tender about her words and just wants approval, it’s not going to happen—their writing is not going to improve.

This is why I started my writing coaching business, Always Wanted to Write (AWTW), because it’s hard to have these critiques happen in a group of 8-12 people—the typical size class in most writing centers and workshops. Often individualized one-on-one instruction and guidance is easier for a vulnerable new writer to accept. I also find that having that familiarity with someone’s work, and the time and space to focus on a single writer and her needs, makes for a better back-and-forth over the long run. We come up with a better product, whether it’s a short essay, a 6,000-word story, or the first draft of a memoir.

AWTW also allows me to work remotely with someone, and I’ve done so with women across the country. Usually, they want me to shape and edit their work to the point at which it’s ready to submit for publication. And I can do this for both fiction and non-fiction/memoir writers.

Although AWTW was created to address clients interested in fiction and memoir, my career has been built on non-fiction work. I specialize in the online environment and publications that feature “service” writing such as self-help, health and wellness, how-to, educational, travel, and vacation, plus I can help with any sort of commercially-focused writing such as copywriting, digital marketing and ad copy, and catalog descriptions as I’ve done that professionally as well. And as a freelance radio producer and host, I write radio scripts every week and have written TV scripts as well. And I’ve ghostwritten book proposals for clients who have found agents and publishers with the material I’ve produced for them. I can teach clients how to write for any of these markets.


Can you give us a few examples of women you’ve helped?

I’ve worked with Ann Voorhees Baker on a book she’s writing about a problem that many of us deal with on a daily basis, one that’s not represented in the current batch of self-help books out there. She’s already an excellent writer, but I helped her shape the storytelling aspects of her book specifically using scene and dialogue.

Nancy is a retired teacher and an avid reader whom I met at a writer’s retreat. She’s been working on three short stories and I just finished editing the first one. It took about four drafts/revisions sent back and forth, and I loved immersing myself in her world and her characters. She takes a traditional approach to storytelling, and hers is part ghost story, part small town narrative similar to Richard Russo’s Empire Falls, and part fairy tale. She had a gorgeous description buried in her first long paragraph, and though I enjoyed it, I saw that it slowed the action down and I suggested she remove it but hold onto it. She eventually revised her ending to include it, and the new version gave me goosebumps. My situation with Nancy is reflective of how I work. I examine the elements of the story and move things around to maintain a strong narrative flow and forward momentum. I’m optimistic that Nancy will publish this in a literary journal in the year ahead. Now we’re moving on to her other two stories.

Maria is a therapist and a college professor who has taken classes with me. She was working on an essay for a public performance when she asked for my input. She had 1200 words and needed it cut. I was able to remove 250 words, suggest modifications that made her storytelling more effective, and she’ll be performing it publicly this spring.

Jo Lynn is a dog breeder and a painter who’s been writing short pieces about the dogs she raises and trains. Her writing is a blend of poetry and prose and is very unique; a couple of previous editors didn’t know how to approach her work because it is so distinct and lyrical. Having once worked as a graphic designer, I understood her intent and was able to preserve her visual storytelling strengths and restructure a few portions to help her achieve greater clarity. I’m doing a final review of her short story collection which she expects to publish later in the year.

In each one of the situations above, the work was done primarily by email. The good thing about working with a writing coach/editor is that you don’t have to be face-to-face to work effectively.

If I have a focus I’m proudest of, it’s helping women tell their cancer survivor stories because I’m one of them. In my hometown of Syracuse, NY, I collaborated with first-time writers to publish a book of these stories. The women were all part of a LiveStrong program at the local YMCA. I led a series of workshops that gave participants basic skills on how to write memoir. I edited the pieces they submitted, and the result is the anthology “Hopeful Grateful Strong: Survivor Stories.”

What is your best advice to women seeking to begin writing?

Enroll in a writing class, or take a one-day workshop—that’s how I got back into fiction writing years ago. Or sign up for a weekend retreat or a week-long conference. Don’t say you’re not good enough—you need to acquire the basic tools so that when you begin to write, you do it with guidance and knowledge of the process.

Whatever you do, don’t go it alone. But be careful of just joining any group at your local library, bookstore, or through Meetup.com. Make sure at least one person in the group has had formal training as a writing instructor or is a working writer or a professional, whether they’re a freelancer or they write for a publication or outlet. I’ve sat in on groups where someone totally untrained but with strong opinions completely discouraged another participant whose writing demonstrated real ability.

We are all tender about our work, and we need a caring, protective environment to share and to learn. Friends and family, well-meaning though they may be, are not the ones to critique your work. Either look for a class locally or regionally or investigate smaller workshops or retreats. In fact, Ann Voorhees Baker offers one through her Women At Woodstock Writer’s Retreat, and I’ll be one of two writers-in-residence for that weekend event in October 2017.

Entryway at my Always Wanted to Write studio

What resources do you recommend for would-be writers? 

Here are the titles of the two books I referenced earlier. For a page-turner of a memoir, read The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls. Many people who say they don’t like memoir rave about this book. It’s exceptional storytelling with a straightforward narrative, and it’s totally accessible to any reader. Walls makes no judgments about her family—the outrage the reader feels comes purely from the situations described. That’s the book I recommend for early-stage writers. I actually steer newbie writers away from Mary Karr’s classic, The Liars’ Club, because what she does is close to impossible. She’s an accomplished poet and a skilled literary non-fiction writer, but nobody can do Mary Karr, so holding her up as a model isn’t fruitful. It’s better to start simply, master the basic techniques, and build from there. The Glass Castle will make you believe you’re fully capable of telling your own story—which you are.

Another essential book is William Zinsser’s On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction. This book has been in print for decades, and there’s a reason why. It’s excellent.

If you’re truly committed to writing a memoir, novel, etc., don’t rely on MS Word. It puts a lot of hidden garbage characters into your document that can cause problems when you start submitting—and most places now want you to submit online through an interface called Submittable (though there are others). The best writing program out there is Scrivener, although the learning curve is very steep. It’s not cheap, but once you start playing around with it, you’ll understand why it’s so popular among serious writers.


Contact Linda Lowen at linda.lowen@gmail.com







Book: Hopeful Grateful Strong 

Video of my writing studio Always Wanted To Write in Syracuse, NY

YouTube video of me performing my essay “Being Japanese” in the local production of Listen To Your Mother – Rochester, NY in May 2016

The weekly NPR radio show I co-host and co-produce

My theater reviews for the daily newspaper the Post-Standard at syracuse.com



Writer & Editor: A freelance writer for over two decades, Linda Lowen’s work has appeared in print and online. She is the editor of Hopeful, Grateful, Strong, an anthology of cancer survivor stories published in June 2015.  Her essay “Hillary Clinton, Everymother,” is featured in the book Love Her, Love Her Not: The Hillary Paradox, edited by Joanne Bamberger, an Amazon Hot New Release published in November 2015. In April 2016, Love Her, Love Her Not won a Next Generation Indie Book Award in the Women’s Issues category.

Linda is a theater reviewer for the Syracuse Post-Standard / syracuse.com and also writes the award-winning “Storytime” column for Family Times, the Parenting Guide of Central New York. Her non-fiction story “Christmas Eve Service” is included in Chicken Soup for the Soul: Volunteering & Giving Back: 101 Inspiring Stories of Purpose and Passion.

Radio: Linda is co-host/producer of Take Care, an award-winning health and wellness show on  WRVO Public Media, an NPR affiliate serving Central and Northern New York. The weekly radio show features the country’s leading experts on medicine, health, psychology and human behavior. The show airs Saturdays at 6:30 am and Sunday at 6:30 pm, can be heard as a podcast through iTunes and is syndicated nationwide through PRX, the Public Radio Exchange.

Writing Instructor: She teaches creative non-fiction writing at the Downtown Writer’s Center in Syracuse, NY where her classes run the gamut from memoir to blogging. She also presents workshops on writing and blogging at writing festivals and women’s conferences from the Hobart Book Village Festival of Women Writers to Women at Woodstock.

Internet & New Media: Linda has covered style & beauty, home decor, DIY, tech, internet and social media trends for MSN Living. From 2007-2013 she was editor/writer/content producer for Women’s Issues at About.com, owned by the New York Times Company. Under her guidance, About.com Women’s Issues rose to become the internet’s top ranked site under the search term “women’s issues” on Google, Bing, Yahoo, and every other major search engine. For About she produced over 2400 pieces of original content ranging from politics to pop culture. Her articles and blog posts address a variety of topical and evergreen issues that impact women’s lives.

Broadcast: Her broadcast career includes producing/co-hosting the award-winning women’s issues talk show Women’s Voices, first at Syracuse NPR affiliate WAER-FM (1998-2002), then on Time Warner Cable Channel 13 (2002-2003), and finally at Syracuse PBS affiliate WCNY-TV (2004-2006). She was also co-host of WCNY-TV’s midday talk show Hour CNY (2004-2005) and Director of Communications for the combined PBS television/NPR radio stations serving a 19-county region in upstate New York with a market of over 1.8 million.

Public Speaking: Linda is a member of the Women’s Media Center Progressive Women’s Voices program and the National Cancer Survivor’s Day Speaker’s Bureau; she’s been a keynote speaker at cancer survivor conferences from Hartford, CT to Cooperstown, NY.  She was featured in the 2016 Rochester, NY “Listen to Your Mother” cast, a national event giving voice to motherhood with regional performances across the U.S., and her performance of “Being Japanese” is on the Listen To Your Mother YouTube channel.

Media Coaching: Linda’s experience includes a range of print/broadcast/internet platforms as well as media training with top experts at the Women’s Media Center in New York City. She’s worked with individuals who were subsequently featured on the Fox News program “Fox and Friends,” the Huffington Post, the Associated Press, and the UK daily newspaper The Guardian.

National Media Appearances: Linda has been a guest on ABC’s “Good Morning America,” NPR’s “Talk of the Nation,” WNYC’s “The Brian Lehrer Show,” and has been quoted in the New York Times and San Francisco Chronicle.

Launching Women at Woodstock: Ann’s Story

ann-voorhees-bakerAfter marrying and moving across the country at 52, Ann yearned for the connection with other women in midlife. She launched Women at Woodstock weekend gatherings to bring women together and share experiences, support, and fun.


Tell us a little about your journey…

I always have to smile at the word journey when applied to my life, because I would describe it as more of a series of meanderings, mad dashes, dilly-dallying, chasing after interesting things, and arduous hikes. It is this:

Me in high school

Me in high school

I grew up in Southern California in a beach community, went to UCLA and earned a bachelor’s degree in cybernetics, then fled eastward for a place that had spring and fall and winter—Cleveland, Ohio, where I earned a law degree. I practiced law in New York City for 10 years (environmental protection), married, and returned to Shaker Heights outside of Cleveland where I raised two daughters. I founded and for 15 years published two regional parenting magazines, during which time I developed relationships with many of the magazine’s advertisers and started helping them with their ads and marketing.

Eventually I sold the magazines and concentrated on PR and marketing, then served as the director of communications for a school district for a couple of years.

I got a divorce after 23 years of marriage and eventually moved back to my original Southern California neighborhood at age 52 to marry a wonderful man who I had dated right after high school. I developed my own practice in social media marketing, SEO, web design, and ghost writing.

My daughters are now 32 and 29 and I’m very proud of them. Both graduates of Columbia University, one has lived all over the country and done everything from PR to working as a merchant marine to bartending and has just returned to Cleveland to earn a master’s degree in counseling, and the other is a managing editor at Pearson Publishing and lives in Cape Town, South Africa.

My wedding

My wedding


When did you start to think about making a change?

While I was happily married, I was also lonely after the move. Frankly, when I returned California, I just never connected with a new posse of friends. At the same time, I had wonderful relationships with my clients, mostly women over 50 from all over the country. I yearned to connect in person with other like-minded women—not for business, not for spiritual development, not for yoga, but for interesting conversation, brainstorming, friendship.



What is your next act?

