Sheila Warnock, Launching Share The Care™ Non-Profit in Midlife

Tell us a little about your background.
I was born in the US and was about to begin first grade when my family moved to Germany a few years following WW II. Under the Marshall Plan (The European Recovery Program), military families were being sent overseas and an American School System was being established. My dad, not in the military, went over as a high school teacher and rose through the ranks of the American Dependent School System. I was, at various points, the Principal’s daughter and the Superintendent of Schools’ daughter and, after I graduated high school, he was Director of Curriculum.

I am forever grateful that my parents chose this life as it turned out to be an incredible opportunity for my brother and I to travel and experience so much. My brother, in fact, went into the State Department after University and continued the lifestyle of living all around the world. After I graduated from high school (we were now in Italy), I thought it insane to return to the US to attend art school when I was living in a country known for its art treasures. I enrolled at the L’Accademia di Belle Arti di Brera in Milan to study fine art (painting), graduating four years later after nailing my exams in Italian.

Being a young adult in Italy was a gift. It was a time when Italian films and directors like Fellini were all the rage. Great opera took place not only at La Scala in Milan, but also in Verona‘s ancient arena every summer. Milan was the fashion capital of Italy and I was keenly aware the “style” and attitudes of the very chic Italians.

In 1965, I moved to New York City to start a career. My dream was a position at Harper’s Bazaar or Vogue magazine. Unfortunately, I couldn’t type fast enough. Yes, that’s right. I couldn’t type fast enough. I was well travelled, spoke three languages, and possessed a fine portfolio; however, these attributes were not what qualified a young woman to start a career in those days. Women were pretty limited to jobs as secretaries, nurses, or teachers.

As fate would have it, I stumbled into the perfect job and was hired instantly. I became a staff fashion stylist for one of the most celebrated advertising agencies in the world, DDB (Doyle, Dane, Bernbach, Inc.). My sense of color and style, along with my artistic abilities, served me very well. I worked with some of advertising’s trailblazers as well as the most sought-after models, photographers, and directors of the time. I travelled to cover photo and TV shoots in California, Florida, Jamaica, and Europe. It was by far the most exciting time in advertising.

After a number of years, I became bored and yearned to be one of the “creatives.” Encouraged by a female creative supervisor, I decided to become an art director even though there were only two women art directors in the entire agency of 1,200 employees.

I succeeded because I was intensely interested in the collaborative process of creating print ads and television commercials. I was great at coming up with concepts and I learned about editing (film and print), from hanging out with the art directors, TV producers, and film editors during the post-production process. I went to the School of Visual Arts at night to develop my portfolio, which I took to the creative director a year later. When I got the green light, I gave up my office, took a pay cut, and moved to the art studio Bullpen “with the guys” to learn how to do paste-ups and mechanicals. I did this joyfully and three months later started work as an assistant art director and over time became an art supervisor. I had succeeded in making an unprecedented move and changing my career within the agency.

I was at DDB for a total of 16 years. I credit my experiences there with teaching me how to entice the attention and interest of consumers, create budgets, and produce print shoots. I became great at casting and hiring exceptional photographers, hair, and makeup talent. I found I was great at writing and worked directly with one of our clients on an area where I really excelled: new product development. Most of all, I enjoyed the teamwork required to make great advertising.

Being flexible, and in a state of continual learning, as well as challenging myself to “go for it,” followed me for decades into my current path. Yet it feels like a lifetime in between my beginnings in advertising and where I am today.

On location in Jamaica for a TV shoot

When did you start to think about making a change in midlife?
All personal dreams I had were shoved to the backburner by what came next. I had moved on from DDB in 1981 and was freelancing and pursing other interests. In 1984, my mother’s health began declining rapidly. My father had died suddenly a few years prior and my brother lived with his family in Japan. So my involvement with my mother’s care steadily increased from 1984 until 1988, when it was no longer possible to provide the round–the–clock–care she needed.

Early on, I regularly took a 5 ½-hour bus trip to her home in upstate New York to deal with her various needs and hospitalizations. In the third year, I moved my mom to South Jersey as living alone in snow country was becoming dangerous—she broke her wrist from a fall in the snow.  This move involved selling her home, letting go of most of the belongings she and my father had collected in Europe, and finding and purchasing a small condo for her in a gated retirement community. On the plus side, this new community offered lots of activities for my mom and she was only an hour or so away from me. Sadly, by the fourth year, she was began falling and becoming confused. She went from using a cane to a walker to a wheelchair. I was staying with her four days a week and, even with the help of aides three days a week, my mom and I were faced with the harsh reality: she needed a nursing home.

With my mom in the nursing home on her 80th Birthday

By that time, I was nearing a breakdown. I hadn’t been able to freelance for over a year and my savings were running out. My friends were not supportive as they had no concept of what I was dealing with. I was isolated, depressed, and overwhelmed. I took excellent care of my mom, but I did a terrible good job taking care of me, which is often the case with caregivers. It is important to note that during the ‘80s and early ‘90s, there was NO HELP for caregivers, no information, no Internet, no organizations, NOTHING!

My next big challenge was to find an acceptable nursing home––one closer to my home base but still in New Jersey where she was a resident. In early 1988, she went into one 30 minutes from New York City, where she remained for the next seven years until she died. My caregiving continued throughout that time; I became my mother’s mother.

Simultaneously over these very same four years, my best friend Susan, a divorced working mom with two young teenage daughters, was diagnosed with a rare cancer. When I was not away caring for my mom, I helped her through her first surgery and radiation treatments and tried my best to be her emotional support.

With Susan in our younger years at a ’50s party

When her cancer returned, her other friends unaware because, as is often the case, she kept this news secret. In March 1988 Susan reached her breaking point and it was her therapist, the late Dr. Sukie Miller, who convinced her to get her friends to her office the very next night so we might find a way to help.

Susan called 15 friends and 12 of us showed up. We didn’t know each other but we had such a powerful experience that night—buckets of tears were shed—that it galvanized us to action. The urgency and love we felt propelled us into what was to develop into a group caregiving model that has helped people all around the world for over 22 years.

Over the next three and a half years, we did everything imaginable for Susan. Our proudest moment came when we organized her youngest daughter’s wedding just four months before Susan died in 1991. By then, our little group of strangers turned sisters was widely known as “Susan’s Funny Family.”

Susan’s Funny Family at the wedding we organized (Susan is sitting at the table in pale pink)

Then our group was asked to help another woman in similar circumstances organize her friends into a “funny family.” It was while teaching the plan—a way of working and sharing responsibilities—that I witnessed their transformation from fearful and uncertain to empowered and eager to begin. It was then that I realized how profoundly I had been impacted by my experiences as a solo caregiver vs. being part of a group. It was like being struck by a lightning bolt.

This inspired me to call “funny family” member and friend Cappy Capossela the next morning to say we need to put this work down on paper so that others can follow in our footsteps.  Share The Care: How to Organize a Group to Care for Someone Who Is Seriously Ill by Sheila Warnock and the late Cappy Capossela was published in 1995 by Simon & Schuster Fireside Books.

 

Did the book inspire your next act?

No, the event that inspired my next act was destined to happen seven years after Share the Care was published.

During the time my mother was in a nursing home and I was part of Susan’s Funny Family, I went back into advertising to make my living and I started working with Cappy on the development of names and concepts (TV and print) for men and women’s fragrances. In other words, we were in the business of selling romance.

The small amount of money Cappy and I had earned from our book was put toward publicizing it. Share The Care was a first of its kind. It was featured in newspapers and magazines like The Washington Post, Good Housekeeping, and Redbook. Cappy and I also started getting thank you calls, letters, and cards from all around the country. We were thrilled that the book was doing its job. In 2000, we were honored to be invited to write an article for Bill Moyer’s On Our Own Terms website. I included an email address and before I knew it, I was getting inquiries from all over the US and I spent several hours after work responding to each of them. I felt like the “Dear Abby” of caregiving.

With my co-author, Cappy (Photo credit: Ken Nahoum)

Then in early 2002, the unthinkable happened: Cappy’s dad was diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor and, two weeks later, Cappy was in the hospital with the same diagnosis. I was stunned. I couldn’t believe it. They had both always been in great health. While the family took on the care of her dad, I organized a meeting of 33 of Cappy’s friends in her New York City apartment. Some even came in from as far as California, Texas, and Arkansas to help out. We were dubbed “Cappy’s Brain Trust.”

Cappy decided on surgery to debulk her tumor. Unfortunately, she lost her speech, her ability to write, then to walk, and later to move her body. Alternative treatments failed and everyone (including health professionals) struggled to keep her life in order with such a lightning fast illness. Ten months later, she and her dad passed away within 12 hours of each other.

Cappy’s Brain Trust

Afterwards, I remember telling two “Brain Trust” friends that I was going to start a non-profit organization to get Share The Care out to a much wider audience. They looked at one another and one of them said, “You know, I think she is really going to make it happen!”

I had not only lost my best friend, but also an amazing creative partner and co-author. This was the dramatic turning point that propelled me fully into my life’s work and gifting me with my real purpose. Everything that I have ever done or learned in life was to be put to use in my next act.

 

What is your next act?

I am the Founder and President of ShareTheCaregiving, Inc. (aka Share The Care™) the nonprofit I launched in early 2003, at the age of 60. Our mission is to improve the quality of life for anyone who needs support and to reduce the stress, depression, isolation, and economic hardship of their caregivers.

Our organization offers education—presentations, keynotes, workshops for all kinds of audiences, professional and faith-based trainings—along with email and telephone support. All 23 forms in the Share The Care book can be downloaded and printed from the website along with other materials. The website features four sections so our target audiences can find what they need: Caregivers and Concerned Friends; Health Professionals; Faith Communities; and Corporations.

The Share The Care™ model has become increasingly more relevant as we move closer to 2030, when the “the caregiving crisis” is projected to hit. By then our aging Boomer population will have reached 65+ and doubled in size to 71 million people. Many will need care. The problem is that there will not be enough health professionals to care for everyone, nor will there be enough younger people who might take on that role. This issue is global in scope.

We believe we can all be part of the solution by moving towards a place where helping each other through medical, health, or aging challenges is part of life not just something we may or may not do on occasion.

Two of our wonderful volunteers at a caregiver conference (Phyllis Waisman and Betty Himmelsbach)

 

How hard was it to take the plunge?

Friends and family (both mine and Cappy’s) as well as board members were immensely supportive. They donated $8,000 to get the ball rolling and I set up shop in my apartment.

I knew there would be enormous amounts of work to do and things to learn. I did a lot of reading and research to prepare to apply for 501c3 non-profit status, especially since each state has their own rules and regulations regarding non-profits.

My first job was to update Share The Care for a second edition. I added 50 pages based on the work Cappy’s group did to cope with her very demanding illness as well as my informal research of Share The Care groups around the country. The second edition was cited by The Library Journal as “One of the Best Health Consumer Books of 2004.” It also won a Caregiver Friendly Award for “Best Book” from Today’s Caregiver magazine in 2008.

I was fortunate to meet two women who had started non-profit organizations to help caregivers about the same time as the first edition of Share The Care was published. Suzanne Mintz was very encouraging. She was the Co-Founder of the National Family Caregiver’s Association, that would become the Caregiver Action Network. And Gail Mitchell, President of the National Organization for Empowering Caregivers was very helpful and introduced me to a talented website designer, Sharon Cooper of Creative Art Link.  Sharon and I started working together to create a comprehensive website that we totally overhauled in 2015. It won an award that year for “Best Media” from Today’s Caregiver Magazine.

Early on, I was also blessed to have three Share The Care Volunteer Outreach Directors. Fay Radding, MA, RN (NY), Claire Culbertson, MPH (WI), Susan Poor, MPH (CA), and I got together to meet and to discuss strategies. However, the highlight of our weekend together was a dinner with the (late) Florence Wald, known as the “mother of the American hospice movement.” I gave her a copy of Share The Care and she was very encouraging. To meet her was a true inspiration for the four of us.

Outreach Directors Weekend (Susan Poor, me, the late Florence Wald, Fay Radding, and Claire Culbertson)

 

What challenges did you encounter?

There were three that stand out.

Reaching our target audience:

When I first started out, I wanted to present Share The Care to the public. I got several venues to give me space and advertise the event, but only two or three people showed up. After a few tries, I thought back on my days as a caregiver and recalled that I never had the time or energy to do anything other than being a caregiver. So I quickly came to the conclusion that I needed to reach caregivers in another way––through the health professionals or clergy they see on a regular basis. Nurses, social workers, hospice workers, geriatric care manager, aging specialists, etc. were my new target audience.

I developed a curriculum for a full-day training so that participants could learn about the model and introduce it to caregivers and families in need of support. That way they might consider using it. The professional was to be a guide, a coach, or a cheerleader who could help to empower caregivers and their concerned friends to take charge and start their own group, following the step-by-step instructions in the book. Note: a group is organized by two friends who will prepare for a first meeting (scripted) to get things moving immediately.

Today, that training is known as Seeding Share The Care™ in Your Community and is accredited by the Northeast Multi-State Division of RN Continuing Education for 6.25 credits. I have personally trained approximately 1,600 health professionals and clergy. I have led 26 trainings in 11 states and Canada for hospitals, area agencies on aging, underserved communities (most recently the Saint Regis Mohawk Tribe), and faith communities. We also kicked off many large-scale programs, most notably two in Wisconsin state, SW Ontario, and on the Island of Kauai.

With participants my training session for the Saint Regis Mohawk tribe in Akwesane, NY

Building Credibililty:
Another challenge was to figure out a way to meet health professionals locally as I knew no one in the field. In 2004, following my very first presentation to a business committee involved with aging issues, I was directed by Elder Care Attorney, Peter Strauss, Esq. to meet the co-chair of the newly-forming New York City Family Caregiver Coalition, Greg Johnson. The minute I presented him with the book, he got it. He was a stroke survivor and had been helped through that time by his circle of friends. It was on a positive note that I joined the coalition and began earning the respect of many wonderful health professionals, government and non-profit leaders, and authors who were engaged in supporting caregivers in New York City. Today the coalition, renamed LiveOn NY, is focused specifically on Policy and Advocacy.

More recently, Greg founded EmblemHealth’s New York City Partnership for Family Caregiving Corps and invited Share The Care to be one of the co-chairs and founding members along with SAGE, Friends In Deed, Intersections International, Spiritual Conditioning for Family Caregivers. The goal is to get the message to corporations and organizations that their bottom lines are affected negatively when their employees take on the role of caregiver alone. The Corps provides an array of services and information to address the many faces of caregiving.

I highly recommend joining any organization, union, corps or group that is working in the field you want to transition into.

With Greg Johnson: See Talks with Greg Johnson on YouTube

Evidence and Validation:
Share The Care was a grassroots model that was born out of personal experience. One thing we needed was some research to prove how effective we had been. A Share The Care Study entitled “The Role of Unpaid Volunteers in a Group Caregiving Approach: Validation of the Share The Care Program” by Amy Hegener, PhD was published in the 2016 Journal of Gerontological Social Work. (Full copy of the article is available upon request from Share The Care.)

The study included 134 people–care recipients, family caregivers and individual group members from the US, Canada, Australia, The UK, and Hong Kong. The findings provide a foundation of supportive evidence that confirms Share The Care as a best-practice model in the field of caregiving and one that can be replicated in a cost effective manner across locations and challenges. Specifically, Share The Care: 1) supports a care receiver’s ability to stay at home with necessary informal systems in place; 2) Increases the caregiving preparedness of group members, enabling them to be more effective teammates and future caregivers; 3) is replicable and its functionality can be applied across a variety of settings and circumstances; 4) ensures longevity and a successful caregiving experience through its structured system of care; 5) helps reduce the burden of the caregiver; and 6) has a positive impact on the well-being of the caregiver, care receiver, and group members.

Bob’s Brigade in Wisconsin

 

What did you learn about yourself by overcoming these challenges?

I found that I had enormous focus and staying power to do whatever I needed to do on the path toward success. You don’t just arrive at success, but rather find yourself on a journey that turns out to be infinitely more valuable than any destination.

I discovered that my experiences had turned into my PASSION for helping caregivers and was the fuel that drove me. Maybe Share The Care was not the career I had imagined for myself, but one for which I was splendidly suited.

I learned as I kept putting in the time and effort working towards building my speaking and teaching opportunities, I grew more and more comfortable in my new role. I also started to be a really good networker, something I had avoided in advertising.

My philosophy has been if something doesn’t work out, there will be something else that might be a better fit or opportunity just down the line.

 

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

Not too much.  I refuse to spend my life whining “I coulda, woulda, shoulda.” I tried to never get bogged down by people telling me I couldn’t do something.  I did take seriously people who kindly took the time to give me guidance and suggestions. Then, based on my own gut, I decided to take it or not.

 

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

Only YOU know in your soul when something is totally right for you—or wrong for you. For your next act, go for whatever gives you the greatest joy and fulfillment.

Take care of yourself. Get out of any bad circumstance (job, marriage, relationship, habits, or location) that harms your self-esteem, your health, or your sense of hope. Stay healthy so you can keep working as long as you like.

Mindful living/thinking. Don’t just react, but rather observe how you deal with situations or people in an effort to improve on what you say and do or don’t do.

Never stop learning. I believe that working/learning/curiosity are attributes that keep one sharp, young and interesting. Especially important for our fast-moving times.

Have BIG Dreams. Spend time alone to think about them.

Take Action.

There will be people who give you a helping hand on your way to where you are going. GIVE BACK and help someone who looks to you for information, encouragement, or direction.

