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new ways, are using new tools, and even if you’re returning to a field you worked in previously, it’s very easy to feel out-of-date.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

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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

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Facebook

Twitter: @PathFWD

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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

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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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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!

 

ZIA

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.

Fruit of the Spirit wth Border1

 

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.

 acarerocks

 

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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Becoming a Hearing Health Advocate in Midlife: Shari’s Story

Shari!Growing up in a household where her father’s genetic hearing loss was treated as shameful made it hard for Shari to confront her own progressive hearing issues as an adult. She now seeks to educate people about living with hearing loss and to create a community for others with hearing loss.

Tell us a little about your background…

I grew up in New Jersey, the older of two sisters. I was always a tomboy, playing on my town’s softball team—even stealing home base once. In high school, I turned my attention to modern dance and my studies.

Me at 10, playing softball

Me at 10, playing softball

We were a fairly typical family, with one exception, my father’s hearing loss. It was genetic and began in midlife. As a child, I was not always aware of his problems hearing. I knew he wore hearing aids, but I didn’t see how he struggled with embarrassment and shame, hiding his hearing loss to the detriment of his career, his personal relationships, and our family life.

I do remember one time at a party when I found him sitting alone off in the corner. I asked him why, and his reply was, “If someone wants to talk to me, they can come find me.” I didn’t think much of it at the time, but now I realize that he probably found socializing in the loud room challenging and was seeking refuge from the embarrassment of trying to converse when he could not hear. I struggle with that same problem today.

My family was not supportive of him. I remember my mother whispering secrets to my sister and me behind his back. When we looked concerned by this behavior, she commented, “Don’t worry, he can’t hear us.” Her actions taught me that hearing loss was something shameful and bad, and something my father had to tackle alone. Thinking back on it, I am horrified by our lack of compassion.

withdadat10

With my dad, at age 12

I always enjoyed school and graduated at the top of my class, heading to college and then to New York City for a career in finance. My life in New York was great—my career was progressing well, I found love and friendship, and I fully enjoyed my life as an independent young adult. I took my hearing for granted, as most people do.

After a few years of working, I decided to return to business school. It was there, in my mid-20s, that I first noticed my hearing loss. It became difficult for me to follow some of the comments that the other students made in class, particularly ones that were said as a joke or as an aside. Given my family history of hearing loss, I decided to get tested. The diagnosis of mild hearing loss was not a surprise, but it was devastating nonetheless. I remembered my father’s struggles and wondered if they would also be mine. For the moment, the loss was minor enough to ignore. So I did.

After graduation, I moved back to New York City, got married, and jumped back into my career, working hard to develop a following as an equity analyst covering retail stocks. I enjoyed my job as an analyst—I always liked math and spreadsheets, and I got plenty of that. My job also involved a lot of writing, which had never been a passion of mine. But as the years passed, I honed my craft, enjoying the excitement of finding the right headline to grab my client’s attention. It was here that I learned the power that the written word had to influence, inspire, and terrorize.

I remember one report I wrote about a retail company that was not performing well. I was critical of the company’s strategy, but more so of the CEO’s inability to set a clear plan and to execute on it. My goal in writing the piece was to educate my clients, not to harm the CEO. Nevertheless, the next time I saw him, he ripped into me, telling me how I had embarrassed him in front of his family and the world. While I didn’t feel that I had done anything wrong, this experience taught me how impactful the written word can be. I take that responsibility very seriously in my writing today.

My hearing loss worsened. While I continued to ignore it as best as I could, I finally broke down and purchased hearing aids. I would wear them for work when I needed them, but never socially or at home with my family. I remember sneaking them into my ears in the taxi on the way to work, and ripping them from ears in the elevator on the way out of the building at night. I am amazed I was able to keep it a secret, but I did.

honeymoon

My honeymoon

 

When did you start to think about making a change?

My career progressed, and so did my family life. I gave birth to a beautiful baby girl and, two years later, to a bouncing baby boy. It became more difficult to balance the travel and late nights demanded by my career with the allure of evenings at home with my children. I decided to move into a managerial role, where I could continue to utilize my financial analysis and writing skills, but have better control over my hours.

This went well for a period of years, but I hadn’t expected the difficultly my hearing loss could bring to my role as a manager. As an equity analyst, most of my work was done in a quiet office at my computer, or speaking on the phone (amplified) with clients. I was able to pop my hearing aids in and out as I needed them for meetings and conferences. I quickly learned which clients were hard for me to hear so I could prepare in advance.