I am the founder of Women at Woodstock. This is a gathering for women over 50 in our generation’s symbolic birthplace: Woodstock, NY. We’re now in our fifth year with our next gathering this October. We spend a weekend together with speakers, workshops, evening salons (guided discussions), yoga, brainstorming sessions, good food, wine, and fun. There is no theme except to share information, encourage and help each other in the pursuit of our creative efforts, businesses, or personal goals, and build friendships.

We have an entire property to ourselves for our gathering – the Lifebridge Sanctuary in Rosendale, NY, about 20 minutes from Woodstock. It’s an eco conscious restored farmhouse plus cottage, solar powered, with wood-burning fireplaces, a large great room, and spectacular views of the Hudson Valley.

Because of Women at Woodstock, I’m reaching out and getting to know more and more interesting women all over the country— the world, really—week after week. I’m definitely no longer lonely. I’m bathed in friendships and ideas and encouragement and support and I gladly give it back. The women in the “Women At Woodstock community” report the same feelings. It feels like a movement, yet we have no agenda except, really, carpe diem.

Interestingly, and not surprisingly (since women over 50 have lived a lot and know a lot and can move mountains if they want to), several business results have come out of these relationships: companies launched, jobs changed or found, clients developed, deals negotiated. And several relationship issues have been repaired: A mother revealed the painful truth about her adult son for the first time ever; a wife faced the raw facts of her marriage and gained the strength to make a needed change.

Among the more usual activities of workshops and learning and exchanging ideas and finding mentors and that sort of thing, small miracles have happened, and they continue to happen every time we gather together.



How did you come up with the idea for Women at Woodstock?

For many years, as a business owner, I had followed all kinds of advice for building my business. I joined an online women’s business owner organization. I went to in-person networking events. I established a mastermind group in my area. It all worked fine. But it wasn’t the real me. Not that I was being phony; it’s just that the real me was inside turning the knobs and pulling the levers. You know, consciously. It was psychically tiring.

One day I had a conversation with an author to whom I had been recommended as a publicist. This was an opportunity to gain another client, but I found myself simply enjoying talking with her. She was one of those like-minded women, you know? Within minutes, I found myself talking about my idea for a women-over-50 gathering that was neither conference nor woo-woo retreat and she was immediately excited; we talked intensely, ideas flying back and forth, for an hour and a half. I hung up the phone and realized that I’d completely sidetracked the conversation away from the services I could provide. I’d lost the chance for a new client, yet I felt better about my plans for the future than I had in a long time.

I made two decisions: 1) Make Women At Woodstock a reality and 2) ditch the PR work, which I finally admitted to myself I did not like and did not have to do just because I knew how to do it (a huge revelation). I decided to stick to writing, social media, web design, and the techie SEO stuff, all of which I enjoy. 




How did you make Women at Woodstock a reality?

I’ve started and run several businesses but I’ve never organized events, and frankly, I mostly hate events. Networking is not my thing; cocktail parties are not my thing. But somehow the inspiration for Women At Woodstock just came over me. It just flowed naturally and whenever I talked about the idea to other women my age, they got super excited and they said, “You’ve got to do this, Ann! You must! Do it and I’ll be there!” So more out of feeling—how can I put this best—out of feeling a desire to be me among women whom I truly like and admire, I went forward. It turned out to be a really great decision.

I’m an impulsive person, always have been, so I can’t lie and say that I devised my plan for Women At Woodstock after careful planning, consideration, fact-gathering, and judiciously seeking advice and guidance. I thought of it, I felt compelled to do it, I did it. Parts of it clicked into place: It had to be in Woodstock, the iconic place of our generation. It had to be women over 50. It had to be casual. It had to be constructive and grounded in everyone’s reality—no religious or belief-system-based agenda.



How supportive were your family and friends?

It helped tremendously that my husband was supportive, standing behind me and quietly cheering me on. It’s so incredibly freeing and empowering (pardon me for using that word, which I hate, but I can think of no other) to have someone important in your life see you for who you really are and say “You are smart. You have good ideas. Follow your dream. I applaud you.”

My daughters too said that it sounded wonderful and they encouraged me to go ahead with it. That sounds like a no-brainer maybe, but I have to give this background to explain why it was in fact so meaningful to have their support: During the time that they were growing up, I was winning awards for my two magazines and growing the marketing services of my company, but the business that I ran was an enormous cause of friction in my marriage. Unfortunately, my then-husband during those years did everything he could to sabotage my work and persuade my daughters that what I was doing was stupid and that I was being neglectful and uncaring and I was risking the family’s financial security. They have to have, still, very mixed feelings about my business undertakings. Yet they warmly encouraged me to follow this new idea of mine. Clearly they still believe in me and my ideas.

With my daughters Hannah and Sarah

With my daughters Hannah and Sarah


What challenges did you encounter?

Well, to be blunt, as an event organizer I didn’t know what the hell I was doing. But what the heck, you research and you seek advice and make a plan and stay very organized. When I sent my schedule for the first Women At Woodstock to the group sales coordinator at my venue, we had a phone call to discuss the particulars, and as we were wrapping up, she said, “How many years have you been doing this?” I said, “I’ve never done this before.” She was floored. She said my level of organization was better than just about anything she’d ever seen. I know, buttering me up maybe. But I don’t think she would have been very positive if things weren’t in good shape.

So that’s what I did. I believed in my mission and I did my best and yes, I learned a lot by the slap-in-the-face information delivery system rather than classroom lectures or books—like, when you book a venue for an event, you have to ante up a portion of the expected cost up front, and you have to sign on the dotted line obligating yourself to pay up to 80% of that expected cost whether your event flies or not.

My background as a lawyer stood me in very good stead in negotiating those contracts; my business background stood me in good stead in mapping out the whole plan and eventually hiring an assistant and delegating duties; my marketing and web design background stood me in good stead in building my website and growing my online following; and my core desire to have this event be what I envisioned it to be—not to build a business just for the sake of building a business, but to make Women At Woodstock the different thing that it is—gave me the drive and the strength to make it happen.



Were there times when you thought about giving up? 

I’ve had more nights than I care to talk about waking up at 3 am and wondering if everything was going to come together and whether I was going to cover expenses. But I’ve had many more days of great conversations, idea development, extensions of support, and just plain fun. I never thought about giving up. The women who’ve come together over this, they’ve kept me going. And my husband standing behind me, that has too.


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

The more you are yourself, plain and simple, no trying to fit into any mold you think you should fit into, the happier you will be.

Ask yourself what’s missing. What do you need? What talents or creative forces have you not yet allowed yourself to unleash? Ask yourself what drives your desires. Then move in the direction you’ve pointed out for yourself.



What advice do you have for those interested in organizing an event such as yours?

Don’t do it.

OK, I’m kidding. But seriously, my path is not one of exponential financial growth or big business or fame or fortune. It’s one of meaning and happiness—according to my own terms. It’s not for everyone. If you have a real reason to do something like what I’m doing, then go for it.


What resources do you recommend?

Wow, that’s a hard question to answer, because I have called on so much deep background to pull this thing off: My experience as a lawyer; my marketing, writing, and design skills; my organizational talents as a long-time business owner…

I’d say you need to know, or hire people who know, how to read a contract down to the last detail, understand it, and be able to negotiate for changes or addenda if needed; how to organize a schedule and a flowchart for lodging, meeting rooms, speakers, workshops, meals, and events; how to set up and effectively utilize a website, social media sites, bulk email, and a blog; how to reach out to speakers and workshop leaders and construct a package for them that provides them real value in return for their time and expertise without breaking your budget; and how to get and utilize feedback on an ongoing basis in order to make your event the best that it can be.

And you have to have a sense of “what the hell,” and above all, a sense of humor. There’s a certain attitude of freedom and joy that has to wrap around the whole thing; otherwise I don’t know how you would keep going.

Wild Apricot has a good bare-bones article on how to organize an event, along with a checklist of what you need to do, plus videos, case studies, and membership software you can buy, priced anywhere from free (50 contacts or less) to $270/month for 15,000 or more contacts.

For taking registrations and payments, I highly recommend Wufoo, a free online form-building program that’s very user friendly.

You will need to be able to process payments online as well; Paypal is of course a well-known payment processor for small businesses, but I find it clunky and if you don’t use the “Pro” version to streamline credit card processing, it often throws people off. A lot of people recommend Stripe for payment processing. If you plan to seek sponsorships for your event, check out Linda Hollander, the “Wealthy Bag Lady” for advice and guidance. She offers a lot of information free.



What’s next for you?

I want to keep producing Women At Woodstock for many years to come. In my “day job,” I’m continuing to cut loose more and more work that I do not enjoy or find interesting. I’m turning, degree by degree, toward writing more than anything else.

Which brings me to the next chapter (pardon the pun). Finally, I’m writing a book, which is my hidden dream. I’m very excited about this. I finally feel free to let the dream out in the open and I’m writing on a serious and extended basis for the first time in my life.


Contact Ann Voorhees Baker at ann@womenatwoodstock.com

Women at Woodstock website

Please visit this page to find out about our gathering on October 28-30.

And visit this page to find out about our week of writers’ retreats October 31-November 6.

Sign up for our email to receive my updates, finds, announcements, and sometimes rantings and ravings about life as a woman over 50.


Twitter: @WAWoodstock




Writing a Memoir About Divorce: Amy’s Story

amy cover photoWhen her husband left her for another woman after 27 years of marriage, Amy was forced to look for work for the first time in her adult life, eventually discovering her passion for writing. She’s now an author, blogger, writing instructor, and creator of writing retreats for women.


Tell us a little about your background…

I am the oldest of three daughters, which, when I was growing up, was pretty cool. I got to stay up later, stay out later, shave my legs, and wear make up before anyone else did. That came back to bite me in the ass later, when I was the first one to go through menopause, fanning myself through hot flashes, while my sisters looked totally cool and glam whenever we dined al fresco. They’re catching up now, however. Yes, it’s all fun and games until all the sisters hit menopause.

First sister to date!

First sister to date!

My parents are both New York born and raised, but we lived in St. Petersburg, Florida until I was a senior in high school, at which time my father accepted a position in Louisville, Kentucky. I had never heard of Louisville, and in fact when I wrote my new address down for my then boyfriend (who would later become my husband and father to my four children), I actually wrote, LOUIEVILL. I ended up living in Louisville for most of my adult life, and raised my kids there. It is a beautiful place, I miss it at times, especially in the spring, but am in love with my little slice of Florida paradise, a little house on the water where I see birds, dolphins, and manatees on a daily basis, which helps me calm down when I’m in a panic over writer’s block or the end of a binge watch of my favorite series on Netflix.

Now my four kids are grown and I am enjoying life with my partner Michael, whom I met on Match.com seven years ago. Empty nest? BRING IT! I love my kids more than life, but the peace, the quiet, the lack of drama? Something to be said for that too.

Enjoying wine country with Michael

Enjoying wine country with Michael


What changes did midlife bring for you?

I really thought I had mapped out my midlife pretty well. My children would all grow up, get accepted into Ivy league schools with full scholarships, thanks to their unbelievably perfect combination of brilliance and athletic prowess, and my husband and I would travel the world and probably buy a vacation home in San Francisco because it’s near wine country and there’s no humidity.

Not so fast. Some women have that “aha” moment in midlife, when they think, “Now it’s MY TIME and here’s what I want to do.” I did not really have that type of aha, my aha was more like, “AHA! My husband is leaving me for another woman, now what do I do?” Me, married 27 years, never having graduated college, and never having worked outside of the home. So I guess my midlife path was more or less thrust upon me.

During my divorce, the J word (job) was bantered around. Imagine my surprise to discover that, in my late 40s (I am 55 now), I would be expected to work? Where? Doing what? I worked at a spa. I worked at a furniture store. I got my real estate license and then I even went back to college and enrolled in Creative Writing classes.

Screen Shot 2016-08-16 at 8.25.16 PM

What is your next act?

I am a blogger, writer, and author.

My blog, Ex-wife New Life began in 2011 as a way to describe what I was going through, including dealing with the new woman in my ex-husband’s life (although not so new to him apparently) and dealing with four teenagers. I like to think it is a humorous but from the heart tale of my journey. My posts now focus a lot on having adult kids, being in a second long term relationship, and the joys of midlife.