 

What advice do you have for those interested in launching a non-profit?

Continually work on yourself as you work toward your new career in the non-profit world. Take courses, go to lectures, read books, and explore the web. You will need to be willing to take time away from some of your other pleasures; however, do try to find room for both. Have boundaries.

The most important questions you need to ask yourself are:

  • Why am I doing this? Can I stay the course?
  • Can I cope with living on the edge? Money issues are part of non-profit life, especially if just beginning or the organization is very small.
  • Can I learn from my failures, make adjustments, and then keep going?
  • What am I brilliant at doing? What do I still need to learn? Be aware.

Remember to prioritize and ask for help when you need it. ShareTheCaregiving only has volunteers and I often call upon the expertise of board and steering committee members to help me with a specific need. Most have, at some point, been a caregiver and are dedicated to helping other caregivers by gifting us with their time, energy, and support.

 

What resources do you recommend?

If you are not establishing a new non-profit, then align yourself with one that serves a cause close to your heart. In my experience, most people doing non-profit work have a personal story or experience that brought them to the place of wanting to help others.

Start with The Foundation Center, the go-to place to find everything a non-profit needs to know.  Work with an attorney when processing paper work for a 501c3 or align yourself with a fiscal sponsor. The latter suggestion might be a wise way to start.

That said, I am not going to suggest new books about non-profit work but rather put emphasis on books/suggestions that serve the development of self. I believe that the work starts within each of us.

Books:

These are books that I found inspiring for being successful, no matter what your job.

Two books by Daniel Goleman define the qualities that are critical for leaders and building relationships in the 21st century: Social Intelligence: The New Science of Human Relationships and Working with Emotional Intelligence

Never Eat Alone: And Other Secrets to Success, One Relationship at a Time by Keith Ferrazzi deals with building relationships (networks, colleagues, contacts, friends, mentors)

Do Less, Achieve More: Discover the Hidden Powers Giving In by Chin-Ning Chu. I love this little book; it’s a small paperback packed full of wisdom.

The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron is a book I got in 1993. It is an excellent workbook for people who want to discover and recover their creative self. Also check out: The Artist’s Way At Work.

The 8 Laws of Change: How to Be an Agent of Personal and Social Transformation by Stephan A. Schwartz is great for all kinds of social, personal, societal, and global transformations.

The Power of Being Yourself: A Game Plan for Success–by Putting Passion into Your Life and Work by Joe Plumeri

The Millionaire Messenger: Make a Difference and a Fortune Sharing Your Advice by Brendon Burchard, Founder of the Experts Academy.

Unlimited Power : The New Science Of Personal Achievement by Anthony Robbins

Thank You for Being Late: An Optimist’s Guide to Thriving in the Age of Accelerations by Thomas L. Friedman, an optimist’s guide to thriving in the age of acceleration

Reboot Your Life: Energize Your Career and Life by Taking a Break by Catherine Allen, Nancy Bearg, Rita Foley, and Jaye Smith

Quotes:

I have a lot of books with inspiring quotes that I read through every so often. They remind me that many have travelled the road and left us with breadcrumbs of wisdom.

The heights by great (wo)men reached and kept
Were not attained by sudden flight
But, they while their companions slept,
Were toiling upward in the night.
–Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

I always knew that one day
I would take this Road but
Yesterday
I did not know today
would be the day.
–Nagarjuna

The meeting of preparation with opportunity generate the offspring we call luck.
— Anthony Robbins

What lies behind us and what lies before us
are tiny matters, compared to what lies within us.
–Ralph Waldo Emerson

In the middle of difficulty lies opportunity.
–Albert Einstein

Life is a gift you are only given once. Strive to make the best use of it.
–Anon

And the trouble is, if you don’t risk anything, then you risk even more.
–Erica Jong

All of us are stars and deserve the right to twinkle.
–Marilyn Monroe

You must be the change you wish to see in the world.
–Mahatma Gandhi

It’s OK to have butterflies in your stomach. Just get them to fly in formation.                     
–Helen Keller

It is never too late to be what you might have been.
–George Eliot

Whatever you can do or dream you can, begin it.
Boldness has genius, power and magic in it.
–Goethe

The man who moved a mountain is the one who started taking away the small stones.
–Old Chinese Proverb

Speaking at a large Emblem Health Caregiver Conference

 

What’s next for you?

My current act has plenty of room for evolving. My goal is to be offered many more opportunities to speak at conferences and lead Share The Care™ trainings nationally and internationally. We want to work with other organizations to get the public prepared for the global caregiving crisis.

Just a few things I’d love to see for Share The Care:

  • be published in Spanish and French
  • become part of the curriculum for students of social work and nursing
  • offer online courses
  • be integrated into all Patient Centered Care
  • become a household word

Personally, I have been told that just speaking about my life journey could prove to be of great interest to young people.

 

Connect with Sheila Warnock
Founder and President, Share The Caregiving, Inc.
Email: swarnock@sharethecare.org
Website
Facebook Page
Twitter
LinkedIn
Book: Share The Care: How to Organize a Group to Care for Someone Who Is Seriously Ill

Contact Sheila for inquiries regarding trainings, workshops, and presentations.
Information, stories, excerpts, resources, links to purchase the book, testimonials, and all 23 forms from the book are available on the website.
 
Share The Care is recommended reading and cited by other authors, including Gail Sheehy and Daniel Golman, and listed as a resource in numerous caregiving books, websites, and articles.




Entering Nonprofit in Midlife: Nancy’s Story

After 35 years in Corporate America, a layoff and big birthday were the catalysts for Nancy to reinvent her work life. She now enjoys her “slash” career working in nonprofit while doing some consulting and writing on the side.

Tell us a little about your background.
I’ve lived in NYC for 37 years. My partner, Peter Conrad, is a labor and employment lawyer and was born and raised in Manhattan. Peter’s adult daughter is also NYC based. My two nieces and a nephew add to the New York family contingent. A sister and brother live nearby in New Jersey. Other family members are in Northern and Southern California, New Orleans and Atlanta.

At age 5, with my younger brother Gerry in our Easter Sunday outfits

I’m one of six (middle child); my parents were first generation Italian-Americans. My mother prized education and held firmly to her Roman Catholic beliefs. I spent nine formative years in parochial school taught by nuns in the ‘60s, then attended a public high school and received a B.S. from Penn State in Fashion Merchandising. My five siblings and I had library cards in first grade and from my love of reading, I learned there was a big world beyond Hazleton. By age eight, I decided I would be leaving. Less than six months after college graduation, I won a spot in Lord & Taylor’s executive training program in New York. Later I became a buyer at Bloomingdale’s and held merchandising roles with other retailers in children’s and women’s apparel.

By the late ‘80s, department stores were consolidating and losing market share to emerging discounters like Target. I made a switch to brand licensing/marketing, initially working for a well-known fashion designer. In the early ‘90s, I found my dream job licensing the merchandise rights for comic strip characters, Dilbert and Peanuts (I revered the Peanuts characters and creator Charles Schulz as a kid). This allowed me to expand beyond my apparel expertise to market other products, such as toys, gifts, and books. I was exposed to international business in Japan, Europe, and Latin America and eventually took a role with the BBC to create consumer products for select TV programs. But the TV market was competitive and after a few years struggling to build a business, in the early 2000’s I returned to my apparel roots. I built and led a brand licensing department for Hanesbrands, a Fortune 1000 apparel company, for the next 11 years.

BBC Worldwide Weakest Link Tournament on the Today Show

 

When did you start to think about making a change in midlife?
During my 35+ years in corporate settings, I’d developed a strong set of skills in merchandising, licensing, and marketing within the retail, media, and apparel industries. Having executive roles at global companies gave me a broader perspective, thanks to my wide travel overseas and the opportunity to meet many interesting people. These roles provided good compensation/benefit packages, and I saved accordingly, providing a cushion I’d need later. I knew the time would come when I would leave the corporate fold for something different.

At various points in my forties and fifties, I yearned for a personal creative outlet. After I left the department store world in the late ‘80s, I started taking writing classes at The New School and NYU. When I was a girl, I’d fantasized about becoming a journalist and news anchor. However, as I was considering career plans and college majors, I was not confident about my abilities to get into a communication/journalism program. I had no interest in becoming a starving freelance writer. Instead I pursued retailing, because I loved clothes and at the time, the possibility of becoming a buyer-in-training at a department store in Philadelphia or New York was within my grasp. This was key in my desire to rise above my lower middle-class background.

In the early ‘90’s, I volunteered at a non-profit that placed business executives into projects at local arts organizations. Later, I joined the board of an affiliate Penn State alumni chapter for professional women. Graduate school was a consideration while I was in retailing (at the time, many senior execs had MBA’s). Given my experience building and running $10+M sized departments, pursuing an MBA seemed redundant. Around 9/11, I was accepted into NYU for an Independent Study Master’s program (I’d planned to do creative writing and media studies), but I decided to pass, given the jittery times and economic uncertainty as a result of the attacks in NYC.

MFA Graduation

After I joined the apparel company in 2002, I kept writing. My mother passed away in 2009 (my father died 16 years earlier). As I reflected on her life and all she had sacrificed to help her children achieve success as adults, I decided I should not wait to pursue an MFA degree. I learned of an MFA program at Stony Brook University I could do part-time in Manhattan and Southampton. I tested the waters as a non-matriculated student for the first two semesters and was accepted in 2010. By then, the recession and subsequent recovery had made for a difficult business environment. There were frequent restructurings at my company. I’d survived several rounds of re-organizations and layoffs, but eventually my downsizing day came in mid 2013 along with a big birthday (60!). It was then I had no choice but to change course.

With Susan Collins, Executive Director of TTN

 

What is your next act?
I am a non-profit staffer/business consultant/writer—what Marci Alboher, Encore.org VP and author of the The Encore Career Handbook: How to Make a Living and a Difference in the Second Half of Life calls a “slasher.” “Slashers”, Marci writes, are “people who, like me had trouble describing their working lives without the use of a slash or two.”

I handle marketing and operations on a part-time basis for The Transition Network (TTN), a non-profit organization supporting women 50+ in transition, professionally and personally. I was tapped to become an Encore Fellow at TTN in late 2016 and, after completing my fellowship, was asked to stay on at TTN. Encore Fellowships are awarded to corporate executives age 50 and over interested in parlaying their business skills into social mission work.

I also am the Founder Elan Brand Licensing LLC, a consulting business I launched three years ago. This includes business development for brands and manufacturers, plus advising professional service firms and financial institutions about licensing and select apparel/retail segments.

In 2015, I received my degree in Creative Writing/Literature after five years of part-time study. My thesis, a memoir entitled Finding My Footing, centered on coming of age from small town to big city, with stories about family, work, love, and travel. Since starting my consulting business, I have also written business articles for various trade magazines, and blogs on apparel, retail and brand licensing trends.

I am currently working on a collection of personal essays, utilizing material from my MFA thesis. I had my first two essays (Check them out here and here) published this summer, received good feedback, and excited to keep writing and submitting my pieces this fall.

My writing desk

How hard was it to take the plunge? How did you prepare?
I did not wake up the next day after my corporate job disappeared and know what to do next. Fortunately, I was in graduate school, so I had my classes as an anchor. I was able to take a two-week writing workshop without the distraction of work issues while on vacation.

I was bound by a non-compete, and could not begin another role in my field until the following year, so I put my resume together and started networking. I had many lessons to learn on both fronts! I had been in career transition before, but much had changed by 2013, given technology and social media permeating job search. This meant using digital skills to network and job hunt. I sensed my age was also a potential barrier.

The next year was a confusing time as I didn’t know what to call myself (no longer an Executive, now a Writer, but without published pieces). I wasn’t clear I wanted another full-time job doing what I had done for 25+ years in brand licensing, although I started interviewing for these types of roles. I was reluctant to return to a 50- or 60-hour-per-week high-stress job. Plus, the changing landscape for the apparel and retail industries meant higher level positions in NYC were scarce and I was not interested in relocating for a new job.

I had learned about Encore.org a few months before I was downsized and filled out the fellowship application the week after I left Hanesbrands. Encore sent me out on interviews a couple months later but the assignments were not the right fit. Fellowships are competitive, given the strong pool of talented professionals over age 50 in the New York area. In early 2016, I decided to re-apply for an Encore Fellowship and by summer 2016 the opportunity at The Transition Network emerged.

To get more exposure within the non-profit segment, I decided to volunteer at Girls Write Now (GWN), a non-profit that supports under-served teen NYC girls by providing writing workshops. I learned about fund-raising at this small but growing organization focused on developing young women’s confidence and educational opportunities. It was gratifying to help solicit auction/gift bag items for the annual gala and to serve on the host committees in 2016 and 2017. This volunteer project also inspired me to write a blog post about GWN honoring Gloria Steinem and the teens’ reaction to her. I was glad to have the article posted on the Women in Communications website, another organization where I had volunteered.

 

How supportive were your family and friends?
My significant other, Peter was very supportive during my transition, but he gave occasional hints he’d expected me to take another full-time job. We’ve worked through that and I am now busier than ever! Friends were good sounding boards, as some were also in transition. One career coach, Bonnie Diamond, in particular, provided excellent advice and shared her thoughts about the realities of today’s job market for boomers.

 

What challenges did you or are you encountering?
When I first left corporate, it was difficult to figure out where I belonged and to no longer be considered an industry insider.

The next challenge was how to deal with “NO.” Rejection came in many forms, whether pitching for a consulting opportunity that did not materialize or editors passing over my writing submissions or pitches.  As a writer, one has to develop a thick skin. This is also true for job seekers and career changers, entrepreneurs seeking investors, and so on. The rejection may not be about you, but about timing or the circumstances at a particular company. I have two ways of looking at rejection: “No” may mean “not yet”. Or, as Nora Ephron, the writer and filmmaker, has said, “I spend 2 minutes on no.”

Some of my favorites

 

What did you learn about yourself through this process?
Patience. It takes time to make big life changes and let these new areas take root. I am inspired by artists who hit their stride later in life, like Alice Neel and Carmen Herrera (she is 100+ and had a recent exhibit at The Whitney). Frank McCourt, a Stony Brook professor, had his book Angela’s Ashes: A Memoir published when he was 66 and it won the Pulitzer Prize. People taking on new careers later in life should keep in mind that although it seems we are starting over, we bring a wealth of life experience, business acumen, and wisdom to whatever we want to do next.

 

Looking back, is there anything you’d have done differently?
I would have allowed myself a mourning period after I was down-sized. Although I was busy with school and networking, I realized looking back, I needed time to heal before plunging into the planning of my next phase.

I would have kept up with my network more consistently and made more time to meet with friends, colleagues, and business associates outside the office, especially during my last corporate role. Cultivating relationships (personal and professional) is key to creating a support system and a strong network. I am grateful for friends and mentors I’ve met throughout my career and the efforts we’ve made to stay in touch. Speaking of mentors, I would have been more proactive about finding the right people to advise me during different stages of my career and a superlative Executive Coach throughout my peak earning years.

2016 Reunion with United Media co-workers

 

What advice do you have for women seeking reinvention in midlife?
Get comfortable with your financial situation so you can develop plans and make choices fitting your situation. Married women should be well-informed about a couple’s holdings, real estate, wills, etc. Find a competent financial planner, lawyer, and accountant—professionals you can trust. Many people have to continue to work out of financial necessity and may need to take a bridge job while moving into their next act.

Accept that changes will take time, your plans don’t have to be crystal clear, and you may try paths that aren’t a good fit.

Join organizations where you can be with like-minded people (The Transition Network, for example!) and make new connections. Volunteering at an organization with a mission that resonates can fill time and add new skills. Mentoring others is another way to give back. I’ve served as an ad hoc coach for younger family members and colleagues and in turn, there’s always something to learn from them, be it their digital savvy or popular culture trends.

Learn how to use your laptop and smart phone effectively. There are YouTube tutorials, Lynda.com is available at many public libraries, and hands-on classes at libraries are free. If you live in NYC, Senior Planet is an amazing tech resource and also free. For more specialized info on social media, check out classes at your local college and high school. You don’t need to be coding, but you may want to keep up with family and friends on Facebook or various message services. For those starting their own businesses/entrepreneurial projects or pursuing another job, your presence on LinkedIn is a must. Twitter, Instagram and Pinterest use depends on your field.

Mingling with TTN members and guests in Chicago

 

What advice do you have and resources do you recommend in your fields of interest?
For those specifically interested in the non-profit world, take continuing education courses to learn about it. Many colleges focus on this area, whether single courses or certificate/degree programs. Classes are a great way to network with classmates and faculty. Consider a board of director’s role if your schedule and budget permit. Volunteer at non-profit organizations that appeal to you and list those assignments on your LinkedIn profile and resume to show new skills acquired.

Non-profit/social mission:
Foundation Center: classes and webinars on fund-raising, grant writing, non-profits operations, and a trove of information on U.S. foundations and the non-profits supported by them.
Encore.org Fellowships
Be the Social Change: NYC group with events and classes on social mission endeavors
The Encore Career Handbook: How to Make a Living and a Difference in the Second Half of Life
The B Corp Handbook: How to Use Business as a Force for Good

Entrepreneurship:
Kauffman Foundation: FastTrac boot camp for entrepreneurs (offered in select cities)
Government organizations supporting small businesses such as Small Business Administration, Chamber of Commerce

Creative Writing:
Local colleges/universities continuing education classes/workshops
Pen & Brush NYC arts organization (Writing circle is good for beginners)
Poets and Writers Magazine
Public libraries as a place to write, attend author readings and classes, do research, and borrow books, DVDs and other media

 

With my significant other, Peter Conrad

 

What’s next for you?
I would like to continue supporting underserved girls and women. There is so much need around the globe! As I get more immersed in the non-profit sector, I’m excited to learn about organizations where I can contribute and apply a combination of marketing, business development and operational skills. I recently took an advisory board role at Indego Africa, a non-profit with a mission to empower African women artisans by showcasing their beautiful crafts and investing in their education.