But as a manager, it was much tougher. People would come into my office and tell me their secrets—“my mother is sick,” or “I am pregnant,” or “I hate working with my boss.” These types of confessions are not often spoken in a loud and clear voice with maintained eye contact, making them harder to hear, and the sensitive nature of the communication makes it difficult to ask people to repeat what they said in a louder voice! But still, I adapted, wearing my hearing aids all the time at the office now, and was able to function well most of the time.

A few years into my management role, in 2008, the market and the economy went into a steep downturn. Financial institutions were under significant pressure and my job function began to change. Rather than spending my days mentoring our up-and-coming analysts, I was in meetings debating how many and which ones should be fired. This continued for several years, at which point, I felt demoralized. I had lost interest in my work. Having survived the numerous rounds of cuts in my own department, I voluntarily decided to retire, in 2010, at age 41, hoping to find more rewarding work outside the day-to-day grind of financial services.

Our young family, 2008

Our young family, 2008

 

What is your next act?

LWHL_LogoI am a hearing health advocate.

I write a blog called Living With Hearing Loss to share the ups and downs of living with hearing loss and to build a community for others with hearing loss. My goal for the blog is to help others live more comfortably with their own hearing loss. My most popular posts discuss the difficulties of living with hearing loss, but I always try to include some tips or suggestions on how to counteract these challenges in the post. Examples of this include 5 Things I Wish Everyone Knew About Hearing Loss and Do You Get Hearing Loss Exhaustion? Other popular posts include tips for things like How To Choose A Restaurant When You Have Hearing Loss or How To Have A Better Conversation With Someone With Hearing Loss.

I am on the Board of Directors of Hearing Health Foundation, the largest nonprofit funder of hearing research for a cure.

I am also on the Board of Trustees for Hearing Loss Association of America (HLAA), an organization dedicated to enabling people with hearing loss to live life fully and without compromise.

My advocacy work continues to grow as I strive to expand coverage of hearing loss in the mainstream media. Writing for Huffington Post and Good Housekeeping provides a platform to talk about hearing loss outside of the hearing loss community that already cares about it. It is challenging, because hearing loss is not often seen as “newsworthy” or as “sexy” as other illnesses or disabilities. I find this surprising given how widespread hearing loss is (50 million Americans!) and the strong links between hearing loss and devastating diseases like diabetes and dementia. You can see my writing on Huffington Post here. My favorite piece on Good Housekeeping is called I No Longer Feel Shame About My Hearing Loss.

So, I keep trying. The more that hearing loss can become a regular part of the health care dialogue and the more the general population can understand the risks and difficulties of hearing loss, the more the stigma will fade. Without stigma, even greater improvements in technology and legislation will become the norm for the millions of people living with hearing loss.

RecognitionawardforserviceasHHFboardchair

Recognition Award for my service as HHF Board Chair

 

How did you become a hearing health advocate?

After my early retirement, looking out at my upcoming days filled with unscheduled time was frightening, but also exhilarating. I had the time to think through what was important to me and to choose a new path. I started practicing yoga regularly and exploring various ideas for what could come next.

Part of this exploration was looking into getting involved in the hearing loss space. While I was still hiding my hearing loss from almost everyone in my life (my father’s influence was still at play), I became aware of an organization called Hearing Health Foundation (it was called Deafness Research Foundation at the time) that was funding research towards a cure. A cure sounded good to me! I reached out and was soon involved on the Board of Directors, moving into the Board Chair role after a year.

Putting my business skills to good use, I worked with the Executive Director to conceptualize and launch a new way of doing hearing research—a consortium model, where scientists worked together to solve problems rather than competing with one another for funding. I am proud to say that the Hearing Restoration Project is in its fourth year and is making important strides in finding a way to regenerate the inner ear hair cells that could restore hearing for millions of people worldwide.

It was around this time that I started coming to terms with my own hearing loss. Up until this point, it had always been a heavily guarded secret, similar to how it was for my father. But as my children grew, I became concerned that they would start to notice me hiding my hearing loss, just as I had watched my father do. My hearing loss is genetic, so I may have passed it onto them as my father had done to me.

I needed to set a better example for my children than my family had set for me. I did not want them to feel the shame and stigma that my father and I both did. I needed to accept my hearing loss. So I did.