My first book, There’s Been A Change Of Plans: A Memoir About Divorce, Dating and Delinquents in Midlife is the true story of my divorce experience, both the time leading up to it and its aftermath. It starts when my husband of 27 years tells me he is having an affair with a Swiss pastry chef. We go to counseling. He can’t give her up, even though I buy all new Victoria’s Secret thongs and get a mini facelift. We go to mediation—I am nearly led out by police. I scream, I cry, I drunk text. We get divorced. Throw my four teenagers into the mix and you’ve got yourself a party.

That’s only the beginning! I not only recover but reDIScover a new and exciting life as a midlife woman. I go to work, I go on dates! I find part two. It is a tell-all that I hope will help other women who are going through the experience.

I am also passionate about helping women write THEIR way through divorce. To that end, I am hosting my first weekend retreat entitled “Writing Through Your Divorce” the weekend of September 23, here in my home In St. Petersburg, Florida. My business partner, Rebecca Gold, (also a divorcee, author, and writing teacher), and I have designed a well-crafted weekend that will provide not only the emotional support to go through this life-altering process, but also offers tools and techniques that will get your creativity flowing while promoting healing. Whether you plan to share your writing with others, shoot for publication, or just get thoughts, feelings, and emotions down on paper, writing can be a way of working through divorce by organizing thoughts, putting them down on paper, and then moving on! Plus there will be bagels, so there’s that. Details are available on my website.

In addition, Rebecca Gold and I have formed a small publishing company called Word Gets Around Publishing and we just released my second book titled How To Write It Funny: A Step-by-Step Guide for Bloggers and Others, which basically gives away all my secrets on how I write my blogs and books. It might put me out of business, come to think of it. I am also conducting online classes on How To Write It Funny.



How did you become a blogger and get work as a writer?

I started my blog, Ex-wife New Life in 2011, at the age of 49. At the time, I was working as a realtor and my boss would make me go to Starbucks and not come back to the office until I had made three contacts. Well, uhm, no. I am not going from table to table interrupting online coffee dates and girl talk to see who wants to buy a home, which at that time was no one. So I would take out my laptop and start writing about my experiences and loved it.

I was also lucky enough to secure freelance writing jobs. I wrote about the world’s most expensive caviar, how to buy your very own private island, how to know if you’re ready to start dating—the list goes on. I got a great job writing home descriptions for a high-end real estate magazine in Sarasota. I had 100 descriptions to write. I started out strong, using flowery language to describe a traditional ranch home in a gated community. I even got my thesaurus out. How many words are there for foyer, (entryway) for patio (lanai) for media room (screening area)? I used them all.

Towards the end, I was beginning every post with “Welcome to your own tropical paradise” so I was not rehired for that job.


Recently I had a wonderful job populating celebrity Facebook pages for a digital marketing company. I loved it! We would look for trending stories and write them up in the voice of our celeb clients and post on their Facebook. I started as a writer and was then promoted to a team lead and finally to executive content director. Imagine me, at 55, in a position of authority doing something I love! My boss was 25. Yes, 25. I would sit in meetings learning about Google analytics and when asked for feedback would be like, “I have no idea what you’re talking about.” Still, it was a great job and I had a great bunch of young writers under me who have no idea that they have the whole world at their feet. Sure I was envious, but these were great talented kids. Unfortunately, that company went by the wayside.

One of my proudest moments was when I was contacted by Huffington Post. I received an email from the editor of the Divorce section saying, “We like your story, would you be interested in writing about it?” And of course I was and AM interested in writing about it! When my first post came out and I saw my name on the Huffington Post blog site, I was overwhelmed. I still contribute to the divorce section, however, I also enjoy writing about midlife and the humor that surrounds it and have been featured in the comedy and book sections as well.

At my very first writing conference at Sarah Lawrence college at age 49


How did your book come about?

My book, There’s Been A Change Of Plans, came about after I started my blog. I remembered sitting on my bed after my husband had left for the last time (“This time I really mean it!”), petrified and feeling totally alone. All my friends were still married! I read book after book trying to find solace, help, someone who knew what I was going through. I read about meditating your way through divorce, how to breathe, how to let go of anger. WHAT?

I needed to know how to get through the day! How to deal with four teenagers while my ex was off in Switzerland skiing with his new girl. I read one book by a woman whose husband had also left her. “Now we’re getting somewhere,” I thought. However, that woman was lucky enough to return to her role on a popular TV show and move on with her life. Hmm… Not sure that would work for me. I felt totally alone. So, when my time came and a memoir started taking shape on my computer screen, I wanted to write a book to help other women find their way and to let them know they would survive, they would be okay, they would laugh again. Truly. I have people tell me, “I read your book and it is just like you are in the room talking to me.” That means the world to me!


Congrats author party


What challenges did you encounter with your book?

First was overcoming the challenge of actually writing and completing my book! Then I was lucky enough to find an agent. Any writer will tell you that is a huge challenge. And then came my biggest challenge, the moment I thought maybe this wasn’t meant to be. Here’s what happened: My agent sold my book to a large publisher! I received an advance. More importantly, I told everyone. My mother told everyone. We had a big congrats party. I had the author’s portrait photo taken. And then, my agent called me to tell me that the imprint had lost their editor and they were no longer going to do memoirs. I could keep the advance, but there would be no book.

Devastated? Yes. My agent took instant action, acquired my rights back and immediately hit the pavement again. We sold it to a small Indy publisher, and finally my book made its way to the public. I cannot tell you how I felt when I held that first book in my hands. I DID IT! My book came out in October of 2015 when I was 55.


What have you learned about yourself through this experience?

I learned that I love to write. I NEED to write. And that is what I am doing. I now know that I am stronger than I ever believed and that when I have a goal, one that really means something to me, I will achieve it. I also learned that skinny jeans should not be worn with high waisted underwear—but that’s another story.

With Rebecca, my publishing partner

With Rebecca, my publishing partner


How supportive were your family and friends?

My family has always been my major support system. My father especially said, “You have a book in you, I know it.” He taught me the joy of reading, at a very young age. I could stay up as late as I wanted to if I was reading; otherwise, it was lights out at 8:30pm.

My friends have been supportive as well, but now will say, “THIS IS NOT FOR YOUR BOOK” when we are engaged in some in depth conversations about dating, belly fat, or where are our eyebrows.

My ex and I are in a very good place and the point of the book was not to bash him and his new wife, but of course, there are repercussions. When I received a date for publication, I called him and said, “You need to know, the book is coming out,” and I sent him the PDF several months before it hit Amazon. He told me he could not bring himself to read it and I don’t believe he has. As far as his wife goes, she and I do not have any contact and as I don’t mention her by name; she really has nothing to say about it. It is what it is, right? Own it.

When it came to my children, it was a fine line I had to walk when I wrote the book, because obviously it revealed some intimate details about my life with their dad. I believe my daughters have read the book and my sons have not, which is fine with me. I think it may be too much for sons to read about their mother dating, and some of the shenanigans I got into.

As it turns out, only one of my four kids took the traditional route of a four-year college, and it was NOT on a full scholarship, much to my dismay. But they are all living their lives—happy, caring people whom I love dearly. I can’t imagine my life without them and for that I thank their dad every day. Really, I’m not kidding. Sometimes I will just text him out of the blue and say, “Thank you for these wonderful children.”


With my kids


What advice would you offer to women in midlife?

I don’t know if I have advice as much as a philosophy for women in midlife looking for or FORCED INTO change. I can’t stress it enough: THIS IS OUR TIME. If you want to write a book, WRITE IT. If you want to make jewelry, MAKE IT. Whatever it is, DO IT. The person who you were way back then when you began your family, or pursued a career in order to have the life you so craved, IS STILL IN THERE! Get to know her. See what she wants NOW.


What resources would you recommend?

As far as resources that helped me move forward, I have several. The first one is the ONE book I read that truly helped me through my divorce and gave me hope. It is

How to Sleep Alone in a King-Size Bed: A Memoir of Starting Over by Theo Nestor. I also had the great experience of attending a seminar by Theo years later and she guided me through my own memoir, which thrilled me.

Stephen King’s On Writing: A Memoir of the Craftis a must for any writer. I read a little each day to get me started.

Publisher’s Marketplace is a site that writers need to pay attention to. It has the daily book deals, agents, and publisher’s news. It has a small monthly fee but it is imperative to keep up with what is happening in the writing world, what is selling, what isn’t, etc.

Query Tracker is a site where writers can keep track of the agents they have submitted to as well as see what agents are looking for what type of work. Plan to treat your search for an agent as a full time job.

Finally, my go to, the book I always have with me, is Heartburnby the unforgettable Nora Ephron. Her humor, her wit, her insights, inspire me so. When I was last in New York City, I walked past her building hoping some of her fairy dust would settle on my shoulders.

In front of Nora's building

In front of Nora’s building


What’s next for you?

Well, as I mentioned, I’m really excited about helping women work through their divorce by writing, just as I did, which is the goal of my “Writing Through Your Divorce” retreat in September, and I plan on continuing these throughout the year.

I am also writing my third book now, which is really exciting since it’s my first fiction book, but really, isn’t everything we write somewhat based on our real experiences? Not going to give too much away but it is a hilarious story (I HOPE) about a midlife divorcee from a small town in—guess where—Florida, who moves to New York City for one year and well… You will have to read it! Let me just say it combines the divorce experience with my love for dogs. Okay, that’s all I’m saying. My goal is to complete it by my 56th birthday in August


The view from my window — it keeps me calm!


Contact Amy Koko at: kokoamy2@gmail.com




There’s Been A Change Of Plans: A Memoir About Divorce, Dating and Delinquents in Midlife

How To Write It Funny: A Step-by-Step Guide for Bloggers and Others


Writing Your Way Through Divorce


Facebook Page

Twitter: @exwifenewlife

Let’s Hear from an Expert: Maureen Tillman, Founder of College with Confidence

10475444_10153478110556844_5775376731084125317_o-3You are a Licensed Clinical Social Worker with 35 years of experience working with adolescents, families and adults. Why did you feel a particular need to support young adults and parents through the college experience, and into adulthood, with your practice, College with Confidence?

I created College with Confidence about 13 years ago when I experienced an increase in students coming to me for therapy, who had a crisis in college and needed to return home. The students were devastated and the parents were confused and extremely worried. I decided to create a proactive college transition service for high school students, as well as help college students become emotionally stable and resilient and decide on the best path from there. I have always felt dedicated to helping support people with transitions, feeling strongly that preparation creates confidence, going all the way back to my Master’s project in 1975: A handbook for new stepfamilies.

My underlying professional lens is suicide prevention. The high school to college transition is considered an at-risk transition. Teaching tools and skills to keep students from sinking as well as educating parents, school personnel, and the medical community about how to prepare for the transition is extremely valuable.


What skills do you feel teens need to have before leaving home for college, and how can parents support them in gaining these skills?

The life skills include: assertiveness/self-advocacy; coping with stress/anxiety/depression; being realistic about who you are; time management; financial literacy; healthy relationship with alcohol, drugs, food, and gambling; and resiliency.

There are many ways parents can help. The first step is taking off the bubble wrap to encourage your child’s independence. Make a date to spend time talking about the importance of preparing for the college transition, which is an opportunity for them to have a confident, happy, and successful experience. Go over the list of life skills with your son or daughter and discuss with them how the college transition is challenging for many—preparing in advance can make all the difference. They are going from a life where they have been supported and monitored by parents, teachers, and friends, into an environment where they will need to be largely self-reliant within an unstable community, full of other students also making difficult transitions.

Be supportive, honest, and specific about your concerns, whether it is with their stress level, lack of assertiveness with friends, or irritability. Discuss these issues with as much specificity as you can, presenting them with examples of the situations they might find themselves in, asking how they might improve upon areas they find challenging.

Plan to revisit how they are progressing.

If there is an area which you are concerned about, this is a time when you have some control over them getting help. When they get to college, there is little you can do to make this happen.