Writing essays and creative non-fiction, with the aim of publishing a collection. I have some ideas for short stories and maybe even a novel down the road. I would love to travel to India and South America and return to countries I visited long ago, including Japan, Italy, and Portugal.

  

Connect with Nancy Gendimenico
Email: ngendimenico@gmail.com
Website: Elan Brand Licensing
LinkedIn
Twitter 
Instagram
Facebook




Becoming an Advocate for Refugees: Helen’s Story

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

 

Tell us a little about your background.

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

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

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

Childhood photo

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

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

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

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

What is your next act?

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

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

Senator Dick Durbin visiting our RefugeeOne office

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

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

Sharing holiday gifts with a Somali family

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

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

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

Orientation, teaching how to use a mop

How hard was it to commit to this new work?

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

Exhibiting our clients’ artwork, with Burundian ladies

How supportive were your family and friends?

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

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

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

Family trip to New Zealand

What challenges have you encountered?

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

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

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

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

Field trip to Garfield Park Conservatory with Bhutanese ladies

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

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

 

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

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

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

Sewing class

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

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

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

I also recommend these books:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cooking class

How can my readers get involved with RefugeeOne?

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

 

Connect with Helen Sweitzer

Email: hsweitzer@refugeeone.org

RefugeeOne Website

RefugeeOne Facebook Page

RefugeeOne Twitter: @Refugee_One

RefugeeOne YouTube

RefugeeOne LinkedIn




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

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

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

 

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

 

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

 

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

 

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

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

Facebook
Twitter: @heymarci
LinkedIn

 

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

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

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

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

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

 




Launching a Jewelry Company to Honor Her Son’s Memory: Elizabeth’s Story

When her son died tragically at 17, Elizabeth channeled her grief into ELLA Designs, making and selling beautiful jewelry pieces, with 50% of the profits going to bipolar research.

Tell us a little about your background…

I grew up in Oak Park, Michigan, a suburb of Detroit. I have a twin sister, Eve, who lives in Highland Park, IL and a younger sister, Joanne, who lives in Vancouver, Canada. I am married to Brian Guz, a urologist, and we live in Franklin, Michigan.

I attended the University of Michigan, where I received a BA in psychology in 1983, then continued on to graduate with an MBA in 1985 from the Ross Business school, also at the University of Michigan. I met my husband, Brian, in high school, but we didn’t start dating until we were both in college together. We married after graduate school (he went to medical school) and moved to Cleveland, where he did his Urology residency at the Cleveland Clinic for five years.

At University of Michigan

I got a job as a Product Manager at American Greetings, working on many product lines including calendars, candles, and seasonal products. It was a great job. After Brian finished his residency, we moved back home to Detroit. We had just had our first child, David, and I opted not to work; I wanted to stay at home and raise my kids. I had Michael and Lauren a few years later and was a full-time mom. We lived in an apartment in Southfield for the first year after we returned, then bought a house in Huntington Woods, where we lived for six years, and then moved to Franklin where we still live today.

I was very busy for many years with my kids. When they were all in school, I took some classes in interior design and did some private work for a while. When my middle son, Michael, was entering adolescence, he became very anxious and depressed. He had always had those tendencies, but they became worse over time. It was an extremely difficult and heartbreaking time for us; the next few years were spent trying to do what we could to help Michael. At the end of his junior year in high school, in June 2009, Michael died of a drug overdose. He was 17. We were devastated.

How did you cope with this tragedy?

Dealing with Michael’s death was extremely difficult. We are extremely close and the thing we had feared most had happened. We went to grief therapy individually and a few times as a family. We talked about Michael a lot and I made sure that my kids knew that we have to continue living and thrive because that’s what Michael would have wanted for us.

After Michael died, I found out about the Prechter Bipolar Research Fund at the University of Michigan Depression Center.  They were doing groundbreaking research in the field of bipolar disorder, which we believe Michael had. I started the Michael Guz Memorial Fund, which was a part of the Prechter Bipolar Research Fund. I also met with Wally Prechter, who started the fund in memory of her husband Heinz, an automotive executive (he invented the sunroof) who took his own life about 15 years ago after suffering from bipolar disorder. I became friends with Wally and helped out with some fundraising events. I also joined the Advisory Board of the Prechter Fund and started to help raise awareness about the disease.

With Wally Prechter

Around that time, Judith Burdick, my daughter’s grief therapist after Michael died, was making a documentary called Transforming Loss and she asked if I would be in her film. The film focuses on seven people from Michigan who dealt with the untimely deaths of family members, how they coped and were “transformed” through their loss. It is a very inspirational movie. It was also the first time I spoke candidly and openly about Michael and his suffering. It was a very difficult time for me, but also helped my grieving process. I found that many people opened up to me to share their own stories and the stories of loved ones who suffered or are suffering from similar problems.

I still wanted to do more to raise awareness and money for bipolar research. My youngest child, Lauren, was going to college soon and I needed to decide what I wanted to do with my time. I play tennis and other racket sports, work out, and play bridge and canasta, but I knew that wouldn’t be enough.

What is your next act?

I started ELLA Designs Jewelry in 2013 when I was 53. My daughter Lauren, who was a senior in high school, helped me initially before she went to college (University of Michigan) the following year. ELLA Designs donates 50% of all profits to the Heinz C. Prechter Bipolar Research Fund. Our motto is “Help Find a Cure for Bipolar Disorder, One Link at a Time.”

I find interesting pendants or chains and put them together in my own design.  Sometimes I take chains and other pieces to make earrings, or mix different chains and beads, adding a pendant to make a necklace. Other times I try to have different ways that a piece can be worn: Some of the necklaces can be worn at different lengths, wrapped and doubled, and even worn as a bracelet. Some of the pieces have magnetic connectors, which are easy to put on. Many of the magnetic bracelets can also be attached together to make chokers or longer necklaces.

Many of the pendants have meanings—scarab beetle, Buddha, crystal, etc.—so I made small written cards that explain the meaning behind the piece; I include them in the gift bag. For example, the scarab beetle means rebirth. People like to buy things that have a meaning behind them and it helps to have a little card that explains it. I have had a lot of success with my crystal necklaces and Buddhas, and I am making new things all the time and finding new items that people like. Last year, I started making leather bracelets with magnetic clasps that have sold very well and appeal to many people.

I get ideas from everywhere. Sometimes I see something in a magazine or just play with the chains and pendants in my work area and try different looks. I work upstairs in our house, where the kids’ bedrooms are, and we have a loft area where there is a TV. No one is home anymore, so I have a lot of room to myself to make a mess and experiment.

Making the jewelry is very relaxing for me. I tend to work on the jewelry in the late afternoon. It’s that time of the day that there is not a lot to do and I love going upstairs, putting on the TV, and making jewelry. If my husband has a meeting and doesn’t come home for dinner, it can be hours before I realize what time it is. I love it!

I also make many of my own jewelry displays. I buy lumber, have it cut, get steel rods, and build stands that work well with my jewelry.

We sell through holiday boutiques, luncheon events, and private home or office parties, as well as online. The website shows many of the pieces and also gives information about the Prechter Fund. Since the inception of ELLA Designs 4½ years ago, we have donated $148,000 to the fund from ELLA Designs. I believe that people have also made their own donations after hearing about the fund. I am honored to be a part of that and to bring much-needed awareness about this devastating illness. I just set up an endowment fund to help fund the stem cell research in honor of Michael’s would-be 25th birthday on March 27, 2017, and we went to see the lab and the amazing stem cell research they are doing to help find treatments and cures for bipolar disorder.

With Michael in Vancouver

In September 2015, I received the 2015 Woman of Vision award from the National Council of Jewish Women. This award honors “a woman who contributes her knowledge, resources, and skills for the betterment of the community.” I was the first recipient of the award. This year, I presented the award to the second award winner.  Jenna Bush was the guest speaker at the event; I met her and gave her some jewelry, which she wore that day and took home with her.

With Jenna Bush

My business keeps me busy and provides a great way for me to support a cause which I am passionate about. I feel a special connection to my son, Michael, by doing this and feel that it has also been an amazing way to connect with people on a personal level whom I would never have before. Strangers feel comfortable talking to me about their own struggles, and those of their loved ones, who are suffering from mental illness; I listen and try to give them hope and resources.

I am often contacted by people who have passed my name on to others who need help or somewhere to turn when they are dealing with bipolar illness. I also have handouts available about the Prechter Bipolar Research Fund when I sell the jewelry and give it to people who want information. My business cards also include information about the fund and have contact information for people who want to donate or find more about it.

I am also on the Board of Directors of Kadima, a non-profit mental health agency that provides residential and support services for children and adults with mental illness in Oakland County (Michigan).

Why jewelry? How did you get started?

I wasn’t very artistic growing up, but I loved art and my favorite courses in college were Art History. Over the years, I would make little necklaces or necklace holders for my sunglasses. When my kids had school projects, I LOVED it. I would really work hard on them and sometimes I even let them help me.  Haha…

One day, I went to a store where a jewelry designer was promoting her jewelry. It was beautiful. I went home and thought about what she was doing and thought I could do that too. I thought it would be fun if I made my own pieces to sell and donated a large portion of the profits to bipolar research. I started taking apart some of my own jewelry that I no longer wore and recreated them by putting them with different chains and making unique combinations. It was relaxing and therapeutic.

My daughter Lauren helped me at the beginning since she was still a senior in high school.  We named the company ELLA Designs using the first two letters of our first names: ELizabeth and LAuren.

With Lauren

I began buying chains and attending jewelry shows. I would even find interesting pieces when I traveled. After spending some time making my first ”collection,” we had an open house at our home, where we invited a lot of friends. It was very successful. I started making more pieces, mainly necklaces and bracelets, and selling them at local holiday boutiques, events, and private open houses in people’s homes or offices. The jewelry was very well received and people loved that 50% of all the profits go toward funding vital research for bipolar disorder.

I have tried to have a wide range of price points so everyone can afford something.  Most of the earrings are $35 and the necklaces and bracelet range from $40 to around $400, with an average price range of $100-$200. Most of the jewelry is made from base metals, but I do have some diamond pieces as well. I like to have a range of things that will appeal to all ages and budgets.

While people really like the jewelry, there is a lot of competition in the field. A big part of my success is because I donate so much of the profits to a cause that affects so many people. It is amazing to me how many people who are looking at the jewelry at an event or open house stop to tell me about their own struggles, or those of a loved one who suffers from mental illness. They want to support the cause and when they find a piece they love, it has more meaning to them because they know it is supporting something great and I think they feel my passion for what I am doing.

This has been a very life changing and interesting journey for me. I am a private person and never thought I would end up being in the public eye. When Michael died, I knew I had to be strong for my family, but I also knew I wanted to make a difference for other people who struggle with bipolar disorder. I guess things happen for a reason. I plan to continue growing ELLA Designs and raising awareness about bipolar disorder and the research, which is being done to help people live productive lives.

With my kids and Dr. Sue O’Shea, who is in charge of Prechter Bipolar Research Stem Cell Labs at University of Michigan’s Depression Center

How supportive were your family and friends?

My family and friends were extremely supportive of the business and the charity behind it. They have bought a lot of my jewelry for themselves and given pieces as gifts. Many have had open houses at their homes or offices and I get a lot of referrals from people I know. Sari Cicurel is a publicist and has helped me get a lot of press (sari.cicurel@gmail.com). I knew Sari through mutual friends and she offered her help after I began my jewelry business. A few years ago, I never even knew what a publicist did! She has been an amazing support, helping me book shows and get press attention. I have met so many great people through this and I have made many new and great friends that I would never have met if I didn’t start this business. It has been an amazing and life-changing experience.

With Brian

I have a fantastic husband, Brian, and great kids who have been extremely supportive and they are proud of me. Now that my kids are older—David just graduated medical school this May 2017 and will be starting his residency in anesthesia; Lauren just graduated this April from University of Michigan—I have a lot more time to work on my own business. I think this was the perfect time for me. I don’t think I could have done it when they were young and in the house. I was too busy being a mom. My husband and I do eat a lot of pizza these days because I don’t cook as much as I used to. Brian’s been a great support throughout this journey and he likes pizza, so it works out.

With David and Lauren

What challenges did you encounter?

The biggest challenge is that because each piece is unique, and made by me, it can be difficult to keep the pieces displayed online up to date and in stock. I can usually recreate a piece, but sometimes there are slight variations.

Another challenge is taking photos of the jewelry for the website. I am not a good photographer and often struggle with that area. Because I would rather give more money to the charity, I take the pictures myself rather than hiring a photographer. I do the best I can.

I always need people to help me sell at events. Setting up, selling, and packing things up again is hard work and time-consuming. I have been very lucky to find a great person, Lisa Clayton, who has been helping me for almost 4 years. I didn’t know her at all but met her when she was helping someone else sell at an event. Others have also offered their help. My son Michael’s best friend helps out when she can. They were very close and I have gotten to know her in a way that I never did before. She often talks about Michael and I have learned things about him through her. It has been a gift.

 

My website can be a challenge as well. That is definitely not my strength but I am learning and have help with that. I have an MBA from Michigan so I understand the business side, but the technology part is harder for me.

I am also working on improving my social media presence to reach a wider audience.  That is becoming a new focus and challenge. I met a great graphic and web designer, Jessica Rosengard, who helps me with that side of the business. She updates and maintains my website and helps promote me on Facebook and Instagram.  She has also become someone I can call anytime with a website or computer issue. We are trying to find new ways to promote the business and make people know about ELLA Designs and the cause it is supporting.

I do have an accountant who helps me once in a while with Quickbooks, but most of that I do myself. It is very important to have people that you can rely on to help, especially in the areas where I am not as knowledgeable. It is my business, but I can’t do everything myself and I have found it is vital to have people around me that can help me when I need it.

What did you learn about yourself through this process?

I feel that I have grown as a person and gained a new perspective on life. I don’t “sweat the small stuff” anymore and try to appreciate what I have. I am also a lot stronger than I thought, having dealt with one of the most heartbreaking challenges, losing a child, and coming through it the best I could. I also hope it has shown my other two children, David and Lauren, that you can survive difficult situations. Life is not easy and there are a lot of bumps in the road, but you have control of how you handle them.

 

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

Don’t be afraid to try something new. It may not work out, but you will never regret trying. You WILL regret not trying. Find something you feel passionate about and make it happen.

If you’re interested in launching a jewelry business, start slowly. I did not invest a lot of money into jewelry and supplies until I had sold some pieces. I never went into debt. I was not comfortable with that and, by starting out slow, I was never in a risky financial position. It made it much easier and less scary.

What resources do you recommend to others with a family member struggling with mental illness, including bipolar disease?

University of Michigan Depression Center
www.depressioncenter.org

National Network of Depression Centers
www.nndc.org

The Balanced Mind Foundation
http://www.thebalancedmind.org/

Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance
www.DBSAlliance.org

Depression Toolkit
www.depressiontoolkit.org

International Bipolar Foundation
www.internationalbipolarfoundation.org

Michigan Mental Health Commission
www.michigan.gov/mentalhealth

Mental Health America
www.nmha.org

Canadian Mental Health Association
www.cmha.ca

National Alliance on Mental Illness
www.nami.org

National Institute of Mental Health
www.nimh.nih.gov

America’s Mental Health Channel
http://www.healthyplace.com/bipolar-disorder/menu-id-67/

Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration
http://www.samhsa.gov/

BP Magazine – Hope and Harmony for People with Bipolar
www.bphope.com

Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance online home for wellness
https://www.facingus.org/

Partnership for Workplace Mental Health – A Program of the American Psychiatric Foundation
http://www.workplacementalhealth.org/

United States Department of Veterans Affairs
http://www.mentalhealth.va.gov/

Michael’s Bar Mitzvah

What’s next for you and ELLA Designs?

Since ELLA Designs is still relatively new and growing, I am hoping to keep increasing my customer base and exposure. I am currently selling in 3 stores in Detroit and 2 in Chicago and hoping to increase that number. I’m also doing open houses in the Detroit area, and sometimes in Cleveland and Chicago. I hope to continue to grow the business and keep making a contribution toward helping increase awareness about the disease of bipolar disorder while raising much needing funding to continue research—and eventually, find a cure for this devastating disease.

 

Contact Elizabeth Guz at liz@elladesignsjewelry.com

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Joining the Peace Corps in Midlife: Janet’s Story

After a long career in fundraising, a move, and a divorce, Janet made her dream of joining the Peace Corps come true. She writes about leaving everything behind to move to Kazakhstan with her new husband, in her memoir: At Home on the Kazakh Steppe.

Tell us a little about your background.

I was born at the start of the baby boomer generation, 1948. I’m aware that advertising has been aimed at me all my life; stories in leading magazines have been written with me and my cohorts in mind. It can be a bit heady.  And, I’m lately learning how powerful the idea of “white privilege” has been.

I grew up in New Jersey, just close enough to Manhattan that it became a backyard playground for my friends and me in high school. I attended what we called back then “an integrated” public school. Most of my friends from school were – we used to say Negro, then Black, then African-American. Now I understand we’re using “global majority.”