My work at Hearing Health Foundation made it a lot easier. People asked me why I was involved with the organization and it was a great excuse to tell them about my hearing loss. In most cases, they would go on to tell me about a family member or friend who also had hearing loss. This should not be too surprising since there are 50 million of us in the United States alone.

As time went on, I grew bolder, becoming more proactive about disclosing my hearing loss and seeking accommodations like quieter tables at restaurants and caption devices at the movies. I was inspired to share my newfound acceptance with others, so that’s when I started my blog, Living With Hearing Loss.

Was anyone listening? Like most blogs, my first readers were friends and family but, over time, its reach began to grow. I started getting comments and emails from readers—other people with hearing loss from across the globe—sharing their struggles with me and thanking me for helping them feel less alone. There was one woman who sounded almost desperate for someone to talk to who would understand what she was experiencing. A man from Germany also didn’t know any others with hearing loss. I realized that the company of people who can understand what you are going through was incredibly important.

These interactions with readers helped me feel less alone and more empowered to increase my work as an advocate. I became involved with Hearing Loss Association of America (HLAA), and began attending chapter meetings in New York City. Through these chapter meetings, I connected with others in my local community who had hearing loss. They are now important friends and supports in my life. It is hard to imagine that I would not have known these inspiring, smart and incredible people if it were not for my hearing loss.

I recently joined the national board of HLAA and am excited to work with them to help break down the stigma of hearing loss, to encourage those with hidden hearing loss to come out of their hearing loss closets and seek treatment, and to improve the accommodations available for people with hearing loss through looping (induction looping is a sound system in which a loop of wire around an area in a building, such as a theater, produces an electromagnetic signal received directly by hearing aids), captioning, and better insurance coverage. There is much important work to do while we wait for the scientists to make progress on a cure.

 

HLAAwalkforhearingNYC

HLAA Walk 4 Hearing in New York City

 

Why did you choose this next act?

This next act was driven primarily by my love for my children. Since my hearing loss is genetic, I may have passed it onto them. It is adult-onset, so we won’t know for 15 years or so, giving me plenty of time to change the face of hearing loss—medically, legislatively and socially—before they may need to experience it. I want them to avoid feeling the shame and social stigma that I faced early on and that destroyed my father’s life.

Involving them in my work has been fun. My son helps me scope out the best seat in any restaurant so I can hear my best, and my daughter boldly wears her earplugs at school dances and events. They both help me think of good topics to write about on my blog. I am proud of their attitudes about hearing loss and feel confident that they will be much better prepared than I was, should they need to face these challenges.

 

What other options did you consider?

I had also considered writing a book about my experiences working on Wall Street and providing tips for those graduating from college and business school on how to get a job there. However, once I became involved in my hearing loss work, this quickly faded into the background. Its importance as a topic paled in comparison to the difference I could make for other people with hearing loss.

 

How hard was it to take the plunge?

For me, the plunge was more like a gentle wade into welcoming waters. Each step that I took to deepen my work as a hearing health advocate seemed to flow naturally from the next. I can’t imagine dedicating my time to anything else at this point.

 

How supportive were your family and friends?

My family and friends have been incredibly supportive. As I have become more comfortable talking about my hearing loss, it has become just a regular topic of conversation, not one whispered about or referred to only in code. Nobody blinks when I rearrange the seating arrangement at the table or move people around at a family gathering so I can hear them better. It’s not perfect—I still have difficulty hearing certain family members more than others and I can get frustrated and exhausted from working so hard to hear every day—but being open about it allows for solutions to be found.

I am very lucky to have such a supportive husband and two wonderful children who don’t treat my hearing loss as something shameful, but as a simple fact of life that needs to be incorporated into the family dynamic. They try their best to follow communication best practices so that I can hear them better. I do my best to keep my frustration in check and we all make it work. There is no other option.

Eberts Family 2016 (68 of 342)

 

What challenges did you encounter?

The primary challenge I encountered was my own fear. Could I develop a new life for myself outside the hard driving finance career I had always envisioned? Could I open myself up to others, sharing my secrets and feelings in a way that would benefit not only my children and me, but also others with hearing loss? I have always been an incredibly private person so to put my life on display was a big change, but a worthwhile one. The feedback I have received has been very positive. I am always grateful when someone who has read a blog post reaches out to let me know it has touched him or her in some way. That is my goal.

 

Were there times when you thought about giving up? 

There have been many ups and downs — the frustrations of learning how to have impact within the nonprofit sector rather than the private sector, the struggles to get mainstream media interested in the topic of hearing loss and to grow readership for my blog. But through it all, I have never considered quitting. The cause is too important and way too close to home.