What should parents be on the lookout for as their teens’ departure from home approaches? 

Unusual anxiety, changes in eating and sleeping patterns, mood changes, changes in enjoyment levels, and self-destructive behaviors. Whenever concerned, never hesitate to consult with a professional.


For teens who have been in therapy or other treatment for emotional, psychological, or behavioral issues while in high school, how do you suggest they continue to receive the support they need when living in college, away from home?

This is a very serious concern. Hopefully some of the groundwork was done in choosing the college, in terms of fit and services. Once in, it is important to explore the services together, including the option of getting disability services for psychological issues—a support that many people don’t realize exists.

Students need to “own” their issues before going to college. Even if their chosen school has the best of services on campus, it doesn’t matter if the students don’t access these services and commit to responsibly using them. This is a highly individualized area that I am devoting myself to as a therapist and educator. It is important to note that many high school seniors are not ready or best served going away to college; they may benefit tremendously from attending a local college or taking a gap year.


What needs do you see for young adults as they move through college and into the workplace or further schooling?

I changed the name of my business to College with Confidence and Beyond a few years ago for this very reason—skill building and the creation of competent independence is ongoing. Parents, support their decision-making but stay out of it as much as you can. If you are discussing their lives and decisions, have them weigh the pros and cons and reflect on the consequences. Sometimes they just need to make mistakes and we need to sit back and let it happen. Hopefully they won’t be big mistakes and the learning will be invaluable.



How do you work with college-bound teens, their families, and young adults in your practice?

I work in person and remotely. I spend the majority of the time with the young adult, but there are times I see the parents alone for their concerns, or see the parent and student together. Whatever works!

I have a toolbox of techniques for helping students with life skill building, anxiety, stress, and depression relief.  Whether the student is transitioning to college from high school, or attending college, we create a success plan, identifying the key services and behaviors that are essential to their wellbeing.

One of my specialties is mindfulness meditation and I have been trained to do the only evidence-based program for emerging young adults: Koru Mindfulness Meditation. It is amazing for students who feel stress and anxiety, and can really help them to feel happier and more present. I also do webinars for parents.


Will you share examples of clients you worked with and how you helped them?

I’ll give you an example that has applied to a number of patients I’ve seen. Social anxiety is often an unrecognized problem for male teens and young adults who do well academically and at structured activities after school.

I find a lot of them glued to their video games and technology after school; they have little confidence and experience with initiating in their social life.

First, I help them identify the underlining reasons for their anxiety and support their challenges. I explore what approach they respond well to, including cognitive-behavioral therapy. The most important thing is that they begin to make changes here and now, in high school. When they are close to leaving, we create a college success plan, which I mentioned before. This starts with roommate communication, along with orientation, and joining groups. We keep in touch weekly and tweak the plan as needed. I have had tremendous success with this.

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This image represents a college success plan I created with a client who had a mixture of challenges going off to college, including anxiety, ADD, and academic hurtles. Starting on the top left, this plan includes contact with parents, regular exercise, getting involved, going for counseling, making friends, meeting professors during their office hours, healthy eating, taking meds, and going for tutoring and academic help. It may seem like common sense that these lifestyle choices are helpful to students, but during this period of transition, it can be incredibly difficult for them to follow through. That’s why planning ahead and monitoring their progress is so important.


What are some of your favorite resources for young adults and their parents preparing for the transition away from home?


Emerging Adulthood: The Winding Road from the Late Teens Through the Twenties by Jeffrey Jensen Arnett

Letting Go (Fifth Edition): A Parents’ Guide to Understanding the College Years by Karen Coburn and Madge Traeger

College of the Overwhelmed: The Campus Mental Health Crisis and What to Do About It by Richard Kadison and Theresa DiGeronimo

The Launching Years: Strategies for Parenting from Senior Year to College Life by Laura Kastner and Jennifer Wyatt

It’s So Much Work to Be Your Friend: Helping the Child with Learning Disabilities Find Social Success by Richard Lavoie

What to Do When College Is Not the Best Time of Your Life by David Liebow

Making the Most of College: Students Speak Their Mindss by Richard Light

The Blessing of a B Minus: Using Jewish Teachings to Raise Resilient Teenagers by Wendy Mogel

The Overachievers: The Secret Lives of Driven Kids by Alexandra Robbins

Surviving an Eating Disorder: Strategies for Family and Friends by Michelle Siegel and Judith Brisman

Life After High School: A Guide for Students With Disabilities and Their Families by Susan Yellin and Christina Bertsch

Moving to College: What to Do, What to Learn, What to Pack by Hélène Tragos Stelian


Other Resources:

The Chronicle of Higher Education features interesting articles such as this one: “Students Who Feel Emotionally Unprepared for College Struggle in the Classroom.”

Koru evidence-based meditation for college aged adults.

Grown and Flown blog covering issues related to raising kids ages 15-25.

American College Health Association.

TeenHealthFX is a website for teens on any and all questions re. health, relationships, body, and sexuality.

The Jed Foundation is the nation’s leading organization working to promote emotional health and prevent suicide among college students.


Contact Maureen Tillman at mtillmanlcsw@gmail.com or 973-267- 5586

College with Confidence and Beyond

Psychology Today

Facebook Page

Twitter: @MaureenPTillman



Maureen Price Tillman, L.C.S.W. received a Masters in Social Work from the University of Pennsylvania in 1975, and has worked as a psychotherapist with adolescents, adults, and families ever since.

Thirteen years ago, she founded College with Confidence. The focus of this psychotherapy, consultation, education, and training service is to address and support the mental health challenges of adolescents transitioning into and throughout college, and moving toward adulthood. Maureen has a private practice with offices in Morristown and Maplewood, New Jersey. She and her husband Wayne’s two children are married, one living in Los Angeles and the other in Mexico City, and they have a new grandbaby in Los Angeles.


Launching a Program to Empower Purposeful Retirement: Eva’s Story

unspecified-8When an unexpected illness hit her daughter, Eva chose to reconsider her path and craft the second half of her life in a way that’s true to her passions. She has launched Indigo, a VIP membership club that connects older adults with opportunities, experiences, and connections that enable them to thrive.

Tell us a little about your background.

My dad, mom, sister, and I emigrated from India to the United States when I was four. We entered the U.S. with four suitcases, a little bit of cash, propelled by my parents’ dream to make a better life for my sister and me. We started out in the Cleveland area and then settled in in the suburbs of Chicago where my parents assimilated us into the culture while continuing to keep our Indian values and customs as an integral part of our upbringing.

I was lucky to spend my growing up years learning and doing many different activities and exploring options. I spent time dancing, in gymnastics, and found an interest in science. I dove into those passions with a great deal of support and encouragement from my parents. I attended the University of Chicago for my undergraduate degree and then went on to pursue a master’s degree in health administration at the University of Wisconsin – Madison.

Throughout my experience in college and graduate school, I was always the one who was craving to do something just a little different. When my peers in graduate school were becoming hospital administrators, I gravitated to the opportunities that were challenging how the health care system worked and trying new ways of solving the problems being faced by providers, patients, and employers. The entrepreneur flame was definitely sparked and only sparked because people opened doors for me, gave some structure to my thinking, and encouraged me to explore.

I have had some wonderful experiences, met crazy smart people along the way, and have had the opportunity to nurture two kids who helped me grow more than I feel like I have helped them!


With my mom, sister, and cousins in India—before our move to the US


When did you start to think about making a change?

Over the last few years, I was with a large company working and learning a great deal about managing and growing a complex business and building teams. While I enjoyed the experience, I was feeling the pull to be part of an entrepreneurial venture.

When I turned 50, my husband and I had a curve ball thrown our way with our daughter. Literally overnight, her health changed and we were navigating doctors, lots of questions, tests, confusion, and uncertainty. We were super fortunate to have support and guidance from so many people to figure out the issue and get to work to help her. It became a time for me to consider what was important and think about how to spend the second half of my adulthood in the most meaningful way possible.


What is your next act?

unspecified-1I am the co-founder of Indigo, a membership club that provides older people with a genuine purpose in their lives—not just something to keep them busy, but opportunities, experiences, and connections that enable them to thrive. You pay a monthly fee for personalized, expert support and guidance, for yourself or as a gift for someone you love. At Indigo, we believe that there is more to retirement than fading away. We reject the traditional narrative about aging and the expectation that we just step aside. Instead, our “Second Adulthood” is a time to thrive.

Recent research tells us that leading a purpose-filled life is a new model to sustain physical and cognitive health. Intuitively, we’ve sensed this for generations, but now the data are confirming that intuition. Indigo is a membership club delivering personalized items to thrive in our Second Adulthood. The collection of items is a survival kit to advance good physical and cognitive health, attend to financial security, and promote independence, fun, and fulfillment.


Each member is matched with an Indigo Insider, who identifies their preferences, style, and priorities. Indigo then delivers a handpicked package of activities, products, and experiences, designed to surprise and delight, delivered to the person’s door. Each month, new additions to our members’ Thrival Kits provide additional insights, tools, opportunities, and connections. The kit contains the “kindling” to spark new interests, reconnect with talents and experience, stay informed, and optimize vitality.

Our Thrival Kits are personalized to our members. To get an idea of what might be in a Thrival Kit, here is the story of Kelly, who worked with one of our Indigo Insiders.


Kelly is getting ready to retire from her work as a teacher. She recently sold the home where she raised her daughter and has moved to a new community. Kelly has been a conservationist her whole life—she’s been involved in lots of environmental projects in her local area. Kelly loves traveling to learn about new places and to contribute to efforts to protect the planet as she explores. She’s always been physically fit, and she’s certainly not too worried about the recent back pain she’s experienced. Her first stop after retirement is the Amazon rainforest. Kelly wants to stay engaged and active once she retires.

Kelly’s first Thrival Kit included:

  • Access to a course on sustainability and ecology: An online course exploring the major ecological issues within the rainforest.
  • Photo postcard printing package: An online service to make and print 20 postcards with personal photos that can be sent to friends and family.
  • Pre-travel mobility assessment: An assessment with a mobility expert and a customized in-home program to optimize mobility and joint performance.
  • The book 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus— A unique perspective of the Americas before the arrival of Columbus.


Later Thrival kits might include: A package of life coaching sessions, matching Kelly to a volunteer opportunity to teach kids about sustainability and apply lessons learned when she travels, a webinar about writing a blog, and a discount on the Learning Garden Shoe (proceeds go to funding a learning garden for a child via The Kitchen Community)

For other examples, check out Melissa’s Thrival Kit and Stewart’s Thrival Kit.


Why did you choose this next act?
I’ve spent my career at the intersection of healthcare and technology in early-stage and market-leading healthcare companies. I’ve addressed lots of challenging problems related to how healthcare works. And I’ve experienced the limits we all face addressing health and well-being issues as we get older.

These limits have become even clearer as I’ve watched members of my own family (my mom, my father-in-law) navigate the aging process and come to terms with curve-balls that have come their way. And yet I see them on a daily quest to explore new talents and build new skills, to remain curious about the world around them, and to make meaningful contributions. This has been truly inspirational to me.

Now that I’ve seen what is possible, through my family and the amazing individuals we’ve met on the road to developing Indigo, I’m moved to help build a better approach to healthy living and have joined a team to create Indigo. Throughout the transitions in my life, I have benefitted from great support, guidance and role models that showed me where to look and how to approach new directions. There is so much more to do as we age and I want to help people understand where to start and find just the right inspiration to jumpstart their second adulthood.


Mountain biking in Colorado

I have always wanted to try my hand at building a venture from a glimmer of an idea and to work with people who I admire greatly and enjoy being around. Starting a new venture gave me the most flexibility to shape what I was doing and how. I was very passionate about how some transitions in life occur and how they can take over your own health and those of your loved ones as you are trying to overcome/survive/solve the challenges that come along with that transition or event. I considered taking a leadership position in a well-established company as well as doing consulting work as alternatives along the way, but truly believed there was a real need to solve problems for individuals who were going through life transitions as they age.