I’m the only child of an only child (and a single mom) so our family gatherings were quite small. But I spent a lot of time with my mother’s cousins who were more my age than hers.

Seven years old

I grew up in an evangelical, fundamentalist religion. And at 14, I was sure I was going to be a missionary nurse somewhere in Africa. But, after two years at a Bible college, I knew the missionary part was not for me; nor was the religion.  And, after one year in nursing school, that plan too dropped by the wayside. I realized those had been my grandmother’s dreams for me; I still needed to find my own dreams.

I went on to finish college at New York University (There was never a doubt that I was going to college; I was the first in my family to do so), majoring in sociology which had been the only class I’d gotten an A in prior to transferring to NYU. I married shortly after I graduated in 1971—as so many women did back before Ms. Magazine and feminism became more pronounced—and moved to the Midwest.

My sons were born in ‘73 and ‘76 and I was a suburban stay-at-home mother, trying my hand at hanging wallpaper, baking bread, and playing bridge. I was good at the first, OK at the second, and pretty terrible at the third. My sons were my joy and my life’s inspiration, as the song went.

With my young boys

I went back to school to get a Masters in sociology when my younger son was in school full time and, while I was writing my masters thesis entitled “The relationship between resources and responsibility,” I began a career in fundraising that would last nearly twenty years.

 

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

What makes this hard to answer is that I’ve had several 180-degree turns in my life.

One of the fundraising jobs I held was as Finance Director for my local Congressman. I worked for him for three years and vowed I’d never work another campaign year—too chaotic for my taste.  So, when I left that job, rather than go to another fundraising job, I went back to school, this time, January 1989, into the Ph.D. program in Political Science. I was in that full time for about four years. But a family crisis, which will be the focus of one of my next two memoirs, pulled me out before I could finish and I went back to fundraising for another five years. This time, at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. The crisis lasted from 1991 until 1994 and it pushed me into filing for divorce and moving to Philadelphia. I’ll just leave it at that for now. I’m still working out how to talk about it.

So, there was the leaving my husband of 23 years and moving back east to Philadelphia at age 45. Then, I ended my Mary Tyler Moore single life and married my new love, Woody, at age 51. That same year, I left fund-raising and fell into a new career as a psychotherapist. And, I gave that up too, to join the Peace Corps at age 55.

My wedding to Woody

Tell us about joining the Peace Corps. Why did you choose to do this?

While we were still in our “dating” phase, Woody and I had talked about joining Peace Corps. I have a scene in my memoir and have corresponded with former President Jimmy Carter about this, but Lillian Carter, the president’s mother, was an influence. She joined the Peace Corps in her 60s, you know, serving as a nurse in India. Until I had read that, I hadn’t realized that Peace Corps has no upper age limit.  So, Woody and I talked about how we’d both like to “join Peace Corps in our 60s, someday.” Of course, I failed to recognize at the time that since we are ten years apart, his 60s were going to come a good deal sooner than my 60s.  Then, we had 9/11 and as our country plunged quicker and quicker into war, a war that neither of us welcomed, we felt it was time to fulfill that earlier dream.

 

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

It’s funny you use “take the plunge” for I’ve used the metaphor of jumping off a high dive many times to describe some of the choices I’ve made over the years. I say that I make sure there’s water in the pool below, then I jump and figure the rest out on the way down.

Once I finally made the decision to join the Peace Corps (my husband had been pestering me for a few weeks to “read their website”), we filled out the application and medical forms and continued to live our lives while following the different hoops they set before us. Then, we learned of a completely unexpected “hoop” in the midst of all this, but a lovely one. Just as we’d emptied our house in Philadelphia and relocated to Chincoteague, Virginia where we had a small weekend cabin, we found out that my two sons were about to have their first babies.  So, everything got put on hold as we waited for my new grandbabies to arrive.

With my grandbabies

The process of applying to the Peace Corps has been dramatically streamlined since we went through it, that’s important to know. Now you can actually know where you are going and when you’ll leave before you begin your application. But in 2002 when we were applying, those were the last things we learned. There were legal hoops (background checks, fingerprints, etc.) and medical hoops (it’s a bit more difficult for those of us in our 50s and 60s to collect our medical history than it is for those in their 20s or 30s).  It just took longer. And, each time a question arose, there was a new medical test to undergo, all at our own expense of course.  We had caps put on teeth that our dentists had felt weren’t yet necessary.  But, since Peace Corps is fully responsible for your health and wellbeing, they didn’t want to suddenly be faced with having to put caps on our teeth in the middle of some third-world country.

I was 55, Woody 65, when we left for Kazakhstan and that new life so very far away – and not just geographically, culturally too. I gave up my home in Philadelphia, my new career that was just getting established after five years, lots and lots of tangible “things,” and my dog.

The mountains around Almaty, the former capital of Kazakhstan

How supportive were your family and friends?

For the most part, they were excited for us. My sons especially. My son David actually said, “Go now while [the grandchildren] are still young enough to not know you’re gone.”

Some colleagues of mine thought I had lost my mind.  And as we were selling my house, I recall a few of the prospective buyers, upon hearing why we were selling, responded with “better you than me.” My stepfather was the only one definitely against it. But that made joining seem an even better idea.

My family

Can you tell us a little about your experience in the Peace Corps and about the Kazakh country and people?

The Kazakhs pride themselves on their hospitality and that is what we certainly found while there. One of their many sayings, “Guests are a gift from God,” was such a dramatic departure for me, who prided myself on keeping tight boundaries on my private space.  My husband and I both taught English; I was at a teacher’s college and Woody was at the local university. I had only taught two semesters, while a teaching fellow at Kent State, and it hadn’t been a very good experience. But Woody had been a college professor for nearly 35 years. He knew going in that he was going to teach English.  But I had no idea until we were placed in Kazakhstan, just two months before we left.

Woody and I at the home of one of our students

 

What challenges did you encounter in the Peace Corps and coming home?

Challenge is what being in the Peace Corps is all about. Some you meet easily and smoothly, like when this gorgeous bathtub that I really wanted to soak in had no stopper. I just created one and used my heel to hold it down. Others are more difficult, like the expected culture shock that happens at about the two-month mark, when I just wanted all the “newness” to stop.  But language issues are fairly common; cultural differences, of course, are a constant. Like how I wound up flipping my students “the bird” for my first three months, without realizing it of course, because I didn’t realize that for them the pointer finger is considered vulgar. And then, when I learned that, it was quite difficult for me to stop doing something that I was used to doing so automatically. But I did learn and still today I tend to not use my finger to point, even at a blackboard. I use my palm or I grab a pencil if I must point.

Here are some photos of our first apartment. We moved in after living with a host family for the first nine months (Peace Corps policy).

Coming home, we faced the inevitable: what to do next. We knew we wouldn’t be living in our little vacation home that we’d kept (and rented while we were gone). And I knew I had changed. I began noticing things about American culture I’d not noticed before: how violent our TV shows were, how “entertaining” our news shows had become, how much greed has permeated our culture and become acceptable. It was quite troubling. That may indeed be why a life on an isolated 30-acre farm in Vermont was so appealing.

We came home in June of 2006, but our home was rented out through August. So, we wound up spending the summer traveling the east coast of the U.S. visiting Woody’s family, who lived in Canada and Florida, and my family, who lived in Ohio and Pennsylvania.  Along the way, my son Jon, who was living in Cincinnati at the time, asked us to “swing over” into Vermont to gather some real estate information for him as he and his family were thinking of moving to Vermont. So, coming south out of Canada, we just hung a left along the way and spent two glorious weeks in Vermont in early August. And, while we gathering lots of information for my son, we also discovered this tiny stone house situated in the Green Mountains of northeastern Vermont.  And, Jon and his family, by the way, moved instead to Cleveland.

Our yard in Vermont

Were there times when you thought about giving up?  

My big moment was about two or three months in. I was mostly exhausted (being enmeshed in a foreign culture is, actually, exhausting), and wound up sobbing on the post office wall.  But that turned out to be just what I needed. Here’s an excerpt from my book:

At least my explosion at the bus stop was among strangers and I could blend quickly back into anonymity. But later that week, another low point hit me while I was sitting in the teachers’ lounge. My witnesses were my colleagues.

The day was cold outside and the chill seeped through the walls. The teachers had been talking about the upcoming election.

“Things here will never change,” one of them said.

As though on cue, something deep within me burst. “With an attitude like that, it’s no wonder!” I snapped.

I knew immediately I shouldn’t have said it. At best, I’d said something rude, and, at worst, something intentionally insulting. But none of the teachers in the small room reacted. There was not even an uncomfortable silence. It wasn’t a language barrier issue. There simply wasn’t an aggressive bone in any of them. I wanted to scream; I wanted them to be angry, angry with me, just like I was.

Deep in my genetic code, there was a belief that any problem could be at least addressed if not fixed. No mountain too high, no ocean too deep, yadda, yadda, yadda. But in Kazakhstan, I found no ethic that said if the system is broken, it should get fixed. And what was even harder for me, I rarely heard anyone acknowledge that anything in the system was broken.

From where I stood that particular gloomy day, everything I saw was broken. From the women rifling through my grandchildren’s birthday presents, to teachers pushing a Ping-Pong ball up some stranger’s pant leg, to the scene at the bus stop. I was tired of dealing with behaviors I didn’t like, never mind understand.

I was worn out by the terrible bleakness all around me. I was irritated by eating when not hungry only because whoever offered the food might be offended if I didn’t. I was sick of drinking tea so full of the caffeine that wreaked havoc with my sleep. I was tired of trying to believe none of it mattered. In short, I was tired of being culturally sensitive.

I badly needed someone who would just listen to me, help me see things in perspective, laugh with me. Bakhit, the woman at my college whom I’d thought might become my first friend, had never again showed any interest in me. And Tatiana, a woman for whom I held out much hope for friendship during my first month in Zhezkazgan, had moved to Moscow the week after we’d met.

I’d lost Woody, too, as far as I was concerned. I was disappointed that he couldn’t cheer me up, that he never brought me broth when I was sick unless I asked him, that I had to ask him. I was annoyed at constantly tripping over his stuff in our tiny room and angry that when I tried to share my struggles with him, he didn’t understand.

I worried whether I even knew my husband at all. We’d once been so close. Perhaps we’d been too close—like standing before a tree or a mirror, so close you can’t see either the forest or the face. Now that I’d stepped back a bit, I wasn’t seeing what I expected to see. And the distance between us felt immense.

How much easier my adjustment would have been, I decided, if the Peace Corps had placed me in Africa or the South Pacific. With different clothing, an occasional loincloth at least, the visual reminders that I was in a different culture would surely have made my adjustment easier.

In Kazakhstan, the cultural differences were enormous, yet they were subtle, often out of sight. People looked like Americans, wore American clothing, had American hairstyles. The differences that were knocking me over were hidden from view. And things I normally did on automatic pilot, I now had to think about.

I couldn’t walk through a doorway without a conscious, “I must pick up my feet.” I couldn’t enter a home without going through the very conscious ritual of removing my shoes, a literal “rite of passage.” I didn’t mind removing my shoes. I liked the custom in many ways. What I minded was the thinking about it. I was on hyper-alert all day long, every day, and I was exhausted.

I pictured myself sitting by a pool, with a gorgeously tanned and well-muscled man with a flirtatious smile serving me an ice-cold margarita, a curious image, given that I don’t tend to enjoy pools. Pure luxury, that’s what I longed for, and a little relaxation. A respite.

I hit my metaphorical bottom a few days after I blew up at my colleague. After picking up a package with photos of my grandchildren, I sat on the cement wall outside the pochta, that clear no-no in this land of superstitions, to open it. But on this particular day, as I sat on the wall, no old woman ran over to me, insisting I stand up. Probably my loud sobbing kept them all at bay.

Tired of pushing my sadness away, tired of fighting it, I finally accepted that the only way around this difficult time was to go through it. “The only way around is through” was a mantra that had helped me through the painful years leading up to my divorce.

I’d spouted the adage over the previous ten years in workshops and various keynote addresses, in the textbook Woody and I wrote together, and with my clients in my psychotherapy practice.

“The only way around is through,” I repeated to myself now, and knew it was time to sit still and feel my feelings.

“Courage,” another adage I’d often quoted, is “feeling the fear and doing it anyway.” Now was the time for me to face up to my own fear du jour and push forward, confronting what I’d been afraid of, embracing my inner demons, if you will. I wanted my Peace Corps years to be good ones, my time worth all I’d left behind. I wanted to be happy again. That much I knew.

I thought of the yoga teacher I’d had throughout the early 1980s. Larry Terkel had taught me to find my “point of resistance” and “play with it.” His advice had been vital a decade later as I came out of my stuttering closet, finding that moment when I was stuttering and just staying with it, not being in such a hurry to get away. No more numbing out, no more excuses.

Sitting on the cement wall outside the Zhezkazgan post office, I’d do it again. I’d honor my “point of resistance,” feel my sadness, and stretch and pull it all I could.

My sobs helped. I sobbed through my embarrassment that I, the certified Gestalt psychotherapist, had been stuffing my feelings and numbing out to the many disappointments I’d found. And I sobbed through my dismay that I, the Master of Arts sociologist, had been seeing this culture through my own ethnocentric filter, wearing a sun visor of “my way” that colored everything I saw, judging the new by what I knew.

I sobbed for the discriminating eye that had served me well in so many arenas back home in my own culture, but that was wreaking havoc on me in Kazakhstan. And I sobbed through the denial that had convinced me I’d feel fine if only I gritted my teeth, stepped up, and plowed on. I sobbed through the frustrations and the anger of the past months: the institutionalized chaos that stopped me short on a daily basis, the neglect that surrounded me wherever I looked, and the dust that covered me with every step. And I sobbed away my disappointment in Woody, and my fear, believing that if we weren’t destined for the “happy ever after” I’d expected, I’d still be okay.

Mostly, I sobbed into my acknowledgment that I couldn’t control any of it. I leaned into my crying eagerly, hungrily, knowing as sure as I knew my name, that crying “clears away the sadness and creates a space for joy.”

When my sobbing had run its course, I blew my nose, wiped my face, and recognized a long-lost sense of excitement. I felt the eager anticipation of the unknown as I once had the night before leaving for a new summer camp, the days before a new school year began, or the weeks before each of my sons was born.

With renewed energy, I walked home, eager to share my metamorphosis with Woody. Hoping, too, that I’d no longer be so constantly angry with him.

I’d climbed that high dive for Woody in the beginning, then jumped off it for the stories I could tell my grandchildren about “making friends for America.” The resultant fall—where I’d been—had seemed endless. But once I hit, there on that post office wall, I knew the rest of my time in Kazakhstan would be categorically different.

I was there for me now, and the fact that I had no idea exactly how the rest of my time there would be different, was OK. I just knew it would be.

Toasts are important in the Kazakh culture. Here, Woody and I give a toast at a wedding.

What did you learn about yourself through this process?

I learned I can be unexpectedly tenacious in the face of seemingly insurmountable challenges. I have a core strength that, if I only tap into it, will carry me through. I had given up so very much, I was determined to make my time there successful. No matter what. It’s what I tried always to instill in my clients. It’s what I had believed cognitively for years; now I was actually experiencing it. It was a bit heady.

 

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

After Peace Corps, I’d have taken more time and talked more directly with my sons about our move to Vermont. We are a very long way from them in Ohio, from my grandchildren. As a direct result, I am not as involved in their lives as I’d like to be.

Woody and I with members of our first host family at Peace Corps’ Culture Day

You wrote a memoir about your experience. What prompted that?

At Home on the Kazakh Steppe: A Peace Corps Memoir developed out of my need to understand my experience. Why had I given up a life I loved to go half way around the world? What had I learned about the man I’d married? What had I learned about my own country and culture? Writing has long been a path to understanding. So, I began to write in January 2007, a few months after we returned home. Somewhere in that process, I realized I had a universal story—one of midlife change, of taking a risk, jumping into that great unknown, and not just surviving, but surfacing a stronger and more confident woman. And I hope I offered a new way of thinking about the artificial boundaries we so often place on friendship. At that point, it was a matter of learning how to write memoir, which works best if it reads like a novel. Workshops, books, mentors, and editors all helped me. But what drove me the most was my inner compulsion to tell this story.

What advice do you have for women seeking reinvention in midlife? Joining the Peace Corps?

Don’t wait until you are not afraid. Courage is “feeling the fear and doing it anyway.” Listen to your heart; your body knows what it needs; learn to trust its messages to you.

The process for joining Peace Corps has changed dramatically since I did it in 2002.  So, my advice is to start at their website. I think the successful volunteer needs to be someone committed to representing their country in a part of the world where not many Americans go. That’s one of the three Peace Corps goals that have stayed the same for over 50 years now: to introduce people of other countries to Americans and our ways. Of course, the third goal is to bring the culture of the country we lived in back home and share it with others.  Hence, my various speaking engagements, my book to some extent, and some of my blog posts. The second goal, by the way, is to bring the skills or talents that the host country seeks; in other words, to do the job we were sent there to do.

When Woody and I first sent in our applications online, our next move was to go to our local bookstore and order every book they could find that was written about the Peace Corps. I believe I wound up at the time with about four or five, among them two memoirs that were outstanding: River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze (P.S.) by Peter Hesler, who served in China, and The Village of Waiting by George Packer, who served in one of the African countries. Packer’s story was helpful to me while I was first acclimating, for his story was one of nearly interminable boredom.  As I never experienced that, I had a beacon telling me I was doing OK.