Through this process, I learned that I could create a different life with hearing loss than my father had. Writing and publishing my first few blog posts was incredibly scary, but it was also cathartic. I find it incredibly therapeutic to write—particularly some of my more personal pieces. I have realized how rewarding it can be to share your true self with others.

I have also met many wonderful friends and colleagues because of my hearing loss and this new phase of my life, most of whom I would never had met otherwise. I am grateful for each and everyone one of them.

My only regret is not coming to terms with my hearing loss sooner. It takes people an average of 7-10 years from the time they start experiencing hearing loss to acknowledge it and take steps to treat it. It took me 10. That is a lot of lost time wasted on embarrassment and shame.

 

billboardwedidtoraiseawareness

HHF Billboard we did to raise awareness about our search for a cure

 

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

I think midlife is the perfect time for reinvention: We are more confident, more comfortable in our own skin, and more skilled at life. And perhaps, most importantly, we know what matters to us. Finding the passion for a cause or a new vocation can make all the difference in the amount of time and energy you want to apply to it. New challenges keep us feeling young and vibrant—and who doesn’t want that? Go for it.

I spent so much time trying to hide my hearing loss and worrying about whether people would know that I couldn’t hear in various situations, that it was exhausting! My fear held me back from seeing friends and family, from attending the theater, from going to meetings at my children’s school, and many other things. All wasted time.

My advice—if you have a hearing loss, or some other disability you have been hiding—is to let the fear go and come clean. The quicker you do, the sooner you can get back to living your engaging and vibrant life. And for those people in your life who cannot handle this new truth, move on from them. You will be surprised how few of these people there are, and you may discover some new friends and supporters along the way.

 

What advice do you have for family and friends of those struggling with hearing loss?

For the family and friends of hearing loss, the most important thing you can do to be supportive is to help de-stigmatize the hearing loss by talking about it and encouraging your loved ones to do the same. Make it part of the normal conversation by asking them where they would like to sit to hear you best. Encourage them to take action to treat their hearing loss and to reach out to others with hearing loss for support through organizations like HLAA.

Try to follow these best practice rules of clear communication:

  • Make sure you have the person’s attention before speaking.
  • Face the person and speak clearly—speaking too loudly or exaggerating your mouth movements only makes it harder to lip read.
  • Make sure the setting is well lit and that your mouth is visible.
  • Turn down background noise which can distract from hearing speech.
  • Ask the person with hearing loss how YOU can help them hear you better.
  • And don’t say “never mind” if they didn’t hear you— this is dismissive and insulting. Try to rephrase what you said instead.

speakingatseminarclassfordoctoralaudiologystudents

Speaking at a seminar class for doctoral audiology students

 

What resources do you recommend for those wishing to get better informed about hearing loss?

There are many great organizations working on hearing loss issues where you can get involved. For scientific research on hearing loss, I recommend learning more about Hearing Health Foundation and its Hearing Restoration Project, as well as Stanford’s Initiative To Cure Hearing Loss.

For hearing loss advocacy and to find hearing loss support groups on the national and local levels, visit Hearing Loss Association of America. To help shatter the stigma of hearing loss, visit HearStrong Foundation and be inspired by its growing list of HearStrong Champions.

For assistance in building a blog and submitting your writing for publication, check out these excellent websites and FaceBook groups: Women of Midlife and Blog Share Learn.

 

What’s next for you? 

My next next act is to write a book based on my blog posts. I don’t have enough material yet, but every week it grows. I also hope to broaden the list of mainstream publications that will feature writing about hearing loss and related issues. And finally, my hope is that by sharing my hearing loss story, I will continue to help others to live more comfortably with their own hearing loss.

 

Contact Shari Eberts at shari@sharieberts.com

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Giving Former Inmates and Teen Mothers a Chance: Susan’s Story

Susan-Garcia-TrieschmannWhen her beloved brother-in-law, Curt, passed away too young, Susan reevaluated her life, got involved with restorative justice, and opened Curt’s Café, with the mission to help at-risk, underserved young adults coming out of the prison system. Three years later, she opened a second location to help teen mothers as well.

 

Tell us a little about your background…

I was born in Florida but our mom moved us to Deerfield, Illinois when my father drowned in a tragic scuba diving accident. I was seven years old, I had two sisters and two brothers, and Mom was pregnant with our youngest sister. When I was 25, I met a young man who came here from Peru and, since he had little family here, we brought him into our family. So we are a family of seven kids and an amazing mother.