Our team meeting with international Myers-Briggs expert


How hard has it been to get Indigo off the ground?
It was a difficult process to move forward with starting a new venture. There are many stories of how people don’t succeed. One of the greatest lessons I have learned in my life is that success comes from surrounding yourself with people you enjoy combined with a strong belief in your idea and confidence in yourself. While creating a new venture is risky and tumultuous, I have been fortunate to be doing it with friends and colleagues who are incredible.

We prepared carefully by researching the market, talking with as many people as we could, and trying to truly understand the problems that people were having as they age. And, most importantly, testing different iterations of our idea quickly to see what resonated. Through this deliberate (and not so easy) journey, we were able to understand our potential customers in a deeper way.


Early customer development discussions in Denver


How supportive have your family and friends been?

My family and friends have been incredibly supportive. They are interested in understanding the venture and contributing their ideas, resources, and time to helping me and my teammates at Indigo be successful. It has been fun to see not only my family, but also my friends, get excited about the business and make connections and want to be involved in advancing our ideas.


My family


What challenges are you encountering?

Along the way, there have been a number of challenges and I anticipate a number more to come! I think the secret is to view each challenge as a way to learn more and dig deeper into understanding the customer.

Business challenges: Since the company is focused on developing a new solution, there are no clear answers and we had to make many mistakes as we went and know we will continue to make many more mistakes. Having a “fail fast, learn and try again” rhythm has been our way of operating and it has not always been easy.

Personal challenges: I have worked in early stage companies throughout my career, but my most recent experience was with a large organization in which I had the benefit of many people working together to divide up tasks and problem-solve as well as easy access to so many talented people and skills. In a start-up, you have to depend on yourself to wear multiple hats, learn new skills quickly, and stretch resources as far as possible. This type of framework has, at times, put a dent in my confidence, but the reward of learning and making things happen with a small team to create something new has been exhilarating.


With my Indigo co-founders Craig and Amy, and our first test kit


Were there times when you thought about giving up?

Oh yes! But, I think this is a normal part of the process when you jump into doing something different or new. There are always doubts or questions, which I have bounced against why I am doing what I am doing; this helps me to keep moving forward. And, I would not be able to work through those bumps without the partners I have in the venture and my family to support me along the way.

I have learned that it is never too late to expand your skills and learn something new, and I have found out how energizing it is to take something on that I have not done before.


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

I like to move rapidly and do not take the time to savor the moments and enjoy the process as much as I should. I need to share more detail and daily progress—no matter how seemingly insignificant it may be—with people in my inner circle (family and friends), as that is what makes the bumps easier to get through and allows you to not only solve the challenging issues more effectively, but enjoy the successes with others.


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

Find your support team. You have to have people around you who can talk you off the ledge, be a sounding board for your ideas and plans, and make connections for you that you might not have thought about. It is especially important to find those people who advise you on how your ideas/thoughts might be possible versus those individuals who tell you it just will not work.

Discover what makes you tick and start there. Think about what you used to like to do when you were younger, what you always wanted to do, and what areas make you light up.

Try many options before committing to one path. Don’t settle into one path immediately. Experiment with a few opportunities, activities, and experiences and explore. You might learn something new about yourself and your interests along the way.

Operate in shorter time horizons. Sometimes it is difficult to get started if the goal you set is far away. Set your sights on more short-term wins and develop a cadence that helps you celebrate and learn each week.

Be confident and believe in yourself. Once you discover what you are interested in pursuing, jump in all the way and don’t look back. I have seen my sister pursue a new career at the start of her second adulthood. She dove in, made sacrifices, and is now on a path to doing what she really enjoys. My mom spent her first adulthood raising me and my sister and then went to college to become an accountant in her second adulthood. I am now learning from both of them as I have started my new path.


At Malley Senior Center Aging Expo


What resources do you recommend?

The Four Steps to the Epiphany by Steve Blank — A fantastic foundational book on starting a new venture and understanding your customer.

Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End by Atul Gawande — A very insightful way to think about end of life and aging in general written by a physician.

Creative Confidence: Unleashing the Creative Potential Within Us All by Tom Kelley

What Do You Do With an Idea? by Kobi Yamada

Senior Planet — An incredible resource for learning about technology for people in their second adulthood.

This Chair Rocks: A Manifesto Against Ageism by Ashton Applewhite — A great summary of issues related to ageism and aging in our culture

The First Round Review — An electronic newsletter highlighting experts and how they address a variety of issues/challenges within their businesses.

10% Happier: How I Tamed the Voice in My Head, Reduced Stress Without Losing My Edge, and Found Self-Help That Actually Works–A True Story by Dan Harris –This was book that I really wanted to put down and not finish, but something about it kept me going. It features helpful thoughts on meditation and staying calm and sane through the chaos of starting something new.

The Family Cooks: 100+ Recipes to Get Your Family Craving Food That’s Simple, Tasty, and Incredibly Good for You by Laurie David — Eating well in times of transition can be hard. This is my favorite recent cookbook to nourish the body.


How can my readers learn more about Indigo?

unspecifiedPlease check out our website or call us at 844-463-4466. We’d love to have you on board.

We have a special introductory offer to sign-up with Indigo, available to the first 100 members only! The introductory offer is for 12 weeks at $23 per week and is billed monthly.

And we have a special promotional code, just for Next Act for Women readers. Simply apply the INDIGO25NAFW coupon code at checkout and you’ll receive 25% off your Indigo membership!

And we are pleased to announce a partnership with Hélène Stelian, Life Coach and Founder of Next Act For Women, to offer life coaching to Indigo members who could benefit, based on their goals and interests. These Indigo members will receive a 30-minute complimentary life coaching session and discounted packages on future coaching sessions, available via Thrival Kits.


Contact Eva Vyas at eva@helloindigo.com


Facebook Page


Twitter: @indigo_hello


Hosting Equine-Assisted Therapy Retreats for Midlife Women: Margaretha’s Story

445A narrow escape from a charging stallion would cement Margaretha’s love of horses, but it would take her deteriorating eyesight after 20 years as a medical doctor for Margaretha to combine that love with her therapeutic training—and begin hosting transformational retreats in the Gascony region of France.


Tell us about your background.

I can remember the exact place and time I fell in love with a horse. I was 10 years old and lived with my family in a small village, not far from Versaillles, about 30 minutes from the heart of Paris, in France. My brother and I walked to school every morning; there was a huge meadow that we were supposed to avoid at all cost, but being the sort of adventurous children we were, never did. Each time, we climbed through the fencing and cut across the field. It shortened our walk by at least 10 minutes, which we appreciated on freezing winter mornings.


With my brother as children

We were walking across the meadow one misty winter morning, frost crunching under our boots, when I first came face to face with a horse, a pitch-black and very bad-tempered stallion—most unexpectedly, as the field had never been occupied before. This was clearly the reason why we had been told to avoid the meadow. Said stallion was not impressed by finding unexpected intruders, even though they were midgets, on his private property. He took one angry look at us and promptly charged. I could feel the drumming of his hooves on the frozen earth through my feet as he came at us at full gallop.

I think I cried something like “Sauve qui peut!,” quite unnecessarily, as my brother was already running like hell towards the fence. With my own heart beating desperately in my ears, I followed suit, literally diving through the fence to the relative safety of a deep roadside ditch.

Scrambling out of the ditch, I turned to look around and what I saw took what little breath I had left away completely. There he stood, furiously pawing the ground, tossing his mane and swishing his tail. Such beauty! Such power! I immediately decided that I wanted a horse of my own, a horse just like him.


The stallion in question

Apart from occasional encounters like the one above, horses were regretfully neither part of my childhood, nor of my early adulthood. I was too busy studying and dating. At 23, by then married three years, I was awarded my medical degree. I had always wanted to be a doctor, and I especially wanted to help women, so I started post-graduate studies in Obstetrics and Gynecology. Three years later, disaster struck.

One day, after a full morning of gynecological surgery, it suddenly felt as if someone was repeatedly stabbing me in my left eye with a very sharp, red-hot knife. It was so painful that I fainted and was promptly admitted to the very same hospital where I had just that morning been operating on patients. Thus began a 20+ year struggle to preserve my sight, a battle that has resulted in complete loss of sight in my left eye and only 40% vision left in my right eye. Luckily, my sight deteriorated slowly, over many years, and even though I could no longer operate, I was able to work in in a variety of disciplines over the years, including Psychiatry, a discipline I found nearly as fascinating as Gynecology.



When did you start to think about making a change?

As I was nearing my forties, because of my eye problems, it was becoming clear that I would not be able to work as a doctor for that much longer. In all honesty, this was far from the tragedy it could have been, as I was starting to feel more and more frustrated with the limitations of my profession. I spent most days treating diseases caused or worsened by stress. I felt more and more that I should be focusing on the prevention of these diseases, rather than try and pick up the pieces after prolonged stress had permanently damaged my patients’ physical and mental health.

I started looking at alternative options, ways to prevent stress damaging my patients’ health, without medication. I studied hypnosis and hypnotherapy and qualified as a medical hypnotherapist at Birkbeck College in London. I spent several years exploring alternative options, including Neuro-Linguistic Programming (I am a certified NLP practitioner).

When I was 42, the real breakthrough came. It all started with a book I read: The Tao of Equus: A Woman’s Journey of Healing and Transformation through the Way of the Horse by Linda Kohanov. In this book, I discovered a completely new and extremely promising stress management strategy called equine-assisted psychotherapy.

You see, I had never forgotten that encounter in the meadow. I always yearned for a black horse of my own, but working full time as a doctor, I just never had the time to make this happen.

Equine-assisted psychotherapy offered me the possibility of owning my horse, while at the same time presenting me with an effective method of helping my patients dramatically reduce their stress levels. This realization convinced me that it was time to take the plunge and change careers.


Riding with my husband


What is your next act?

logoI host transformational retreats for women, called “Radical Midlife Renaissance Retreats,” lasting 3, 5, or 7 days, sometimes longer, depending on client preferences. These retreats aim to provide women with the skills and tools they will need to make radical changes in the second part of their lives, should they desire to do so, while empowering them to cope expertly with the stress involved in making such huge changes.

During the retreats, our guests are introduced to stress-management strategies, including mindfulness and various forms of meditation. We introduce our guests to walking meditation (with the horses), writing meditation (about the horses), working meditation (grooming the horses), coloring meditation (horse pictures, what else?) and several other meditation techniques. The idea is that they choose a way to meditate that they can seamlessly incorporate into their daily lives, once they return home.


To help our guests change their lives, we use equine-assisted experiential learning. This helps to:

  • dramatically increase their self-confidence and assertiveness
  • communicate more efficiently and with more assurance
  • appreciate their unique attractiveness, just as they are now
  • strengthen and deepen relationships, especially with their significant others
  • establish new, more worthwhile and rewarding relationships
  • eradicate limiting beliefs that keep them from fully enjoying life
  • cope with typical midlife challenges: an empty nest, a stagnant relationship, aging parents, a painful separation, a nasty divorce, insecurity about dating, a redundancy, a career change (wanted or unwanted), hormonal changes, and new physical limitations
  • get rid of unhealthy habits and limiting beliefs and discover how full of opportunities and possibilities midlife can be
  • develop more successful problem-solving skills
  • deal effectively with stress, thus avoiding potential damage to their mental and physical health

These are all skills that are essential to women planning to make major changes in their lives.


Even our location of Les Sources Sacrées lends itself to inspiring retreats for midlife women. Here in France, women continue to be respected and revered for their beauty, talent, and continuing contribution to society well into their 50s, 60s, 70s and even 80s (think Catherine Deneuve, Isabelle Adjani, Brigitte Bardot). And here in Gascony, people live longer than in any other part of France, longer even than in most other parts of Europe, while retaining their mental and physical health. According to Professor Roger Corder, this longevity is due to the anti-aging effects of Madiran, a feisty red wine made from the grapes grown in the local vineyards.