Celebrating my 56th Birthday with locals in Kazakhstan

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

I’m looking for what that next act will be. Certainly, I love the writing life. At 68, I now get to call my own hours; I can take off and visit the grandkids in Ohio at most any time I want.

And I love writing and researching for my weekly blog post at And So It Goes. Yet, the memories of those years as a psychotherapist are with me daily and I’d love to see clients again. I’m good at what I do; that much I’ve learned. I bring some of that experience and training into my blog posts, encouraging a robust conversation. I know there are women out there I can still reach with a message of hope – belief in yourself, trust in the universe, and faith that no matter what, you will be OK.

Our yurt

We just had a yurt installed in our front yard but, once again that jump into the unknown, how we will use it we are still figuring out.  Turns out our insurance won’t allow us to rent it.  Perhaps it’ll become a therapy room for my new practice.

 

Contact Janet Givens at givensj48@gmail.com

Book:At Home on the Kazakh Steppe: A Peace Corps Memoir

Website and blog

Facebook personal page

Facebook author page

Twitter @GivensJanet




Let’s Hear From an Expert: Tami Forman, Executive Director of Path Forward

You are the Executive Director of the nonprofit, Path Forward. Can you tell us about your organization’s mission?

Path Forward is a nonprofit organization on a mission to empower women (and men) to return to the paid workforce after they’ve taken two years or more away from their career to focus on caregiving. We fulfill our mission by working with companies to launch and implement mid-career internships.

What programs do you have in place to support your mission?

Our program has two big components. First, we provide materials and training for HR and recruiting teams at our partner companies so they can launch the program and recruit participants. This component includes training for the managers who will be supervising returnees. In our work we’ve discovered that managers need support to successfully work with returning professionals. Our manager curriculum covers recruiting, interviewing, onboarding, giving feedback and how to handle the end of the program, whether the returnee is offered ongoing employment or not.

Second, we provide training and development for the returnees in the program to help them successfully navigate their career restart. This component includes creating a plan to expand their skills and build relationships during the internship, giving them tools to navigate their work/life logistics, and developing skills around getting feedback and using it to fuel success. We also cover career management topics like resumes, interviews, and negotiating offers. Our sessions with the returnees boost their confidence and give them concrete plans for successfully transitioning back to their careers.

Our program began in Colorado with partner companies Return Path, ReadyTalk, SendGrid, MWH Global and SpotX. We expanded to California, where we’ve worked with PayPal, GoDaddy, Instacart, Zendesk and others; and to New York where we are working with AppNexus and Verisk Analytics. In all we’ve partnered with more than 20 companies to expand opportunities for women restarting their careers.

What unique challenges and opportunities do you find for women in midlife who are seeking to return to work after caregiving?

One of the biggest challenges is confidence. We see women questioning whether or not their skills are still relevant. Another challenge is how the work environment has changed. There is a whole new world of technology, terminology, team dynamics, and office set-up, to name a few of these changes. Last, a transition back to work affects the whole family. Returning parents may need to change how their childcare is managed and how their home is run.

The good news is that opportunities for women to re-enter the workforce are expanding. Companies are increasingly recognizing the value of diversity at all levels of the organization. We also find that when companies stop focusing on the perceived disadvantages of a candidate who’s taken a career break, they begin to see real advantages in hiring someone with a prior professional track record and a wealth of life experience.  For example, returnees often have really strong communication and collaboration skills, both from their prior work experience and from what they’ve learned through parenting, volunteering, and community work. Professional maturity and the ability to manage multiple projects and priorities are some other key benefits.

What is your track record?

To date, 80% of our program’s graduates have been offered ongoing employment at the company where they participated in the program. Another 10% are employed elsewhere, resulting in a 90% employment rate.

We’ve had so many successful women come through our program, but I’ll highlight a few. Lisa Stephens was an electrical engineer who took a 20-year career hiatus to raise her two sons. She taught herself several coding languages but needed someone to give her the chance to prove herself. Return Path gave her that chance and two years later she is still working there as a software engineer and was recently promoted. Marina Groothius had a prior career as a direct marketer and was able to use the Path Forward program to transition into a career as a marketing analyst. Marina was featured in a story in Fortune. PayPal brought nine women into their program and all of them are now employed as engineers—seven at PayPal, one at a small start-up, and one at Google. One of the women who stayed at PayPal is Shashi Dokania, who has an incredible story of being inspired to teach herself to code because of her son.

 

Do you have plans to expand? How can my readers find out more?

We are meeting with companies in Colorado, California, and New York, and are planning to expand into cities like LA, Seattle, Chicago, Austin, and Washington, D.C., among others. Readers should go to our website to sign up to hear about opportunities as they become available.

 

Contact Tami Forman at hello@pathforward.org

Website

Facebook

Twitter: @PathFWD

LinkedIn

Tami M. Forman is the executive director of Path Forward, a nonprofit organization that creates midcareer internship programs to ease the transition back to work for women (and men) after taking a break for raising children or other caregiving responsibilities. Path Forward trains HR teams and hiring managers on how to support these programs successfully and provides support to participants to make the experience successful. Tami is building this organization from the ground up, working with donors, partners and participants to fulfill the organization’s mission. Tami spent a decade as a tech marketing executive with data solutions provider, Return Path. Before that she worked in book publishing at Simon & Schuster and Houghton Mifflin and held senior-level web editorial positions at iVillage and News Corporation. Tami is passionate about helping women achieve work/life integration so they can find career success and personal satisfaction. She lives in New York City with her husband and two kids, aged seven and nine.




Advocating for Mesothelioma Awareness: Heather’s Story

Shortly after her daughter was born, Heather was diagnosed with mesothelioma. Now 11 years cancer-free, she has made it her mission to raise awareness of this deadly disease.

 

Tell us a little about your background…

I grew up in a small town in The Black Hills of South Dakota called Spearfish, which has a population of about 8000 people and is home to a small liberal arts university. My mom and dad moved us there when I was in kindergarten, so I don’t remember much before that. I have only one sister who is 4 ½ years older than I am. I graduated high school in 1987, took a year off and was a nanny on the east coast before I decided to go back home and give college a try. After a few years, I decided a regular college was not for me and enrolled in cosmetology school.

Our wedding day, 1999

I loved doing hair. I not only worked in a salon but was an educator for Redken, a color and product company. That job was what brought me to Minneapolis/St Paul, where I still live today. I met my husband, Cameron, shortly after moving here and we got married a short 10 months after. We knew it was right the first night we met. We decided to hold off on starting a family while I pursued my career; I eventually became part owner of the salon I worked in. After two years, we decided it was time to try and get pregnant, after all, I wasn’t getting any younger! Lily was born a little over a year later, on August 5, 2006. I was 36 years old.

After I had Lily, I started to experience some puzzling symptoms. I was losing an extreme amount of weight, and looking back, I had only gained 5 pounds during the whole pregnancy, so that was concerning. I had a low-grade fever that lasted a few hours every evening and I was beyond tired. I was bone weary, that is the only way I can explain it. I was also anemic and had been since my release from the hospital when I had given birth to Lily.

Then in mid-October, it felt like a truck was parked on my chest, I was having trouble breathing and would get out of breath after the smallest of exertions. Many of the symptoms I had were chalked up to being postpartum; I never dreamt it could be anything worse. Only after a very frightening incident—I had gotten a load of laundry up from our basement after I had put Lily in her swing, then sat on the couch and passed out for over an hour—that I knew something was seriously wrong.

Baby Lily

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

November 21, 2005 is the day the bottom dropped out of my world. I was diagnosed with malignant pleural mesothelioma, a deadly cancer that is almost always caused by asbestos exposure. I was exposed to asbestos as a child when my father worked with it and brought it home on his clothing. I remember wearing his dust-covered jacket to do my outside chores. I would grab his dirty coat to go feed our rabbits, rake leaves, or even just to go grab the mail. His coat always hung on the doorknob in our entry. I’d also run errand with him in his car, which was just as dusty as his coat.

My dad did construction, drywall sanding and clean up, and that joint compound had asbestos in it. He also did a lot of demolition, tearing apart old boilers that were covered in asbestos insulation, which meant he worked with a lot of it. Sadly, he died almost three years ago due to renal carcinoma, which can also be caused by asbestos exposure.

When I was diagnosed with mesothelioma, I was given just 15 months to live if I didn’t do anything. My baby was just 3½ months old and now I may not live to see her second birthday, my doctor told me with tears in his eyes. But he was prepared with a list of options for us. I could do chemotherapy and radiation, hope it would halt the cancer, and maybe give me five years, or try an experimental surgery, assuming I was a candidate, that consisted of removing my entire left lung where the cancer was. It would be performed by the best pleural mesothelioma surgeon in the world, Dr. David Sugarbaker, located in Boston at Brigham and Women’s Hospital. Without hesitation, my husband said “Get us to Boston.”

After surgery, Feb 2, 2006

Facing a potentially life-ending diagnosis and dangerous treatment will change you on a foundational level. I lost my career, my salon, and many people who I thought were friends. The early days of my cancer battle were incredibly isolating, terrifying, but at the same time, life altering.

When I was diagnosed, I did what anyone would do. I went online and read up on what I was up against. Boy was that a bad idea. In all my reading, I learned that most mesothelioma patients didn’t make it past 18 months and that the 5-year survival rate was less than 2%.

Just let that sink in for a minute. You have a new baby. You just found out you probably won’t make it to see her second birthday, and the chances of seeing her turn five and go to Kindergarten are even worse.

I had to put everything I’d read aside and get it into my head that these are just statistics and that from the minute I was diagnosed I skewed the statistics. For one, I was about 35-40 years YOUNGER than the average mesothelioma patient. Second, I was otherwise healthy. I HAD to beat it.

Cancer in and of itself is isolating. People don’t know how to act around you. The people I had worked with all but pushed me out the door. I felt very little support from those who I thought would help me the most. Instead, I felt like a burden and a pariah.

After my diagnosis, I went into the salon that I had been part-owner of to gather my belongings and tools that I had bought throughout the years, only to discover they had cleaned out my station and let everyone claim them. I had to go around to everyone’s station and get back the hundreds of dollars of tools that people had claimed. I felt not only unwanted, but as thought they’d already written me off for dead. Who does that to someone? I quickly sold off my share in the salon and have not had contact with many people from there since.

To be honest, having the people I thought were friends turn their backs on me hurt more than getting diagnosed with cancer. I didn’t have many friends outside of my work friends, so I felt really alone. Thankfully, my clients stepped up. I had the best clients in the world. One of them paid my car payments for two months; another came over every week and cleaned my house. I found out who my true friends were and who really cared about me.

in ICU after the surgery

On the other hand, support from my husband and my families could not have been better. I have two sisters-in-law who live nearby in the Minneapolis metro area and they were there for us at a moment’s notice. My mother-in-law, Lois, would make meals and bring them over to us. My sister-in-law Debbie, who’s also Lily’s Godmother, would take Lily overnight every Friday or Saturday while I was going through treatment, to give my husband a break from his caregiving duties. My sister-in-law Karen was always available during the day to watch Lily when urgent medical issues came up, like the time I needed a transfusion.

Our families also banded together with my clients to put on a benefit for us. They all worked to make things easier for us during a tumultuous time. My cancer diagnosis brought us all closer together as a family, both on my and on Cameron’s side. We know what is important, and we are there for each other when it matters. It’s so good to know I can count on them when I need them and I’m happy to help them too, as the need arises.

My husband was my rock through this whole thing. Even though the possibility of losing his wife and being a single parent was very real, he never let that grief take over. I was pretty self-sufficient during treatment and could take care of myself ok, but where he was invaluable was his help with Lily. There were times during chemo when I literally could not get out of bed, so tending to an 8-month old was nearly impossible.

Cam, my rock

When I was done with treatment, Cameron when back to school to get his degree so he could get a better job, knowing full well I would not be able to return back to work. He worked full time while also going to school full time for two years, and graduated with honors. His schedule was brutal. He would get up at 6am, drive a delivery truck all day, go to school at night, study until 1 or 2am, then wake up and do it all over again. He got a job working in IT at US Bank before he even graduated and has been there for six years now and loves his career. So my diagnosis was not only the catalyst for my next act, but for his as well.

I decided not to concentrate on the hurt. I had a much bigger battle on my hands. I had no time for petty people or people who would not support me. I held my head high and put my energy into what mattered, my health and my daughter. My daughter is what got me through the really hard times. Just looking at this sweet innocent baby who was born into this mess and didn’t deserve any of this was my entire reason to fight and rise above. I refuse to play the victim.

My “aha moment” came when I realized I didn’t want anyone to feel the way I felt. If it meant personally reaching out to every newly diagnosed mesothelioma patient, then so be it. I NEEDED people to know they were not in this alone.

With Lily during recovery

 

What is your next act?

I am an advocate for the prevention and treatment of mesothelioma cancer.

I am a patient advocate: a mentor, sounding board, supporter. When someone is diagnosed with mesothelioma, they usually go online and find, like I did, all bad things and very little hope. I wanted to be that beacon of hope in a sea of despair.

It started simply with talking to other patients every time I returned to Boston to see my surgeon for checkups, a trip that will take place regularly twice a year for the rest of my life. After Dr Sugarbaker started telling journalists who reached out to him about me, news stories started cropping up on Reuters and the local newspaper.

However, what really launched my advocacy was meeting a woman by the name of Linda Reinstein at a mesothelioma conference, about four years after my diagnosis. She and I clicked right away. She had lost her husband to mesothelioma a couple of years earlier. They had started a nonprofit called The Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization. She invited me to speak at their annual conference the next year.

Speaking at Senator Franken 2016 event to raise awareness about asbestos

After that, things just started to roll. I was approached by The Mesothelioma Cancer Alliance to be an advocate and blogger for them and I couldn’t say no. The blog has been hugely successful and reaches far and wide. The blogging community has been instrumental in getting the word out and helping me raise awareness. It’s been an amazing journey and my life has been enriched by the incredible people I’ve been able to meet as a result of this.

By sharing my story, blogging, and telling patients and their families that there are treatments that are helping patients with mesothelioma live longer, I give them that bit of hope that they so desperately need. I am available to talk to anyone and help anyone who finds themselves facing a mesothelioma diagnosis. There aren’t many people who are willing to put themselves out there for that purpose. I also serve as a conduit for information; I’ve learned a thing or two in the 11 years since my diagnosis and if my experience can help someone, then I’m doing the right thing.

I help point people to the Mesothelioma Applied Research Foundation so they can understand all their options. I DON’T offer medical advice as I am not medically trained, but advice from someone who’s been through something similar always helps.

Speaking at the 2016 ADAO conference

 

Can you tell us more about mesothelioma?

Mesothelioma is a cancer of the lining of the organs, of the mesothelium. There are three types: pleural (my diagnosis) which affects the lung; peritoneal, which affects the abdomen; and pericardial, which affects the heart. There is even a rarer subtype that affects only men and is found in the testicles.

Mesothelioma is almost always caused by asbestos exposure and has a latency period anywhere between 10 and 50 years. It’s a very rare cancer, with only about 3,000 people a year diagnosed in the US. Most people, upon diagnosis, are given mere months to live and are told to go home and get their affairs in order. The prognosis is poor, with most patients not making it past 18 months, or certainly beyond 5 years.

Many doctors don’t understand mesothelioma and therefore don’t know how to treat it. The best thing to do is seek out a specialist who knows how to treat the disease. That is who I credit with saving my life, my surgeon, mesothelioma specialist Dr. David Sugarbaker, who’s now at The Lung Institute at Baylor in Houston, TX.

Treatment varies depending on the type, but surgery is the main way people usually deal with it, along with chemotherapy and sometimes radiation. Treatments vary depending on the severity of the disease and whether the cancer has metastasized (spread to other places in the body). Immunotherapy is now being used as well in many clinical trials. Different treatment centers will gear treatment for each specific case; it is not a one-size-fits-all treatment plan.

 

Why did you choose this next act?

I’d say it chose me. I knew I wanted to help people, I just didn’t know how to go about doing it. Situations presented themselves to me and I jumped at them every time they came my way. It has not always been easy. I have to constantly relive those days of my diagnosis and the most uncertain time of my life, but when I do, it empowers me and takes the fear away. I didn’t know that this is what I was going to do—it was not a conscious decision to take it as far as I have—but I feel like there is so much more to do. I would love to do more public speaking and more fundraising. So many things to do! 

Kayaking for Meso, 2016

 

How hard was it to take the plunge?

Taking the plunge into advocacy and being an activist just feels RIGHT. A person’s story is powerful, especially stories of overcoming obstacles. I feel that my story can inspire others to think “If she could do it, I can too.”  I didn’t prepare for it; as I said before, the opportunities presented themselves and I took them. I still feel like there is so much more to do. I just know how I felt in those early years after my diagnosis and how I felt during treatment, I don’t want anyone to feel that loneliness and abandonment that I felt. Nothing like personally living it to prepare you for something!

 

Tell us about your challenges.

I try not to dwell on those. I have health challenges. Cancer treatment changes you. I don’t have the stamina I used to have. Chemo affected my brain in a way I never thought. I tend to be forgetful and have a hard time staying on task. It’s very similar to ADD and I recently started taking Adderall to help with the “chemo brain.”

I have to be careful of what I eat, how I eat, and when I eat because of stomach and esophageal issues due to my radiation treatments. I’ve lost most of the feeling in my left hand and don’t sweat on my left side anymore due to the surgery. There are all minor inconveniences, though, because I am still alive and well!