Personally, I am not convinced that is the only reason. I think it is equally due to the love of good food, good wine, and good company of the inhabitants of our region. At midlife, most people often become acutely aware of the need to maintain their mental and physical health, so we expose our guests as much as possible to this way of living. The retreat includes a tutored wine tasting tour to some of the most famous Madiran vineyards (my husband’s first act was about buying and selling wine and he has a diploma from the Wine and Spirit Education Trust) and visiting a typical French fresh fruit and vegetable market.


Who are your clients?

My clients come from all over the world: We have had Americans, Canadians, Australians, South- Africans, Russians, Chinese and of course people from various European countries. Most are 30 years and older; my oldest client was 77 years old at the time of the retreat. The retreats are conducted in English, as this is the language most of our clients have in common, but I also speak French, Dutch, and a fair amount of German, which is helpful to make clients from those countries feel at home.

Most of my clients come here with one thing in mind and that is to get away from the stress of their everyday lives. They want to spend a week or so in the south of France, somewhere beautiful but also safe and secluded, where they can take time to re-think their lives. Most are also keen to find a way to handle stress more effectively and as this is where the horses come in, the clients are happy to work with them. Most of my clients are not seriously into horses; they may always have admired horses from afar but never had time to pursue that interest. Others are downright scared of horses and come on retreat to overcome their fears, including their fear of horses.



What do you love about hosting these retreats?

It is difficult to know where to start. Obviously, I love working with the horses and I love working in such beautiful surroundings, but it is the little things that mean the most to me:

I love seeing midlife women lift their heads, stand tall, and look people straight in the eye, no longer invisible or insecure.

I love meeting so many exceptional women and being able to contribute even in the smallest way to the success of their new ventures.

I love the easy camaraderie during the retreats and the way women instinctively support each other and often forge long-term friendships while on retreat.

I love it when the faces of midlife women light up with the realization that they are as attractive and appreciated as they have always been.

I love seeing hitherto quiet and insecure women handle humongous horses with ease and assurance.

I love receiving e-mails, months and even years after the retreats, keeping me up to date with these women’s continuing progress.



How did you make your dream a reality?

To make my next act a reality, I had to make a lot of changes. In 2007, I resigned from my comfortable position as a general practitioner and started studying equine-assisted psychotherapy and experiential learning through EAGALA (Equine-assisted Growth and Learning Association). I went from a substantial monthly income to no income. It was also clear that my marriage of nearly 20 years was over, so I filed for divorce and, when the divorce came through, married my current husband.

I bought my first two horses. I sold my gorgeous farm in the Pays de la Loire, in France, and moved to the United Kingdom with my new husband and my two horses, leaving all my friends and family behind. Only to promptly move back to the south of France nine months and one very, very cold and wet winter later—husband, house, horses, and all.

During this time of change, I thought a lot about my next act. I still wanted to work with women, mainly, and I was still obsessed with the prevention of stress-induced and stress- related diseases, one way or another.

I had a good look at my strengths: my education and extensive experience (by then I had been in medical practice for nearly 20 years), especially in Psychiatry. I had a good look at my weaknesses and limitations, especially my inability to work with the same intensity as I did when I was still a doctor, in order to slow down the deterioration of my sight. I looked around me to see what I could work with and found one hugely supportive husband, one magnificent Friesian mare, a drop-dead gorgeous Spanish stallion, and an overwhelming conviction that equine-assisted psychotherapy could be the most powerful agent for change in people’s lives that I have ever encountered.


We also were very fortunate to have enough money to put down a deposit on a property that would house us and our growing equine family (the above-mentioned mare had managed to get herself pregnant by then) in a part of France we absolutely adored: Gascony, in the foothills of the majestic Pyrénées Mountains, on the border of France and Spain.

My husband and I had long discussions about how we could best use equine-assisted psychotherapy and experiential learning (he also trained with EAGALA, as an equine expert) to help people manage stress. We finally settled on running retreats, not just relaxing, but also transformational retreats—initially mostly with our friends, who were working in London and Paris, in mind. We realized that many of our friends yearn to live a more laid- back, creative and meaningful life, a life more in alignment with their unique talents, values, and ideals; but no matter how much they desire to change the way they live, they are so stressed and so busy trying to hold everything together that they end up resigning themselves to never being able to be who they really want to be.

We wanted to offer our super-stressed friends somewhere to escape to from the challenges and demands of their daily lives, where they could relax and recharge their batteries. More than that, we wanted to equip them with the skills and tools they would need to manage stress effectively once they returned home and so avoid the physical and mental harm prolonged stress could do to their health. We wanted to enable them to live the healthier, happier, more rewarding and more fulfilling lives that they deserved.




How did you decide where to locate your retreat?

Finding the perfect home for our retreats was the most difficult part of realizing my next act. It took us 11 months to find the ideal property. Negotiating the sale took another four months. Finally, it was ours: an authentic, 300-year-old half-timbered Landaise farmhouse, partially renovated, with 22 acres of lush green meadows for the horses (crucially important). The house is idyllically located among vineyards, woods, orchards and meadows. The property came with a 2-acre fishing lake, fed by six constant springs and a small stream. We fell hook line and sinker for it the very first day we saw it and had to fight tooth and nail to make it ours.

Why did we want it so badly? Les Sources Sacrées is not only perfect for our family’s needs, it is also an ancient site of healing, possibly dating as far back as the Roman occupation of France—the six springs feeding the lake are reputed to have healing properties. For centuries, pilgrims on the St Jacques de Compostelle pilgrims’ route would make a detour to Les Sources Sacrées to drink water from its springs and pray in its chapel. The house was also very well suited to our retreat plan: Apart from the original farmhouse, there was also a fully renovated barn, with ample accommodations for our family, friends, and retreat guests, giving our visitors 24/7 access to their own kitchen, with a large open plan sitting/dining area and a delightful little front porch.


After 15 months of boarding our horses, welcoming them to their new home was one of the happiest moments of my life. Our little herd had grown by then. We still had Belle de la Babinière, my stunningly beautiful Friesian mare, although she now had competition in the beauty stakes from her daughter, Aurore d’Alegria, and from her half-sister, Tess des Sources Sacrées. There was also Le Duc d’Alegria, Aurileo d’Alegria (our little rescue horse) and Baggio van’t Kushti Grai, a drop-dead-gorgeous Gypsy Vanner stallion.

Six months of painstaking renovation later, everything was ready for my next act. The plan was to introduce our guests to mindfulness meditation (I discovered the extensive benefits of mindfulness and meditation during the 15 months of waiting) to help them deal with stress and to equine-assisted experiential learning to help them develop skills that will enable them to cope with stress in the future.



Why did you choose this next act?

I chose hosting transformational retreats as my next act because this enabled me to combine my medical education and experience with my conviction that horses have an innate ability to help people manage stress.

Initially, I considered various options: women’s retreats, couples retreats, mother- daughter retreats, teen retreats, corporate retreats… But I only really felt inspired by the concept of empowering women’s retreats. I had once again a good look around me and found that midlife, with all its challenges and opportunities, had undeniably arrived—for my husband, for myself and for my soulmare, Belle de la Babinière.

I decided that I wanted to focus on hosting retreats for women in midlife and once I made that decision, everything else fell into place. I created the retreat so effortlessly it felt as if it was creating itself—a retreat that would enable and empower women to cope with—no, not just to cope with, but to thrive on—the challenges and changes of midlife.



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

Taking the plunge was not hard at all. It was clear to me that change would be inevitable and that the best I could do was to be as thoroughly prepared for it as possible. I prepared by doing research (see below).

Coping with the fall-out was a bit more difficult. It took me a long time to get used to not being a doctor anymore. For many, many years, my identity was firmly entwined with my work and with the privileges that came with the job description. It took me a long time to forge a new identity that I was comfortable with. I finally settled on Equine-assisted Experiential Learning Coach. Over time I managed to integrate my medical background into who I am. I now refer, tongue-in-cheek, to myself as a reformed MD.

Charles shares his wine knowlege

My husband


How supportive were your family and friends?

Extremely supportive, but as most of my friends and family were far away, for immediate and day-to-day support, I initially depended mostly on my husband and on my horses. Apart from being my number one supporter and springboard, my husband looks after the practical side of things during a retreat. He is responsible for ensuring that everything runs smoothly: that guests are transported to/from the farm, that horses are assembled in time for the EEL sessions, that the meals are ready on time, that house, garden, and lake are in top condition… Sometimes I think he works harder than I do! He is also the tour guide for the tutored wine tasting tours.

We soon made friends. The Gascon people are easygoing and welcoming. They certainly love their food (Gascony is famous for its gastronomy) and we spend many Sunday lunches happily getting to know the neighbors, after attending Mass in the village church. Also, people with horses tend to integrate into a farming community very quickly, and having the three Friesian mares on the yard made us popular with young and old in no time.

I also received masses of support online, especially when I started blogging, but even before that, from members of the various Facebook groups I belong to. 


Participating in community activities


What challenges did you encounter?

My biggest challenge was marketing the retreats. Marketing is not a course taught at medical school; on the contrary, any form of self-promotion is frowned upon. One can even lose one’s license to practice medicine should one venture down this path. I had no marketing experience in whatsoever. I had a product to sell, but I did not know how to sell it.

I started by advertising our retreats online, on the various retreat-promoting websites. This was a complete waste of time and money. I learned, the hard way, that marketing in the 21 century is all about creating relationships.


My “office”

Luckily, the whole concept of getting to know people before inviting them to our retreats appealed to me. I find it much easier to talk to people I know about what I do than to talk about it to total strangers. Admittedly, I am so passionate about helping women not only survive, but thrive, during midlife and about inspiring them to look after themselves physically and mentally as they get older, that I would easily stop strangers on a street corner to talk about it. Inviting those people to come on retreat to Les Sources Sacrées, well, that is not something I could ever bring myself to do. What I can do is talk to people online about making the most of midlife—and if they are interested in retreats, refer them to my website.

Putting myself into my clients’ shoes also helped a lot. I realized and learned from personal experience that going on a retreat is an expensive business. Not only does one have to pay for the retreat itself, but there are also travel and insurance costs to cover. Personally, I would not be willing to fork out that much money to go on a retreat with someone I had never met and knew nothing about. The more information potential guests have at their disposal, and the better they know the retreat leader, the more likely they are going to feel comfortable about paying for the retreat.


Working with a client


Were there times when you thought about giving up?

Of course. Starting a new business, with practically no idea of what running a business is about, nor about how to market it, was no easy undertaking. I made mistakes. I often felt like giving up. Especially when yet another thing went wrong with my eyes. What gets me through these dark times is my Christian faith and the support of my husband, my horses, my family, and my friends (on- and off-line).


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

Ask yourself this one question: “Do I want to live like this for the rest of my life, the next thirty, forty, or fifty years?” If the answer is no, then it is time for a change. Don’t overthink it. Just do it.

But make sure you are fully prepared before you take the first step. I prepared by reading motivating and inspiring books and blogs – like Next Act for Women!

Books I recommend:

Awaken the Giant Within : How to Take Immediate Control of Your Mental, Emotional, Physical and Financial Destiny! and Unleash the Power Within: Personal Coaching from Anthony Robbins That Will Transform Your Life! by Tony Robbins. You can read my all-time favorite Tony Robbins quotes HERE.

A Course In Miracles by Marianne Williamson

The Purpose Driven Life: What on Earth Am I Here For? by Rick Warren

The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You’re Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are by Brené Brown

Feel the Fear . . . and Do It Anyway by Susan Jeffers

Simple Abundance: A Daybook of Comfort and Joy by Sarah Ban Breathnach

Finding Your Own North Star: Claiming the Life You Were Meant to Live and Steering by Starlight: The Science and Magic of Finding Your Destiny by Martha Beck

Self-Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself by Kristin Neff


I suggest that you surround yourself with unconditional supporters. You may come across a fair amount of opposition and, the more outrageous the change you intend to make, the stronger the opposition is going to be. Especially from your close friends and family. That’s OK, they are only trying to protect you from getting hurt. Go online and join groups of like-minded women. Talk to them. Listen to them. Learn from them. Or start a blog. Personally, it is from the people who read my blog that I get the most support and the best advice.