When you are involved in the cancer community, you are immediately thrust into a world of uncertainty and constant reminders of how fragile life is. People die. Sometime I lose three or four people I know in a week. Some hit me hard, but it doesn’t change the fact that cancer is an ugly ugly disease.

With Lily during my treatment

I lost my own dad to cancer. I watched him change from a health vibrant man to a mere shell. I held his hand as he passed, after we told him it was ok to go. It was one of the most humbling things I’ve ever been through. That is the ultimate in trust, to let another human take care of you in your most vulnerable state. I’ve been fortunate to be there for a few people near the end of their lives and it is something that changes you on a visceral level. I have a very different relationship with death than I did 10 years ago. It used to scare me, now I see it as part of the circle of life, something greater than you or me.

There are times when it gets to be so incredibly overwhelming. The stories are heartbreaking and the stark reality of being a patient advocate is that people die. Mesothelioma is particularly brutal; this cancer wreaks havoc on your body and you are a shadow of your former self.

I’ve lost more friends than I can count. There are weeks when our mesothelioma community loses 3-5 people. It’s devastating and my heart just shatters every time it happens. I’ve had to take time to take a step back, mourn my losses and recover. But I get up, dust myself off, dry my tears and jump back in. It is those losses that keep me going, as strange as it sounds. I feel like I need to be their voice.

With fellow advocates and women who’ve lost family members to mesothelioma, 2016

The patients’ loved ones are the biggest supporters I have. It’s incredible, really, when you think about it. These people have lost someone so dear to them, whether it be a husband, wife, mother, sister, or brother, but they tell me that they are proud of me. I love to hear the stories of their loved ones, who they were, what they were like. See, I only get to know the people when crisis strikes, after the diagnosis and not before. They are more than a cancer diagnosis. They lived full lives and now we are left with their memories.

The mesothelioma community is incredible and it is those relationships that I’ve built in my 11 years that keep me fighting. In the beginning, though, it was all about my baby girl and my husband. I was not going to give up for them, but the emotions got pretty raw in those dark hours in the middle of the night after I was diagnosed. I couldn’t sleep so I would get out of bed and go into my baby’s nursery. I would watch her sleeping by the glow of the nightlight and vow to fight for her. The tears would silently fall as I thought how unfair it was to her. She didn’t deserve to have a sick mommy; she needed me. That right there was 100% my reason to keep going. She just turned 11 this last August, and I am just in awe of the person she is becoming.

My family, 2016

 

What did you learn about yourself through this process?

Wow, where do I start? I learned I was stronger than I ever thought I could be. So many people tell me how brave I am, and I sometimes don’t know how to take that. I don’t think I was brave. I didn’t choose to get cancer. I had to fight, I had to live to raise my daughter. I don’t know if that is bravery or just stubbornness.

I learned that the desire to help people feel good about themselves when I was doing hair, crossed over into my advocacy work and that desire is even more ingrained than before. I learned that I have a voice and that I can use it to bring about change. I’ve learned that having faith is instrumental. For me, it is faith in God, faith in my medical team and most of all, faith in myself. I love that.

 

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

Honestly? No. Being diagnosed with cancer was all at once the worst thing that ever happened to me, and the best. It made me who I am today. The people I’ve met since are some of the most amazing people and we connect on a deeper level because of what I’ve been through. There is so much more I want to do that I don’t waste my time thinking of the “what ifs.”  My life is what it is because of what happened to me and the way I chose to react to it. I’ve never played the victim, and never asked “Why Me?” Instead, I took the position of why NOT me? I’m a fighter, I come from a long line of strong, independent women and I draw on that strength to move forward.

 

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

Ask yourself what is the worst that can happen? In my case, quite honestly, the answer was that I could die. I thought long and hard about that. So, if I do die, I want to leave a legacy. That gave me the courage to pursue this. For most people, reinvention is something incredibly scary. Find people who inspire you, people who have done something you admire, or have taken something awful and turned it around.

There is an author and speaker whom I admire greatly; her name is Glennon Doyle Melton. I was listening to Minnesota Public Radio and she was talking about her life and series of choices and circumstances that brought her to where she is. She says to run TO that which frightens you. Embrace it. I LOVE that! How often do we let our fears take hold and blow things out of proportion? If you face those fears it takes their power away, and lets you conquer them!

This is the whole premise behind our Lung Leavin’ Day celebration we have every year near the anniversary of my surgery, when I lost my lung on February 2, 2006. We write our fears on a plate in sharpie marker and smash those plates in a bonfire in our back yard. In Minnesota. In February! It’s a tradition shared by 100 or so of our closest friends. So, run TO that which scares you and conquer it.

Lung Leavin’ Day, 2013

 

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

Draw on your personal experience. Speak from the heart and take chances. Advocacy is an intensely personal journey. It is born out of a desire to right that which is wrong, or to help others. It is incredibly rewarding but at the same time really hard. You need to be prepared to have your heart broken and to celebrate. Blogging? Well that is pretty easy, sit and write! Ok, easy may be pushing it. Having a love of writing helps, as does a topic or lifestyle that you want to share. Many blogs have started out simply as a way to document a journey for their kid and it grows into something much larger. That choice is up to you, as to how much time and energy you want to commit to it.

With Dr. Sugarbaker, 2015

 

If someone wants to learn more about mesothelioma, how would she do that?

The Mesothelioma Cancer Alliance

My blog on that same site: www.mesothelioma.com/heather

The Mesothelioma Applied Research Foundation

The Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization

Imerman Angels (a cancer patient mentoring organization)

I Had Cancer

 

What other resources would you like to share?

I like inspirational women. Women who overcome, who do things on their terms, despite what people say. These women are strong beyond what they imagined.

Jill Smokler of Scary Mommy: She took a funny web page and turned it into a movement.

Glennon Doyle Melton of Momastery and her new book, Carry On, Warrior: The Power of Embracing Your Messy, Beautiful Life.

The Bloggess, Jenny Lawson, who speaks often about mental illness—bravo! She has three books out: Let’s Pretend This Never Happened: A Mostly True Memoir, Furiously Happy: A Funny Book About Horrible Things, and You Are Here: An Owner’s Manual for Dangerous Minds.

Jo Hilder, a friend and author from Australia, who is a cancer survivor as well. She has written two books about cancer: Soul Letters for the Cancer Sojourner and Things Not To Say To Someone Who Has Cancer.

Luvvie Ajayi, who started The Red Pump Project, a nonprofit raising awareness about the impact of HIV/AIDS on women and girls.

 

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

I hope to write a book about my journey. We shall see if that comes to fruition. I would also love to be an inspirational or motivational speaker. TEDX! That is my bliss.

 

Contact Heather Von St. James at heathervsj@gmail.com

Facebook

Twitter: @HeatherVSJ

Main Blog Page

10 Year Blog Series with my entire story

 




Founding Bright Spot Therapy Dogs: Cynthia’s Story

28hinkley350dpiAfter her daughters left for college, Cynthia knew she needed to find work that provided her renewed meaning and fulfillment. Having felt the power of dogs to soothe the losses of her brother and her mother, Cynthia founded a nonprofit that provides animal-assisted therapy wherever it is needed.

Tell us a little about your background…

I was raised in Wethersfield, Connecticut, a suburb of Hartford. We were a family of five, my mother and father, sister and brother, along with several pets including a big white rabbit, three cats, two black Standard Poodles, two canaries, and two pet mice. Dogs were always my favorite pets. I can remember every dog I’ve had—many through the years.

From the time I was seven years old, I spent every summer living on a lake in Maine on 200 acres of woodland that looked to the West and the White Mountains in the distance. The trip took a full day back in those days, on back roads most of the way; the Mass Pike and other major highways had not yet been built. Through the years as they were constructed, detours made for an equally long ride to what seemed to me to be paradise. We packed up both family station wagons—filled with all necessary supplies for the entire summer, including, of course, our pets.

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My childhood summers in Maine were idyllic. My father had paths carved throughout the 200 acres and we gave each path a special name. My mother painted the name of each trail on a piece of barked wood and these were on each of the trailheads. My father led us on a trail walk each day, with the dogs always following along beside us. Mother knew the names of many of the wildflowers that grew on the woodland floor and the birds that abounded in the wild. Those she couldn’t identify, we looked up together, using the many wildflower and bird books we kept on the bookshelf in the cabin.

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With my sister Melissa and my brother Bobby, 1954

As a family, we took up the game of golf, and headed to the golf course every morning while the sun was still low on our side of the lake. Nights and rainy days, we played board games; Monopoly was my favorite. My grandparents, my mother’s father and stepmother, spent an entire month at the lake with us each summer. They were Scottish immigrants who had settled in Scotia, New York, in the early 1900s. Each afternoon, my grandmother would serve us afternoon tea, a Scottish tradition, and I’d sit for hours listening to my grandfather tell stories about the old days in Scotland. While we all hung out on the beach, my grandmother taught me how to knit when I was just eight years old—something I still do today.

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Afternoon tea on the beach: My grandparents with my mother and our poodles, Talley and Cy (1959)

I developed a strong love of Maine, which in the 1950s was literally undiscovered by folks from Boston who today flock there in droves, clogging the interstates daily during the summer months. I lived for the two months we spent at the lake. As soon as school ended in June, we headed to the lake and remained there—without a phone or any of today’s electronics now considered necessities—until the day after Labor Day. Through the years, my parents built a second, then third cabin, each overlooking the lake and the mountains beyond. In time, my three daughters got to enjoy the peace and beauty of nature that I enjoyed as a child.

Elmira College graduation 1968

I received a liberal arts degree from Elmira College and a Masters in Education from the University of Hartford. My career path took many twists and turns. During the ‘70s and ‘80s, I taught grades 2-6 in Connecticut, Vermont, and Massachusetts. In the ‘80s, our three daughters were born in Hanover, NH, where we lived for five years while my husband did his surgical residency at Dartmouth-Hitchcock. When my husband’s residency was completed, we moved to Westhampton, Massachusetts, where he joined a private general surgery practice in Northampton, Massachusetts. Here, I immersed myself in volunteering in our daughters’ elementary school and was soon elected to the School Committee and later to the School Building Committee.

Our three daughters with our Irish Setters, Breezy and DD and our English Setter Beatrice (also my first therapy dog)

Our three daughters with our Irish Setters, Breezy and DD and our English Setter Beatrice (also my first therapy dog)

In the mid ‘90s, I took a real estate course at the suggestion of my father who invested in real estate as a hobby. I found the course so interesting that I took the exam for my real estate license and became a realtor. I think my interest in real estate stems from my years as a child going with my father to check out possible investment properties in Maine. I was fascinated by these adventures that often led to purchases, sometimes not. As a real estate professional, I enjoyed studying the market and working with clients to negotiate their purchases, but I disliked the unpredictability of the hours I worked—any time, any day. After nine years, I left real estate to pursue a career in non-profit fundraising and development.

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With Phoebe and Trudi

By the time I started working in fundraising and development, our three daughters, born within a 36-month period, were off to college. A job in this field landed in my lap. I was to work in the area of alumni relations at the private school our daughters attended for their middle school years. I knew many of the new alumni well and worked at establishing their continued interest in the school. It was part time, at first, then moved to full time with no end to the workday, finding me still in the office at 7:00 p.m. and holding events on the weekends. I was working at something that didn’t pull at my heartstrings. That was the missing piece in much of the work I had done. I felt a sense of fulfillment as a teacher helping young children succeed in school, but when I returned to teaching for a brief period once all three of our daughters were in school full-time, education had changed dramatically. There was so much required paperwork, so many meetings, making less time to work directly with the students. I longed to feel an attachment to what I did in my work life. I needed to feel I was doing something to help others in order to have a sense of fulfillment, and I needed to be in control of my work life. I needed to be the one in charge.

Dogs have always been an important part of my life. My dogs have provided comfort and companionship in times of illness and tragedy. When I was eleven years old, my 16-year-old brother committed suicide, forever changing our lives. I idolized my big brother. He taught me to ride my two-wheeler and we biked to school together, he in the sixth grade and I in kindergarten. He taught me to swim at the lake and saved me from drowning when I ventured out too far. Back in 1958, there were no child psychologists in the schools to help in such a situation. It was back to business as usual. Back to school and into routine.

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My dad with Talley

Yet, I was devastated, my world as I had known it had come to an end. I didn’t want my classmates to ask me questions or to tell me how sorry they felt. It was my black Standard Poodle Talley who comforted me in my time of need. In the days following my brother’s funeral, he didn’t leave my side. Once back at school, he would wait by the door for me until I came home and remained with me until bedtime when he lay by my bed at night. He offered the unconditional love I needed then. Just to be able to sit quietly—no words spoken—just hugging this gentle, non-judgmental dog. Talley saved me, making it possible for me in time to overcome my loss. My love for dogs took on a deeper meaning through this experience that sowed the seeds that would years later be my life’s calling.

Beatrice, my first therapy dog

Beatrice, my first therapy dog

In 1992, it was my dog Beatrice who brought me great comfort when my mother died unexpectedly. I was deeply distraught and needed to do something to fill the void brought on by my mother’s death. With Beatrice, I began my work with therapy dogs. I wanted to share her special love and companionship with others in need. Back in the early ‘90s, visiting with a therapy dog in healthcare or educational environments was rare in the New England area, but I was determined to get us in the door of a new nursing home that recently opened not far from where we lived. After surmounting initial resistance from the activities director in charge of special programs, Beatrice and I began our volunteer visits. She was an immediate hit.

Beatrice was a sweet, gentle English Setter that the residents and staff adored. They all looked forward to her Friday afternoon visits that lasted a period of nine years until her death from brain cancer at the age of eleven. While Beatrice was brightening the lives of many at the nursing home, I saw firsthand how powerful human-canine interaction can be. When Beatrice died, I was both devastated and at a loss to continue the meaningful work she and I started together. This was work I knew must continue. I accepted my breeder’s gift of another dog.

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Beatrice visiting the nursing home during the holidays

With my new dog Trudi, I continued visiting the residents at the nursing home and was asked by the chaplain at Cooley Dickinson Hospital in Northampton, Massachusetts, to establish a therapy dog program there. I was hooked and I wanted to spread the power of the human-canine bond to other healthcare environments and wherever therapy dogs could be of help. For the past nine years, I had witnessed Beatrice brightening the days of folks who were sad or lonely, who needed a special friend to talk to, the companionship of a friendly dog like the beloved dogs they had when they were younger. Beatrice had been “their dog” every Friday afternoon. She brought smiles to the faces of many during her time.

It took two years to establish the program at the hospital. Many meetings were held, policies and procedures written, and rewritten. Finally patients in the hospital were enjoying the canine companionship of Trudi as she made her rounds on the psychiatric floor and medical floor of the hospital. Our work was just beginning.

 

When did you start to think about making a change?

Although I found all of my work through the years interesting in one respect or another, I never found it to be fulfilling. When I hit my 50s, I knew I needed more. As a fundraising and development officer at a private school, I attended monthly meetings of Women in Philanthropy. It was at one of these meetings, in 2003, that I met Barbara Reinhold, speaker for the luncheon meeting. At the time, Barbara was director of both the Career Development Office and Executive Education for Women at Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts, and she had recently published her book Free to Succeed: Designing the Life You Want in Today’s Free Agent Economy, which was the subject of her talk. I was mesmerized.

What Barbara was saying resonated with me. I knew at that moment that I needed to design the work life that I wanted. I needed to be doing work that made me feel fulfilled. This was the “aha” moment. It was clear to me that what I loved doing was bringing happiness to those in need through the human-canine bond. Barbara mentioned to the audience of women that in addition to counseling students at Smith on their career paths, she runs her private career and executive coaching practice in Northampton and is an interactional motivational speaker.

After the meeting, I read Barbara’s book from cover to cover and contacted her to set a time for a private session. This proved to be the best money I ever spent. I remember telling Barbara that I wanted to keep working at something I love for as long as I could. I firmly believe it’s healthy for the mind and body. To this, she asked, “Well then, do you see yourself working at your current job for as long as you can?” This put things in clear perspective for me. Of course, the answer was no. I came out of my first session feeling empowered and with a clear vision of what I intended to do. I had a recording of our session in hand and homework—to come back with an outline of what I plan to do to achieve my goal.

At the next session, we discussed my outline together. Barbara voiced amazement at the clarity of my plan and vision, saying it usually takes people two years to work through a plan like this. We both agreed, I was well on my way. I immediately set forth to put my plan to create a fulfilling future in action by taking step one: I resigned from my current job.

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What is your next act?

In 2004, at the age of 57, I founded Bright Spot Therapy Dogs, Inc., a non-profit organization dedicated to promoting wellness in people of all ages through human-canine interaction. Bright Spot Therapy Dogs trains and certifies dogs and their handlers in the skills and techniques needed to make meaningful visits to people wherever therapy dogs can be of help and works with facilities in creating programs incorporating animal-assisted therapy. Community outreach is an avenue I use to spread the good work of our trained therapy dogs teams, giving as many as 24 talks and presentations annually. What started as a one-person, one-dog operation, visiting two healthcare facilities in western Massachusetts, has developed into over 200 active therapy dog teams visiting hospitals, mental health facilities, Alzheimer’s units, hospice care, assisted living facilities, schools, libraries, and specialized programs for children, throughout New England—with requests for therapy dog visitors coming from over 140 healthcare and educational facilities.