Practice mindfulness and meditation to preserve your sanity. The traditional form of sitting meditation does not suit me, I prefer to meditate while I am grooming the horses. I usually end my meditation by making a list of the things that I am grateful for.




What advice do you have for those interested in hosting transformational retreats?

This is a very competitive field. I would advise those interested in hosting retreats to choose a specific segment of the market, as I chose to host retreats for midlife women. Then create a retreat that will solve a specific problem in your target market, as I chose to empower midlife women who want to start over at midlife. The retreat should have a specific theme: Mine is to encourage our guests to make changes that will ensure the rest of their lives are long, healthy, and as stress-less as possible. The location and activities should complement the theme; our retreat is located in a region where people live long, healthy, and low-stress lives, and we show our guests how they can live similar lives through our activities. A unique selling point is also rather important, to have something that no, or few other, retreats offer; in our case, it is the opportunity we offer our guests to change themselves and their lives with the help of our horses.

Marketing a retreat correctly is also essential. I would suggest potential retreat hosts focus on creating relationships on- and off-line and on creating an e-mail list, rather than advertising their retreats directly. It can also be beneficial to work with someone who does have a list and who would be willing to promote your retreats to their list—in return for a free retreat, for example.

Finally, outrageous service, always providing more than guests expect, right from the very first contact, is the way to distinguish your retreat.


Waiting to welcome my guests

Waiting to welcome my guests


What other resources do you recommend?

Equine-assisted Experiential Learning

Anyone interested in equine-assisted psychotherapy and experiential learning should visit the EAGALA website and if you are interested in a qualification in this fast growing field, I highly recommend their training program. Their Level I and II certificates for mental health workers and horse experts alike are respected globally.

As this is an emerging field, I suggest you also join one or more Facebook groups where therapists discuss the problems they encounter. I am a member of the group Equine Assisted & Facilitated Practitioners Network hosted by Claire Misson.

I also recommend that you keep abreast of newly published research and articles by liking a Facebook page or two where this sort of research is regularly published. I do so on my own page Meditation Workshops with Horses and I read the Windhorse Wisdom Equine Facilitated Learning & Coaching page to keep up to date.

There are several books to read on the subject now, but my favorite remains Horse Sense and the Human Heart: What Horses Can Teach Us About Trust, Bonding, Creativity and Spirituality by Adele McCormick.

Transformational Retreats

If you are interested in running retreats, I would recommend my friend Stafford Whiteaker’s book The Good Retreat Guide: Over 500 Places to Find Peace and Spiritual Renewal in Britain, Ireland, France, Spain, Italy, Greece, Other European Countries, Asia and Africa. He is a world-renowned authority on retreats and personally visited our retreat to suggest improvements.

Also useful is Sheri Rosenthal’s The Retreat Blueprint Training Program. The program is a bit expensive, but you can learn a lot from the free introductory webinar.

The Facebook group Wellness Retreat Owners hosted by Nicola Williams Smith is also very useful.




What’s next for you?

I have decided to host Mindful Eating for Weight Loss Retreats again this year. I last did this in 2013 and it was very popular. It seems like it is going to be again – within 1 hour of putting the page up this weekend I had more than 2500 views and several inquiries!

I am currently working on a follow-up program for our retreat guests. All the information we provide during the retreat remains available to our retreat guests on our website after the retreats—we have at least 60 informative webpages online now—but several guests have asked if we could provide some sort of support immediately after the retreat, to help them implement what they have learned and remain on track. My idea is to offer a 3/6/12 month coaching program. Guests are always welcome to join us for repeat retreats and many do, but online coaching will provide support for those who need it immediately after and between retreats.

Paying it forward is also a very important concept to me. I am convinced that we are no more than the guardians, the temporary caretakers, of this 300+ year old house, the land surrounding it, the lake and the springs, and that we have a sacred responsibility to ensure its intact survival for the generations to come. With this in mind, we are serious about sustainable tourism. Also, we value the support of our community very highly and we invest in our community by using equine-assisted experiential learning to help eradicate bullying in local schools and to provide nursing home residents here with physical as well as mental stimulation. We also support various horse rescue charities and we intermittently foster abused horses. We rescued Aurileo d’Alegria from slaughter, literally on his way to the abattoir.

My next substantial project will be to take the show on the road. I have already presented workshops in various other countries, but I have never taken our retreat in its current shape and form to another location. I have a good friend in the United Kingdom, who has the facilities and the horses that would make this possible. I am planning a retreat there in the fall of this year and, if that goes well, I would like to travel even further afield.


Contact Margaretha Montagu at MargarethaMontagu@gmail.com



Facebook Pages:

Midlife Mavericks 

Meditation Workshops with Horses

Twitter: @EquineGuidedMD

Pinterest: Margaretha’s Muse



Founding a Nonprofit to Support Caregivers: Lisa’s Story

Lisa most current headshot (1)Lisa completed both a college degree and a graduate degree in Counseling Psychology in midlife. With her father’s passing, and his inspiration, she chose to use her gifts to launch a nonprofit helping the unsung heroes who care for the ill and the elderly.


Tell us a little about your background…

I grew up in a neighborhood of Pittsburgh called Westwood, the youngest of six children. My parents founded and managed a roofing company, where I learned the value of a work ethic. At times, my father would have my sister and me help with cleaning up the shingles that were ripped off the roof—whatever fell into the yard or bushes, that didn’t make the dumpster. We would also clean his shop. I also learned from my mother, who ran the business from the office, and her many organizational skills; at times, she would have me help with sealing and stamping envelopes.

Werwie Picture

My father was an avid outdoorsman and we spent many hours in the summertime at a cottage near Pymatuning Lake, in Espyville, Pennsylvania. Learning to explore the creeks, trails, and lakes of that area gave me a love for nature and all things growing.

I am still married to the wonderful man I married at 19; Chuck is the complete opposite of my free spirit but recognizes my need for constant exploration and an ever changing identity. Marrying young and moving to Arizona helped shape who I am today. In Arizona, Chuck was in school full time studying aeronautical engineering while I owned and operated a daycare, driven by the need to work but the desire to not put my first two children in daycare.

Wedding 1982

By 27, we were back in Pittsburgh, having had two additional children. I started a small embroidery business out of our home and kept busy with the children’s school PTO. I spent a large percentage of my married life as a work-from-home mother and, once my younger two children were in middle school, I began working outside the home as a secretary.


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

Cropped picture of me and my dad a few years before he died

With my dad a few years before he died

With a burning desire to receive an education, I began working on my undergraduate degree when I was in my early forties, while also working as a secretary, at Robert Morris University (RMU). It wasn’t until my father was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and died in 2005 that I had an “aha” moment that created a desire to charge full force into finishing my undergraduate degree. As I was exploring core subjects, I realized psychology would be the best fit for me.

I then left RMU and transferred my credits to Chatham University, completed my undergraduate degree in psychology and then my graduate degree in Counseling Psychology, all the while achieving a certificate in horticultural therapy and starting a non-profit. While I was in my studies at Chatham, most of my elective courses were in death, dying, and grief counseling. Still struggling somewhat with the loss of my father, my second parent—my mom died when I was 22 years old—I felt disconnected from the world, about as unpredictable as nature.

Master's Degree Graduation

Graduating with my Masters

Searching for a way to keep evolving, I planted, with the help of my family—including our soon to be son-in-law, Josh—my first vegetable garden. Always an avid gardener of flowers, moving forward with the idea of nurturing the body, mind, and soul through vegetable growing became a passion. I found working with the plants holistic and healing; soon gardening provided a space for me to come to terms with the identity loss that so many experience with a loss. As I began to reconnect, a dream from my late father divinely inspired me to begin helping others to feel the same way.

Inside Pap's Garden


What is your next act?

Screen Shot 2016-05-15 at 11.01.21 AMIn 2011, at the age of 47, I founded Hope Grows, a nonprofit providing support to caregivers, mainly family caregivers. Our mission is to inspire hope through nature while empowering caregivers to seek wellness of mind, body, and spirit. Our core values are deeply embedded in the belief that nature and the natural world are therapeutic and that wellness can occur through mindfulness, positive thinking, and a connection of mind, body, and spirit. Our services include counseling and support through mental health therapy, peer support groups, and education. We offer therapeutic respite through the use of essential oils, nature walks, labyrinth walks, and programming that allows the caregiver a short break. We are developing a professional caregiver model of stress management, compassion fatigue, and mediation between the professional health staff and the family caregiver.


Garden of Hope-4

In 2015, our third year as a nonprofit, Hope Grows served, on average, 50 caregivers and care recipients every month, and has provided 62 hours of education, 96 hours of therapeutic respite, and 380 hours of volunteer service. We have a very active board of directors with seven individuals currently helping to run the nonprofit, donating their time and energy to carry out our mission. I am the (volunteer) Executive Director, counselor, and go to person but I do hire sub-contractors to help with our programming and activities.

I also do speaking engagements, typically by word of mouth and referrals. I only charge when I am presenting on a topic that is educational in nature, such as stress management or compassion fatigue. I do not charge when I am presenting about Hope Grows and advocating for the need to support family caregivers. I typically ask for a donation to the organization. Most of my speaking has been local but I just recently received an invite to present to an agency on aging in another county in Pennsylvania. I am also submitting a speaking proposal for the National Arch Respite Conference in September, which will be held in Denver, CO.

Our biggest endeavor is the opening of a bed & breakfast for caregivers to be able to escape to a retreat that will help them to regain balance, as well as seek counseling and support. The goal is to help them return home with coping skills that will allow them to increase their quality of life and decrease the occurrence of chronic illness. We currently have a home that is surrounded by 2 ½ acres of nature. There are five healing and restorative gardens on the property and we have plans to develop the remaining acreage. We are applying for a county grant to be able to complete the zoning required for house renovations and the development of the remaining gardens so that we can open our doors to caregivers.

Our Home - Future Hope House

Future Hope House


What are the needs of caregivers that you are working to address?

Caregiving takes a significant toll on the caregiver’s mental, emotional, and physical health. Studies show that caregivers are in worse health than others due to lower levels of self-care; they have an increased risk of heart disease, show more frequent signs of depression, and suffer from high levels of stress and frustration. They pay the ultimate price for providing care—an increase in mortality. The sad part to these statistics is that caregivers are more likely to ignore their health and NOT seek support, often due to tight budgets; caregivers spend on average $5500 a year on care costs and many quit their careers to provide care in the home, as most cannot afford reliable replacement care.

This is why our mission is so important to me and hopefully to all of you, building awareness of the need, creating a unified front with larger caregiver communities, and developing a model that will empower caregivers to seek wellness of mind, body, and spirit. I remain passionate about achieving our vision in putting a stop to the ultimate risk of caregiving, death! Caregivers should not die for providing care to others and your help is needed. Sorry, I really get passionate about educating people on the need for this support.

Butterfly in the Woodland Garden


Why did you choose this next act?  

The inspiration for this work with the nonprofit is rooted in my love for my father. His death inspired this change and after he died I learned there was not enough support for the family caregiver and their families.

I believe in the power of the connection between people and plants, and the maintenance of optimal health through a holistic and mindful focus. I recently have been told that I am a Renaissance woman, but I consider myself to be a trailblazer—through the garden path—in providing a new way for the healthcare industry to view the silent client, the family caregiver.

I believe I chose this next act to be able to share this vision and empower the community to become part of the mission.


Our Hope Grows office

What other options did you consider?  

I did not consider other options. I learned through my journey of grief is that listening to my higher self (intuition or gut feel) became the fuel for finding my purpose. I continue to always reinvent me within this spectrum of purpose. I have always been someone who was extremely aware of me, but I continue to learn about mindfulness in that spectrum of mind, body, and soul awareness.

I also learned through the path of sadness, that spirituality played an unexplainable role in the determination to make sense of my loss and how it was affecting my entire being, mind, body, and spirit.

Miniature Garden

Our miniature garden


How did you figure out which way to go?