King in the Reading Buddy program

King in the Reading Buddy program

Our literacy initiative using our specially trained Reading Buddy dogs in elementary schools, middle schools, and now high schools to work in one-on-one sessions with low performing students has improved test scores to back up the positive impact the dogs have on each child. Bright Spot Therapy Dogs has been most fortunate to receive funding over a three-year period from the Charter Oak Foundation to assist with the development of this program and to enable us to create our Bright Spot Therapy Dogs Reading Buddy Book Series. In addition, colleges and universities now recognize the therapeutic effect dogs have on students and are requesting our therapy dogs on campus during mid-term and final exams.

In 2001, I was awarded the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (MSPCA) President’s Award for outstanding leadership in bringing comfort to elderly who have little contact with the outside world, through visits from therapy dogs. And, in 2010, I received the Massachusetts Association of Realtors Good Neighbor Award for helping people of all ages in the community through the human-canine bond. My public speaking engagements started as the keynote speaker at the MSPCA Happy Endings Gala. My subject, of course, was the meaningful work of therapy dogs. In 2013, I spoke at the Bay Path University Women’s Leadership Conference on wellness through human-canine interaction, and in 2014, I was a presenter at the Community Organizations Active in Disaster Summit Conference, talking about taking Bright Spot Therapy Dogs to Newtown, Connecticut, in the wake of the Sandy Hook Elementary School tragedy.

Speaking at the Women's Leadership Conference

Speaking at the Women’s Leadership Conference

What has brought me the most joy and satisfaction in receiving these honors and opportunities to speak is that today the importance of the human-canine bond is being seen as therapeutic and is being taken seriously. I love my work because dogs have been a central part of my life since early childhood and now I watch them help others in need of the unconditional love and companionship only a dog can give. I experience great joy when inspiring others to become involved in this meaningful work.

Social media has played a big part in spreading the word about my work with therapy dogs. For quite some time, I tossed around the idea of starting a blog about my work and was encouraged by friends who knew I had ambitions of writing a book on this topic in the future. My son-in-law, who is very savvy with computers and has a dog-centered blog of his own called Fido Loves, offered to get the blog set up for me. We even brainstormed together and came up with the name Say Hello Spot. Say Hello is a command given to a therapy dog when visiting; Spot is a common name for a dog; and my English Setters are spotted. The name stuck.

Julia visiting residents at the nursing home

Julia visiting residents at the nursing home

 

In December 2010, my sweet therapy dog Julia died suddenly of cancer, and that very day I wrote my first post to honor her memory. Today, Say Hello Spot: Living and Working with Therapy Dogs has over 60,000 loyal followers who read my posts, written three to four times a week, recounting my visits with my therapy dogs and our life at home in the country. A Facebook page for Bright Spot Therapy Dogs, Inc. followed and my posts from Say Hello Spot are shared to Facebook and Twitter. I hear from people all over the world who either make visits with their own therapy dogs or who are interested in becoming involved with this meaningful work. Bright Spot Therapy Dogs began to see a dramatic increase in requests for training and certifying with our organization. This increase is a direct result of our presence on social media. People started coming from all over New England. As long as they could drive to us to receive their training and evaluation, they were coming.

Newly trained teams having their on-site evaluations

Newly trained teams having their on-site evaluations

Back in 2003 when I met with Barbara Reinhold, in addition to discussing the founding of my therapy dog organization, I told her that I wanted to write a book about this meaningful work. Again, she gave me some valuable advice I am so glad I followed: “You are attempting to undertake two very involved and demanding things,” she said. “Start by founding your non-profit, continue to build your credentials as a leader in the field, do your own visiting with your dogs and take notes along the way. Jot meaningful happenings down on 3×5 index cards and drop the cards into a file marked BOOK. Your knowledge will grow, and when you are ready, write the book. It will be so much richer.”

By 2011, five of my dogs had been therapy dogs and together we had made over 30,000 visits to nursing homes, hospitals, psychiatric facilities, Alzheimer’s units, hospice patients, and were just piloting our children’s reading-to-a dog program in an elementary school. The time seemed right. My mind was brimming with stories of our visits, of the long-term relationships with many folks we visited week after week. What I had witnessed between my dogs and the people they visited was magical. I saw the therapeutic power of the human-canine bond at work with every visit I made. I was compelled to put these treasured events on paper.

My bookshelf

My bookshelf

At the suggestion of my eldest daughter, a gifted writer herself, I joined a writing group at our local library and found in this group a welcoming and supportive community of writers who encouraged me to move forward with my project. The writing began. Susan Stinson, facilitator of the group and author of several books, became my mentor who shepherded me through the first draft of my book. The writing just streamed out of my head very quickly. I had a fear of forgetting many of the magical moments I had witnessed. I wanted to get them written down and to share them with others before I forgot them.

The first draft took exactly one year. I had regular meetings with Susan, at which I was accountable to produce 50 completed pages. This is what kept the pace going. Once the stories were written down, I felt a sense of relief. I found that the more I wrote, the easier the words flowed. I often posted daily on my blog and began writing therapy dog articles for the monthly magazine published by The English Setter Club of America. This led to a request for me to write an article for the American Kennel Club Gazette. In January 2016, after many revisions and a fine-tuning with the help of my talented editor Celia Jeffries, I completed the book. I am currently seeking a literary agent to represent my memoir, Therapy Dogs: Doing What Comes Naturally.

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Why did you choose this next act?  

I credit my mother for being the reason I ended up choosing a career in community service revolving around dogs. She was an animal lover who taught me at a young age to love, care for, and respect animals of all kinds. By her example, I learned to give back to the community in which I live. As a young child, I watched in awe and with growing respect as she eagerly took on obligations such as Girl Scout leader, PTO president, women’s club president, hospital volunteer, church choir member, and Sunday school teacher. When asked to help, she was there. I still have vivid memories of her presiding over a women’s club meeting and singing in a PTO production of Oklahoma.

My parents on their wedding day, 1939

My parents on their wedding day, 1939

My father, too, had a hand in shaping my future career plan. He instilled in me at an early age that I could be and do anything I set my mind to by persevering and working hard. His parents were Swedish immigrants who came to America in the late 1800s, like many others, to build a better life for themselves and their family. Through their hard work and perseverance, they did just that. My father took over the reins of the printing company his father started in 1905. I saw in him a leader, a person who took charge. He had the respect of all who worked for him. They felt his kind, fair hand in the running of the workplace. I am forever grateful for the examples they set for me.

Lily with students at Bay Path University, providing stress relief during finals

Lily with students at Bay Path University, providing stress relief during finals

 

How hard was it to take the plunge?

By the time I took the plunge, I had worked with therapy dogs for twelve years. I loved what I was doing, saw that requests for therapy dog visits were beginning to grow, and recognized that this was too important not to involve more people. The need was there for an organization that would work with both volunteers and facilities and I wanted to be the one to do it. The plunge was driven by my commitment to spread the meaningful work of therapy dogs to more healthcare environments and to people of all ages.

My past careers in education, real estate, and non-profit fundraising/development proved invaluable to my reinvention. I have drawn on skills from each, and continue to do so today. They were the best education in preparing me to found and run my own registered 501 (c)(3) non-profit organization.

On the set of Mass Appeal, WWLP Channel 22 TV

On the set of Mass Appeal, WWLP Channel 22 TV

 

How supportive were your family and friends?

My husband supported my decision 100%. In my case, I was founding a non-profit organization driven by volunteers. It would be many years before I, as executive director, would draw a salary. Although I was walking away from an excellent salary, with our daughters now finished with college and living and working on their on, we were able to manage on my husband’s income alone. I was very fortunate in this respect that afforded me the seed money needed to move forward with establishing Bright Spot Therapy Dogs, Inc.

 

My husband and our daughter Eve at the lake, 1985

My husband and our daughter Eve at the lake, 1985

 

What challenges did you encounter?

Staying on top of our rapid growth and all that entails is often an everyday challenge. With growth, both in donors and in volunteers, our income has grown, and so have our expenses. Once we went over the $25,000 income threshold, Bright Spot was required to file tax returns, although, as a non-profit, no taxes are due.

Liability insurance in the state of Massachusetts is difficult to obtain for any business dealing with dogs. I have to work closely with our business manager (a dedicated volunteer and Board member), our accountant, and our insurance agent.

My desk: Nature out of my window and dogs at my feet -- the perfect work environment

My desk: Nature out of my window and dogs at my feet — the perfect work environment

Working out of a home office offers great pluses—like having my dogs surround my desk while I work and being able to make my own work schedule, which affords me the flexibility to work out at the YMCA, bike, kayak, and hike with the dogs and my friends. The major downside for me is having no end to my workday. It’s not unusual for me to be working on donor thank you letters or writing a grant at 9:00 at night. I’m constantly trying to get myself to shut down at a reasonable time and end the day with a walk (in good weather) or a class at the YMCA in the winter. Late afternoons, I head to the Y for a one-hour spin class that completely clears my head. Afterward, I head home, shower, have dinner, and relax. This is my goal for each day of the week. Weekends, too, I’m often finishing work for Bright Spot.

I’m trying to craft a more all around healthy work-play program for myself. Currently, I am the sole salaried employee; all other key management roles are held by dedicated members of our Board of Directors, who volunteer countless hours of their time to maintain and grow Bright Spot. When we lose one of these key members, as we do from time to time, it falls back to me to come up with a solution and to carry on.

Board members Ern Damon and Patti Tibbetts work on our annual appeal mailing

Board members Ern Damon and Patti Tibbetts work on our annual appeal mailing

I have never for one minute regretted my decision to leave a secure career to found Bright Spot Therapy Dogs. I work very hard, and sometimes seven days a week, but the difference is that I love what I do. If I had to name one thing that I miss, I’d have to say my weekly office meeting where our department met together as a team to discuss work accomplished over the past week and plans for the upcoming week, and work out problems together. Brainstorming is such an invaluable tool. I miss having office staff to hold brainstorming sessions—if needed—at the drop of a hat.

Michelle Karb and her therapy dog Coco visiting a friend in the nursing home

Michelle Karb and her therapy dog Coco visiting a friend in the nursing home

 

Were there times when you thought about giving up?  

Truthfully, there are times when I become so overwhelmed by the magnitude of my creation that I ask myself, “My gosh, what have I done?” When I started, I really had no idea how far this would go. I didn’t even think about that, I just knew I needed to do it. Things took off very quickly, growing slowly, at first, but as we grew, and word spread, the growth rate accelerated, often running ahead of me.

Two major things keep me going. The people who receive our visits are helped so much by our dogs (the hospice patient in her final days of life comforted by my sweet dog lying alongside her, his head resting gently on her chest; the terribly distraught patient on the psychiatric unit who hung to my dog for support and sobbed into her fur; the nursing home residents waiting each Friday for “their dog” to make rounds), I can’t let them down. And, the hundreds of volunteers we have now trained and certify annually through Bright Spot Therapy Dogs, I can’t leave them without an organization representing them. This meaningful work and the donors, sponsors, and foundations that support us cannot be let down. I have learned to stop, take a deep breath, and get some rest. I hit my “reset” button and wake up the next morning knowing I can’t imagine my life, at this point in time, not being executive director of the organization that I founded.

Never once did I think, I can’t do this. When we have a setback, I put one foot in front of the other and look for a solution to the problem. My positive attitude has served me well. I have learned that my father was right. I can be and do anything I set my mind to by persevering and working hard.

Volunteers in Newtown, CT

Volunteers in Newtown, CT

 

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

Although I often envied those who graduated from college with a definite career path in mind and walked that path throughout their entire work life, I don’t regret my many detours. I think the twists and turns I traveled were all necessary for me. I love to explore new things, and learn something new and worthwhile with every door I open. I’ve come to realize that I’m simply not that person who can stay on track until the end of my time.

 

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

Absolutely go for it! Don’t waste the rest of your life stuck in something you don’t love. If you feel passionate about what it is you want to do, the possibilities are endless. I firmly believe it’s never too late to try something new.

Don’t be afraid to ask for help when you need it. You’ll be surprised how much people are willing to help one another. Surround yourself with people who believe in your mission and who can bring value to the table. The people who make up the Bright Spot Therapy Dogs Board of Directors are certified Bright Spot volunteers themselves visiting with their dog(s) in a myriad of environments. They are business people in the community – a bank vice president, an owner of an information technology business, a middle school principal, a retired high school English teacher, a graphic designer. They offer valuable counsel to the every day running of the organization and to the development of our strategic plan for the future.

Board member Kevin Russell and his therapy dogs Niles and Carber visit a hospice patient in her home

Board member Kevin Russell and his therapy dogs Niles and Carber visit a hospice patient in her home

Networking is an extremely valuable tool. Aside from having Barbara Reinhold as my initial mentor in the early days, I network with people in fundraising/development, in healthcare and education, with dog trainers, and those running therapy dog organizations in other parts of the country. For some people, this is not easy. I find mingling – making small talk – hard to do. But, bottom line, it’s a necessity. Everything I have learned and everyone I have met has been the direct result of networking. Each time I attend a conference or large event, I give myself a little pep talk ahead of time. My inner voice says, “Just get out there and do it!” And, it never fails, on my drive home, I tell my inner voice, “You were right.” I’ve always met someone or learned something new that can be of help to me and the work I do. And, just like anything, the art of networking does get easier, if you do it enough.

The Internet is a great way to communicate with people at a distance, but whenever possible, I set up a face-to-face meeting for coffee at a local café. Some advice is free, but don’t expect it all to be, nor should it be. People need to be paid for their expertise. I can’t say for certain if I would have taken the plunge back in 2004 without my invaluable sessions with Barbara Reinhold. All I needed were two sessions with her—money well spent. I hired my mentor Susan Stinson who got me through the first draft of my book, and I paid Celia Jeffries, my talented editor who helped me polish my final manuscript to send off to literary agents.

 

Speaking at the Westhampton Public Library

Speaking at the Westhampton Public Library

 

What advice do you have for would-be therapy dog handlers?

The use of certified therapy dogs in all walks of life is advancing rapidly. When I speak with college students planning their careers, I help them realize the many opportunities that exist where therapy dogs can be of help building an atmosphere of wellness among people of all ages. Today, therapy dogs are seen in business, as well as in healthcare and education.

That said, we all think our dogs are wonderful—but not all dogs make good therapy dogs. A therapy dog must have a friendly, outgoing personality. She must enjoy interacting with strangers and going into unknown places. This can be challenging and often stressful for many dogs, but not for a dog with the right temperament for therapy dog work. This is the pre-requisite we look for when considering a dog for training and certification with Bright Spot. If a dog is shy, aggressive, or overly exuberant, she cannot be considered for this type of activity. We then look to see that the dog is well trained in basic obedience skills (aka good manners). She must respond to the commands of sit, stay, down, come, heel, and leave it—all basics taught in beginner obedience classes. In addition, the dog must be at least one year old and, if adopted, must have lived with her new owner for at least one year. At Bright Spot, we are certifying both the handler and the dog. Both ends of the lead are important and must work in sync as a team. We look for a person who enjoys doing things with his dog, has a strong desire to share his special dog with people in need, and is eager to learn the skills and techniques necessary to work as a therapy dog team.

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One of our therapy dog training classes

When asked where to get a dog certified, if a person lives in New England, I encourage him to make the trip to our home base in Northampton, Massachusetts, for training and on-site evaluation with Bright Spot. We have teams training with us from Maine to Connecticut. For inquiries coming from outside the New England area, I strongly suggest they refer to the American Kennel Club (AKC) list of approved therapy dog organizations in the United States. Bright Spot Therapy Dogs is proud to be one of the first therapy dog organizations to meet the requirements of the AKC and have its name placed on this list. The list has since grown and therapy dog organizations in most areas of the United States appear on the list. This list can be found on the AKC website.

Our trainers are all Bright Spot volunteers themselves and have had years of experience visiting in a variety of healthcare and educational environments, enabling them to be well-versed in the skills and techniques required for making successful visits. I recommend that a person inquire as to the credentials of the trainer teaching the therapy dog class. An excellent obedience trainer, rally, or agility trainer, doesn’t necessarily make a good therapy dog trainer. With today’s growing popularity of therapy dogs, there’s a lot of misinformation floating about on the Internet. Like any subject, check credentials.

For anyone interested in learning about canine behavior and training, I highly recommend reading any book written by Patricia B. McConnell, Ph.D. My favorite, The Other End of the Leash: Why We Do What We Do Around Dogs, is a must read for those who want to develop a special relationship with their dog. McConnell has written a number of booklets on training and behavior and an excellent book titled Family Friendly Dog Training: A Six Week Program for You and Your Dog.

 

Volunteer visiting veterans at the Soldiers Home

Volunteer visiting veterans at the Soldiers Home

 

What about resources for would-be writers?

I attend the Write Angles Writers’ Conference at Mount Holyoke College each fall, listening to panel discussions by published authors and networking with literary agents, as well as other conference attendees. The Bay Path University Writers’ Day, held semi-annually, is another worthwhile conference I attend. Books that helped me craft my memoir were You Can’t Make This Stuff Up: The Complete Guide to Writing Creative Nonfiction–from Memoir to Literary Journalism and Everything in Between by Lee Gutkind and Your Life as Story by Tristine Rainer. In addition, I read, read, read memoirs written by others. Not only reading them for their fascinating content, but also carefully examining the techniques they employed in writing their stories.

One memoir in particular sticks in my mind, Kate Whouley’s Remembering the Music, Forgetting the Words: Travels with Mom in the Land of Dementia, in which she recounts her relationship with her mother who was declining, and subsequently died, from Alzheimer’s disease. I felt so close to her words, having spent years visiting Alzheimer’s patients with my dogs and talking with patients’ loved ones. It’s one of those books you fall in love with because you can relate so well to it.

Board members Diane Houston and Nancy Friedman at our info booth at Barnes & Noble "Fun Day with Dogs"

Board members Diane Houston and Nancy Friedman at our info booth at Barnes & Noble “Fun Day with Dogs”

 

What’s next for you?

I see myself as the executive director of Bright Spot Therapy Dogs, Inc. for another six years. At that point, the organization will be in its eighteenth year and I will be 75 years old. New leadership is the life breath of an organization and it will be time for a change. I hope to leave Bright Spot positioned as the leading therapy dog organization in New England and able to hire staff to handle the “jobs” currently carried out by dedicated Board members. To that end, our strategic focus committee is examining ways to be prepared to offer a competitive salary to the executive director and to hire an administrative assistant and a business manager.

I am certain there is more. While I look for a literary agent for my completed memoir, Therapy Dogs: Doing What Comes Naturally, I am thinking about my next book. I have a few ideas rolling around in my head. As I continue to travel my uneven path, a detour will come my way. Dogs, of course, will be involved, no matter which turn I take.

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Contact Cynthia J. Hinckley at cynthia@bright-spot.org

Founder and Executive Director, Bright Spot Therapy Dogs, Inc.

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Say Hello Spot Blog

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Twitter: @SayHelloSpot

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Creating a Community for Caregivers: Carole’s Story

Screen Shot 2016-08-31 at 1.35.40 PMCaring for her mother in her final years helped Carole find her mission later in life. She is helping others in the Sandwich Generation cope with the challenges of caring for their loved ones, while celebrating the privilege of being a Caregiver to her elderly parents.

 

Tell us a little about your background…

I grew up in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and still live in the same neighborhood. I was raised by wonderful, loving parents and am the third of four kids. I have fond memories from my childhood. My parents created a warm and loving home and exposed us to the arts and cultural district early on.

My mom was a creative genius: a great seamstress, knitter, crocheter, designer; a creative cook and baker; a writer and lyricist, writing jingles back in the day. She also became a prolific painter in her 60s. She enjoyed using collage in her paintings and her designs were always unique. She loved to dance and was always taking educational classes. She was full of life and love and was a dedicated homemaker, wife, and mother.

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At 10, in one of the many outfits my mom made for me

My dad was an engineer and worked at Westinghouse until he got his law degree while we were in grade school. He went on to have a long, thriving law career, not retiring until the age of 85! He had his own practice and taught us much about reaching for your dreams, following your heart and passion, and never giving up. Both my folks set stellar examples of what a fine human being is. They were married for 65 years and showed us what a good marriage is too.

I went to Ivy School of Professional Art after high school and graduated a two-year program in Fine Arts with a focus on fabric art, including batik. I have a varied work history. I was in the restaurant business for ten years in a variety of capacities. I owned a soda pop vending machine company for eight years. I worked in customer service. I also owned a custom frame shop/art gallery with my sister, Jan Steinle, for five years.

Our shop and gallery was a beautiful, creative place to work in daily. We became a leader in the frame industry, in large part thanks to our efforts to market our business online via elaborate e-newsletters. The industry was behind the times digitally and we understood the power of the net to generate business. As a result of my e-newsletters, I was hired by a leading editorial in the art and framing business to write a five-page, feature article on e-Marketing. It was an exciting offer. That was a defining moment in my life. I had a strong love for writing that I didn’t know about until I hit my 40s.

I was married at 23. I have four children: a daughter Katie (33) and three sons Thomas (29), James (28), and Steven (26). We’re a close-knit family and we all live in Pittsburgh except for Thomas, who lives in Boston. I divorced in 1995 and remain friends my ex.

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In our frame shop, 2005

 

When did you think about making a change?

When the store closed in 2009, I became my mom’s Caregiver for the next several years, while managing a small professional organizing business. My mom died on November 23, 2014 and, since then, I have been my dad’s Caregiver during the workweek.

When I took on the role of Caregiver for my mom, it was because I was unemployed after closing my art gallery; I stepped up as “the daughter.” Jan helped on a part-time basis and was also caring for her mother-in-law. My other siblings worked full time and were unavailable during the workweek. I fully expected to get another job, but this was 2009 and the marketplace was tight. I applied to many companies and had a couple of interviews, but nothing was gelling. I was searching for my calling, but finally understood that my calling was to care for Mom. There were times I was very at peace doing the Caregiver gig and other times I felt a need to move on due to Caregiver burnout and emotional turmoil during the duration of my Caregiver role.

There were moments during my Caregiver journey when I believed that I was right where I was meant to be. Still, I was squirming about what my lifetime calling was because I knew my role with my mother wouldn’t last, for obvious reasons. I didn’t know until late in my journey with Mom that I was a Caregiver; I didn’t know that terminology. Caregiving was not my career path. I didn’t know anything about the industry. I stepped up as the daughter because my parents needed help. They had been my best cheerleaders, always very generous and loving over the years, and it seemed the right thing to do was to come to their aid when they needed me most.

I shared my mom’s last years in the best way, the most loving way I knew possible. I would do it all over again. It was a privilege, in my opinion, to care for her. It was an extremely difficult journey. She was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease after my store closed; it was devastating news. We didn’t know about the disease, but we certainly knew it was not good news. My dad was still working full time and needed help. Her diagnosis came almost a year later after we were suspicious of her peculiar behavior and oddball memory loss.

My parents, 25 years ago

My parents, 25 years ago

During the time I cared for my mother, I felt withdrawn, isolated, and overwhelmed by sorrow and loss long before my mother died. It was an excruciating process. I am typically a social person, but my world was rocked hard, and my personality deeply affected. There are no words to describe how deep down inside this impacted my life, still to this day. What I witnessed in my mom’s personality changes was intense and extremely sad. I felt the overwhelming sorrow of anticipatory grief. I had a broken heart. My best friend was dying and I was losing her long before she died. My learning curve was huge. The role changes that took place were monumental.

A purpose-driven life is a powerful thing. It’s all encompassing when you can wake up and know you have a voice in your destiny. Pursuing my life’s path has been a rocky road. How could it not be? I was caring for my mom when she needed me most and reevaluating my own life and career path. I can’t think of anything more important that I could have done at the time. She loved me and our journey early on was meaningful when she knew changes were coming her way. It was a tender time.

I’m so grateful I have discovered my purpose-driven life. I took three different seminars with John Stanko (Purpose Quest) in a classroom setting in 2014, with the aim to understand my purpose in life, and each one helped me greatly. I was hungry and longing for answers and I knew it required work to pinpoint what I was meant to do. There were workbooks and class participation to help me to discover my calling. I knew I needed to find a way to help Caregivers connect and find comfort in their shared journeys.

All I could think about was that there must be thousands, if not millions, of people who were going through something like I was. I longed to rise above the pain and make friends with others who, like me, were giving their best, giving their life, to save a life. Caregivers all around the world are my heroes!

 

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What is your next act

I have a created a community for the Sandwich Generation and for Caregivers, SanGenWoman: The Heart of the Sandwich Generation (formerly known as The Sandwich Woman).

The statistics regarding Caregivers are truly mind-boggling, with an estimated 43.5 million adult family caregivers caring for someone aged 50 or older, in the US alone. Read more here. We learn at a very young age how to love and nurture others; we are groomed from the time we are toddlers to show love and taught to care for others. Caregiving is not a new concept. In this modern day society, support groups are popping up everywhere for Caregivers, due to the mammoth numbers of people who need help to get through their day due to aging, illness, or special needs. Caregivers and Carers (our European sisters and brothers who provide care for their loved ones) are a global, diverse population growing by leaps and bounds as medicine prolongs our life to a ripe old age.

I launched my Facebook community page, San-Gen-Woman: the Heart of the Sandwich Generation, in February 2015; we are now a community approaching 4,000 and are represented by 45 countries. The need for Caregiver support truly is global. I added Twitter and Instagram in May 2015. I publish a blog every other Wednesday too. My sister Jan and I have an online retail store we launched in August 2015, TangledArtBoutique.com, that houses Zentangle® Inspired Art (ZIA) we create ourselves. You don’t have to be an artist to make a Zentangle; the beautiful images are created by drawing structured patterns. The Zen, or meditative aspect of the art form, is the best part. I’m in a peaceful place when I create my Zentangle Inspired Art.

We also house a special gallery of designs to affirm and support Caregivers that includes several gift lines including tote bags, cell phone cases, and greeting cards. It’s a fun store to shop in with all the customization features. I don’t know of a Caregiver gift line like ours; the designs are quite unique. There are 140+ designs to choose from.

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My first book, The Artistry of Caregiving: Letters to Inspire Your Caregiver Journey, is now on Amazon in Kindle and paperback. A unique format, this is truly a book of inspiration, art, and 33 letters — affirmations and imagery to express my deepest love and gratitude to those who are living the life, traveling down the slippery slope of caring for someone who relies on them wholly. My book does not focus on any particular illness. It is meant to help others, of all ages, who are navigating the emotional journey of Caregiving. The Artistry of Caregiving: where words soothe and ideas & art delight. If you don’t have the time or focus to read, you can look at all the dynamic Zentangles in the book to feel affirmed and supported. It’s a book that can be referred to over a lifetime.

Out of something so dark as witnessing my mom’s very serious, extreme memory loss and death, came something beautiful and supportive to the Sandwich Generation – SanGenWoman: the Heart of the Sandwich Generation social media platform. This is my passion, my calling, my mission. My grief could have taken me down, but in fact, it’s my inspiration.

My goal is all encompassing. I want to impart peace, healing, recovery, education, and inspiration, as well as offer gift lines, to those who supply and support the Caregiving industry.

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Tell us more about the challenges you see in midlife and in the field of Caregiving.

There is a lack of praise, value, appreciation, support systems, and financial reward for a Caregiver. We are in a major crisis with more of us living longer and the rise of chronic illness and dementia unlike ever before. The projections are staggering for millions of people, worldwide, who will be affected by Alzheimer’s/dementia. We need more funds for research to stop this life-stealing disease.

Our healthcare system is not easy to navigate. It costs a huge amount of money to save a life if you need aides or need to hire people to care for your loved one. Many family members are taking on the role of caring for another and trying to juggle their personal and professional life too, while keeping their sanity. It’s no small feat to be able to do everything and do it well. Caring for someone else is a big responsibility and a huge job that requires energy, stamina, a strong voice of reason, and patience.

Aside from support groups, we need trained professional counselors who can advise us in all areas of life, dealing with the stress and pressure to meet all of the demands. We need someone to talk to who can advise us, put things in perspective, and help us to nurture ourselves and make ourselves a top priority so we remain healthy, able and strong.

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With my dad, one of my very best friends

 

How did you get started creating your community?

I had never written a blog, didn’t know the first thing about it, but I jumped in with both feet. I didn’t worry about having my ducks in a row because my desire and passion to help others superseded my grief and lack of knowledge. All I could think about was helping others because my Caregiver journey was so isolating and emotionally tumultuous.

When I launched my Facebook page and blog, I sent out a questionnaire to 150 women in midlife, asking them to respond to 33 questions about how they dealt with being the in The Sandwich Generation. The questions were very personal and somewhat invasive, but I made it clear they could reply anonymously and answer as many or as few questions as they wanted. The responses I received were interesting to read: how everyone was dealing with being part of The Sandwich Generation. I heard many common themes, for example, financial concerns: how these women would maintain jobs and income while caring for both children and elders, as well as how they’d plan for their own long term care.

My Twitter community now has 1,000+ followers and my Instagram account 700+ followers, with a strong momentum. Each of my social media platforms has generated important contacts for me in my industry and has opened many doors for me. I have made personal friends and business associates with my audience, including people in other countries such as Indonesia, Switzerland, and Europe. These connections make my heart beat a little swifter, enjoying every moment. I love it.

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How supportive are your family and friends?

My dad and sister Jan have been a big support system for me, along with my children and close circle of friends. My dad is the editor for my blog; he’s a wonderful teacher and I have learned a lot in my writing journey with him. My parents have always been my biggest cheerleaders over the years.

 

What challenges are you encountering?

It has been a challenge to find a nice, sweet way to blog about what I have learned without it being a total bummer or upsetting someone. I’m discovering all the time what it is that I truly want to do with the knowledge gained from my experience caring for my parents. Some of my posts were tear jerkers to write, but mostly it’s been a positive experience and certainly has helped me adjust to the new normal.

Life is good and I’m in a peaceful place. I’m happy to be able to profess that. With great love comes great loss. I am full of gratitude to have been raised by my parents. Good memories throughout my whole life. What more can one ask for?

 

My kids

My kids

 

What are you learning about yourself through this process?

I have what it takes to overcome my emotions and think with my voice of reason. If I set my mind to it, I can accomplish many things I never dreamed of. I have something to offer to others – hope, comfort, affirmation, support and love. And, lastly, I have what it takes to create a book and have it come to fruition! That was a very large undertaking, but written with love for my readers.

 

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

Take some classes to find your passion. What makes you happy and excited? What brings you joy? If you’re unsure, I’d suggest reading about finding your purpose in life via books and on the Internet, finding programs to take, getting support from your place of worship, and surrounding yourself with people you admire and respect in life and in business.

I am always making lists for a variety of things. I suggest writing a list of what is a positive in your life. That is a good starting place. It wasn’t long ago someone said the same thing to me. It sounded so cliché. When you’re reflecting on what matters most, it can open many doors in unexpected ways. I am currently seeing this in my life. All the connections I’m making now via social media are a direct result of that lifestyle.

Don’t wait to have it all figured out before you take the leap. I didn’t know how to create a blog, Twitter, Instagram, or an online store. I didn’t have all my ducks in a row. I didn’t take classes on social media or how to craft a message on any of these platforms—I jumped in with both feet and didn’t care about anything except getting my voice heard. I didn’t get bogged down in the “how to” and just figured it out as I went. I had a calling and my calling was to write a book and to help others who are doing what I did. Emotional support is so important to everyone in general, and certainly in a crisis situation when a loved one is suffering, for the person dispensing care. I cannot overstate this point. Emotional support is a must so that the person who is caring for another can do a job well done.

I heard something recently from a senior woman on the radio talking about her lifetime of success and she said when you have a passion about something it borderlines “obsession”… I can attest to that. Most days I eat, sleep, breathe SanGenWoman. It’s not something I work at – It just IS.

With my sister Jan

With my sister Jan

 

What advice do you have for those interested in sharing their own journeys to help others?

Decide whether your journey is something you want to continue talking about in your life. I do have some limitations about what I’m willing to share and how much I’m willing to talk about my mom and her illness. It was a very personal time in my life—not a fun one to talk about either.

There are a lot of really good people all over the world who are making large strides for senior care, health care, special needs, medical research, writing, and blogging about Caregivers and midlife.

The Sandwich Generation is full of responsibility in all areas of life, and there is plenty of room for anyone who would like to focus on this subject. If you’re driven to share your story, find the means to do so. If you don’t want to write about it, how will you manifest it? Only you will learn the answer to that, if you don’t know already, through your passion and pursuing of your purpose and dreams.

My purpose driven life didn’t come easy. It’s been an oh so long journey of trials and tribulations. We are created to solve problems and find resolutions to situations that arise. To manage a life well lived is a goal I aspire to, daily.

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What resources do you recommend?

I think it is vital and critical to anyone who is in the role of Caregiver to ask for help, anywhere you can get it. Agencies, nonprofits, and community colleges are a huge resource to support Caregivers. I never even thought to go there during my years of caring for Mom. I had too many pressing, daily duties to even think about reading anything.

Looking back, I’m sorry I didn’t connect online early on because that can potentially be a saving grace to find a community that understands your pain and role in the caring of someone else’s life. One site I did find and recommend is The Caregiver Space. It’s a great resource and inspired me to forge ahead in developing my own platform. I also recommend the National Alliance for Caregiving for up-to-date information on the subject.

According to my grief counselor, Barbara Coyne, grief is a gift. She is wise about processing grief and embracing it as a gift. I went to one of her support group meetings and it changed my life. I learned how to live with loss and grief from Barbara. She is one of the most peaceful persons I’ve ever met.

Pastor John Stanko, is my advisor, mentor, counselor, spiritual leader, good friend, and the editor of my book. He published the first edition of the Kindle version of my book. Dr John’s mission is living a purposeful life and teaching others how to do that. Purpose Quest is his calling. Read his information and the free assessment survey. It’s one of the most unique and life changing courses out there that I’ve come across and taken. A combination of heart, soul, mission, and spiritual calling to formulate what is going to define the meaning of my experience as a Caregiver.

Finally, for those interested in selling your art as part of your mission, I recommend our boutique supplier, Fine Art America.

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

I haven’t had much time to think about this because publishing my book was all consuming for the last couple years. I also care for my dad during the week and write a blog and spend time on social media and that is all very time consuming. I’d like to spend more time creating my art. That brings me so much peace and satisfaction. My creative juices are at an all time high and I’m always in the mode of what’s next to post or write about. As for another next act, I am not really looking at the future in that way. I’d like to keep writing and see what doors open now that I have published my book.

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With my kids, in the photo booth at my niece’s wedding

 

Contact Carole Brecht at cbrecht4@gmail.com

The Artistry of Caregiving: Letters to Inspire Your Caregiver Journey

Website

Blog

Tangled Art Boutique online store

Facebook Community

Twitter: @SanGenWoman


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