Dad and Lisa

With my dad, as a young girl

I followed my heart and intuition, that gut feel that I have always listened. Before my dad died, I used to be the type of person that when a door closed (an opportunity) I would stand behind it (not literally) and contemplate what I might have done wrong. I now ask my dad to show me the open window and 99% of the time something happens that leads me to the next step along this journey.

I’m not quite sure how I was motivated to take Hope Grows from idea to implementation, other than the guidance of my deceased father and the support of family and friends. To this day, I feel like I had a spiritual push that continues to drive my motivation. I have never been purpose driven but this truly has become my purpose.

From the start, I knew Hope Grows needed to be a nonprofit because family caregivers could not afford to receive services. This type of support is also not reimbursable through health insurance. As mentioned above, caregiver budgets are already tight and more work needs to occur for “respite money” to be put towards a “caregiver break.” Getting the larger caregiver communities on board is vital in supporting their caregivers to gain an overnight break, at a place like the bed & breakfast Hope Grows is creating.


Volunteer with child of a caregiver

I founded Hope Grows shortly before I graduated with my Masters in Counseling Psychology. After graduation, I began working in the hospice field as a spiritual and bereavement counselor while working towards my credentials to become a Licensed Professional Counselor and a certified Thanatologist (someone who is trained in the studies of death and dying). Just recently, I left that position to devote myself full time to Hope Grows.


How hard was it to take the plunge?

I don’t recall it being hard to take this plunge, because I didn’t see it in the terms of falling, pushing, or throwing in the sense of the definition of the word. I saw it as opportunity for growth, and evolving, and reinventing. I am a cautious risk taker and typically not afraid of taking chances or changing, so I think in part with my Type A personality, I saw it as an adventure. In addition, when one works through grief, a part of that journey is reinventing your identity while finding a place for the memories of the one you lost. I was searching for a new identity.

I began by seeking out resources and support in the nonprofit area, and then researched how to incorporate and start a nonprofit. I looked at local resources and went to workshops to learn how to start a nonprofit. I continue to educate and surround myself with people who know more than I do.

Chuck, Lisa, Children, and GrandChildren 2015

Chuck and I with our children and grandchildren


How supportive have your family and friends been?

My family and friends were and still are very supportive. Two of my high school friends currently serve on the board of directors for Hope Grows. One in particular, Denise, was very supportive of my passion and desire to achieve my degree.

I would have to say, my spouse was not as supportive as I had hoped in the beginning. I’m going to stereotype a little here, but I think the male ego is fragile and I think he saw this new change in midlife as a little bit threatening. I mentioned that I was a housewife and mother first and Chuck was comfortable with this arrangement and with being the breadwinner. Don’t get me wrong, he is a great guy and, once his ego was in check (a little psychology for you), he has been hands on and supportive with everything that I am doing.

Chuck serves on the Board of Directors and helps out wherever he can. I have a nephew who also serves on the Board of Directors. My niece has given many volunteer hours helping with administrative work. My children and their significant others help with garden maintenance and attend all of our events and support and help in any way they can. I have extended family, sisters and brothers, in-laws, nieces and nephews, aunts and uncles, cousins, and friends who contribute time and donations, and support in any way they can. I am blessed to have so many loving members of my family and extended community, people who believe in me and in my ability to take Hope Grows from an idea to a sustaining organization.

Chuck, Chaz (son), Josh & Brenden (son-in-laws) building greenhouse

Chuck with our son and son-in-laws, building our greenhouse


What challenges have you encountered?

I would have to say the biggest challenge I have encountered is balancing everything: attending school, being a wife and mother (and a grandmother eventually!), managing our household and social life. Thank goodness I didn’t have to work on top of that; I have been very blessed in that area of my life.

As for the organization, one challenge is in the area of communication. As with a lot of missions, ours does not speak for itself. Unless you have been in those shoes, it is hard to relate to the strain and stress and have it pull at your heartstrings. We use social media, word of mouth, and the larger caregiver communities for referrals to our services. Not having a lot of money for advertising or paid employees, we have to balance the aid we can provide with the appropriate infrastructure to support it. We are making progress, learning how to use social media and communicate better, and leveraging interested communities and our volunteers to help. In time, we will be financially sustainable and I can take off some of the many hats that I currently wear.

Screen Shot 2016-05-14 at 4.02.14 PMAnother challenge, maybe our biggest, is making sure Hope Grows becomes financially sustainable. We raise funds through two events per year along with online donation campaigns and small grants. We have an event coming up May 22 called A Victorian Tea and Tee Time Golf Classic. The Victorian Tea is in our third year and survey results suggested we add a golf event since it was held at a golf club. So this year, we are adding the golf outing and including a dinner with good food and entertainment, raffles and auctions. Our event is based around creating conversation on caring for the caregiver. Gaining a national corporate sponsor would be ideal in helping with our cause. In the fall, we host a Hike for Hope, walking in nature in the support of caregivers.

Robert Morris University Psychology students help with these events, as well as with maintenance of the healing and restorative gardens on the property of the future Hope House. We typically get interns from local universities and Bidwell Training Center. Bidwell has a horticulture training center among other vocations, and their students help through their externship program. By accepting interns, we are slowly becoming a training center that gives back to the academic community. Our model, when completely in place, has the potential to support 12 different academic interns at the Graduate and Undergraduate level to vocational, technical, and certificate levels.

Our support programs and therapeutic respite activities— such as the Take a Break in the Dirt Program—are run by interested colleagues and trained volunteers. Take a Break in the Dirt is an adaptive gardening program for children with disabilities and their family caregiver. We were funded by the Pennsylvania Department of Health and implemented an evidence-based respite care worker volunteer model from Temple University. A seasonal program, it provides adaptive gardening for children in a garden setting that they otherwise might not explore while their family caregiver gets to take a short break.

Take a Break in the Dirt Program (2)

Take a Break in the Dirt Program


Were there times when you thought about giving up? 

During the time I was getting my degree I did not think about giving up, however, there have been several occasions I have wanted to throw in the towel with the non-profit. I have often said that it was a good thing that running a non-profit was not my experience or background; knowing what I know now, I may not have started one! I work from home without a salary. The organization currently does not have the budget to hire a full time administrative and other paid positions that a nonprofit could benefit from. Thankfully, I have a great board of directors and we could not do this without our volunteers.

What keeps me going are my spouse, my children, my friends, but most of all the larger community that shares my vision and the need for supporting this worthy cause. And of course, the feedback I receive from the caregivers that we have helped.


Volunteers working with caregiver’s children

I met one woman in one of our support groups called Life After Caregiving. She was struggling with the loss of her spouse, whom she cared for while he battled cancer, while she was also caring for both of her aging parents and working full time. She kept all of her emotions inside and would not open up and talk about her experience. After the first support group, she opened up and began processing her loss.

Here are direct quotes from others we’ve helped:

Lisa really saved me… She pulled me up from drowning. I needed to be with someone who understood what I was going through… She helps you understand that you aren’t going crazy, that your feelings are normal. She is a breath of sunshine when you are going through this [grief]. 

I really do not have words that can thank you and Hope Grows for the support you give. Some days just coffee and someone to chat with is all it takes to get me through the day! Unless someone has done this job, they will never know. To think at one point I was caring for three loved ones at the same time. Truly it is a group like yours that saved me from jumping a bridge! Keep up the things you do! I hope to be a bigger part of Hope Grows in the future.

  Wisteria Vine in the Garden of Hope


What have you learned about yourself through this process?

I learned that I have a lot to offer. I think living a purpose-driven life fuels me. I have also found a voice, a different one but one I knew was always deep inside.

I have also learned that every part of who I am now has been influenced by many factors. I believe that heredity and environment, my family and schooling, have all shaped my beliefs and values. My philosophy of living has been molded by the developmental growth of life experiences.


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

It’s kind of ironic that I am answering this question today because I just met someone, this morning, who asked me this same question. I read an academic book once called Aging Well: Surprising Guideposts to a Happier Life from the Landmark Harvard Study of Adult Development. The message that I learned was the importance of always having the desire to reinvent yourself at any age. I shared today with this woman that when you feel stuck in midlife or what you are doing isn’t working well for you anymore, it’s time to start the reinvention of your identity.

Our identity is always changing and listening to intuition and our “gut” about what path to pursue is vital to staying young at heart. I truly believe that our purpose in life, our journey through the unknown, is defined by what feels right in our hearts. Also, our careers or jobs do not define who we are. What defines us is how we continue to reinvent who we are along this short passage of time on this earth. For me, it helped to believe in spiritual signs to help guide the way.

There are many factors to consider and I’m probably looking at this question as too broad for everyone because everyone has different circumstances. I guess the counselor in me is coming out, but if you don’t know how to begin reinventing you, then seek support to understand your risk level, your fear level, your motivation for a new journey. Put your support systems in place even if it is just one person who believes in you, and go forth at full speed. Looking back is a waste of time because you can’t repeat anything.


Spring volunteer garden day


What advice do you have for those interested in launching a service-based nonprofit?

Research the needs of the community and what nonprofits may already be targeting those needs. Just because you have a great idea for a service doesn’t mean that there isn’t something already in place providing that same line of support.

Collaboration is key and you need to check your ego at the door. What I mean by ego (noun) is the inflating feeling of pride in being superior to others. Stay focused on your mission; for me it was to help others. When it becomes about me, the path becomes distorted with weeds and overgrown plants that are out of control.


What resources do you recommend for caregivers? For those wanting to start a nonprofit?

For inspiration:

Everything Matters, Nothing Matters: For Women Who Dare to Live with Exquisite Calm, Euphoric Creativity & Divine Clarity by Gina Mazza Hillier

Three Weeks with My Brother by Nicholas Sparks

The Alchemist by Paulo Cuehlo

Like the Flowing River: Thoughts and Reflections by Paulo Cuehlo

The Celestine Prophecy: An Adventure by James Redfield

Twelfth Night by William Shakespeare

Tuesdays with Morrie: An Old Man, a Young Man, and Life’s Greatest Lesson by Mitch Albom

Nonprofit Resources:

The Bayer Center for Nonprofit management at Robert Morris University is where I attended workshops.

Guide Star

Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh Nonprofit Center

Web Design: OrgSpring

Legal Help: Ryan Lemke at Hergenroeder Rega Ewing & Kennedy, LLC

Strategic Planning: Amy Fazio & Associates

Communications Planning: Kelly Burgos Creative Services

Caregiver Resources:

Memories of My Parents by Amy E. Madge

Daily Comforts for Caregivers by Pat Samples

Finding Your Way a Practical Guide for Family Caregivers by Dr. Linda Rhodes

National Alliance for Caregiving

Caregiver Action Network

There are many organizations that caregivers can tap into by connecting on the Internet, but I believe that it only helps temporarily. Humans need social bonds for ultimate wellness, where they can tie the knot of connected services that links to “in person” support.

Most current photo of chuck and lisa-June 2015


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

My main focus is on the sustainability of Hope Grows and our mission. We are still a very new and vulnerable organization and I want to know I can eventually walk away and the nonprofit will succeed. I currently work without a salary and, while I am fortunate that I can do that, I would like to gain financial stability.

I continue to speak on behalf of the need for an organization such as ours; as people become aware of Hope Grows, the mission gains support. I would love to see several Hope Grows locations throughout the country and have our services, mission, and vision everywhere.

With fortitude and determination, I feel I can make my dream of providing services for caregivers come true.

I have been given the opportunity to teach at Robert Morris University in the near future in the field of death and dying and grief counseling; I am also working on a couple of research and writing projects.

I think I will always have another next act in my future. I need to stay evolving to stay well and I have quite a large bucket list of items to complete before my time on this earth is over. I have a burning desire to write a book; I have a topic but it is becoming the book that I’m afraid to write for many reasons that I am not ready to share. I also have a desire to live in another part of the world for a couple of years, maybe when I decide to write my first book—or another one.

I have also thought about starting a for-profit business, maybe a diner after the memory of my mom or some type of nature store for mind, body, and spirit. But who knows, one day at a time and one breath at a time.


Contact Lisa Werwie Story at info@hopegrows.net or 412-369-4673

Lisa Story, MSCP, LPC, CT

Hope Grows for Caregiver Support