Us as Kids

My mom with her first 5 kids

We were not wealthy so we all began working at a young age. I started waitressing when I was 13 at Exmoor Country Club in Highland Park. I quickly learned that I was better at working at a job than I was at fitting in or excelling at school—so I always gravitated to work.

During the gas shortage of 1973, I took at job at our local Mr. Adams Restaurant to avoid the high cost of gas. When I graduated high school, I moved to Florida to live with my two older sisters and there I worked the midnight to 7:00 am shift at Mr. Donuts, and then at the Lanai Restaurant in Sarasota. These different food service operations all taught me one thing: If you work hard and smart, you will move forward.

Educationally, I had struggled even getting through high school. I just wasn’t academic. So rather than going full time to college, I took courses in psychology, sociology, aikido, piano, guitar and finally went to secretarial school (yes, there was such a thing) and got a certificate in 1979, which I was happy with.

I finally moved back to Chicago and started to work for Lettuce Entertain You as a waitress at RJ Grunts in Glenview, finally moving to the Pump Room in Chicago as the Catering Director. It was a stretch because I had absolutely no skill set in Catering and they also had never catered, but we learned together.

When I was at the Pump Room, we kept getting calls to do catering outside of the Pump Room, at places like The Irish Embassy, at wedding showers, and such. Because Lettuce Entertain You did not do outside catering, I started a “pretend” catering company with a friend. We weren’t licensed, we didn’t have an LLC or anything formal, and we actually did our first catering event for The Irish Embassy—because we couldn’t afford uniforms, I sewed Kelly green bow ties and cummerbunds for us to wear! We then started to do other events for different organizations in Chicago. My dream of owning my own future started to grow.

Finally in 1983, when I was 25, my sister, Nancy Sharp, and her husband, Curt Sharp, joined me and we opened an S-Corp, Food For Thought Catering. We rented a space and were ready to show the world what catering really was about (or so we thought). We all worked at other jobs while we were growing the business; after three years, we finally had our footing and began to pay ourselves and rely on the business for our only income.

 

Easter Sunday 1995

Our family, Easter Sunday 1995

In 1986, I married my husband Tom, who was a Chef at a restaurant in Lake Forest called Sinclairs and he quickly joined Food For Thought as our corporate chef. Two years later, our son Trevor came along and in three years after that, Anna Mae was born. So I always say we birthed a company and two children in just 8 years! Nancy and Curt had two kids also and we all lived in a 2-flat together in South Evanston. We worked hard but played hard and had a wonderful life. We were fortunate enough to all move to North Evanston in 2000 (separate houses but only six blocks apart) and send our kids to Evanston Township High School. We are still in the same house but Trevor is in San Francisco finishing up his Masters Degree in Sustainable Peace through Sports Management and Anna Mae is in Boston working at a non-profit focused on Social Innovation and Social Impact.

Food For Thought Beginnings[1]

Our family with Curt (in top right) — all working at Food For Thought

When Curt, my business partner and brother-in-law, was diagnosed with lung cancer in 2014, at the young age of 53, I found myself thinking too much, and I was always sad. Curt was the kind of guy everyone loved. He knew everyone in the room before he left and he genuinely cared about each and every one of them. When I researched what the name “Curt” meant it said “bold, courteous, polite and wise counselor” and that actually describes him perfectly!

I went down to Oakton Community College and signed up for the two classes available during lunch—it helped keep my mind off Curt’s illness and avoid the looks I got at work from coworkers who felt sorry for me—and I fell in love with learning as an adult.

 

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

When Curt died in 2014, I took time off work to figure out what my life, at age 46, was about. Watching someone process end-of-life issues makes you do some deep digging about what your life is worth. I had always wanted a college degree and I was already on that path, so I just continued to keep moving that goal forward – many days blindly just surviving the grief of Curt’s death. I ended up getting my Associates Degree at Oakton and then getting my Bachelor’s at DePaul University in Social Justice. I was 51 when I graduated from DePaul.

Some days, school was the only thing that helped me get through the grief because it’s hard to learn and take tests when you haven’t been in school for 30 years. When I decided to go for my BA, I transferred to DePaul and took a class, by accident actually, that changed my life—but at the time I didn’t know how it was going to change my life. The class, Restorative Justice, opened me up to the injustices going on in our society involving underserved youth. Although we were poor growing up, we had a tremendous amount of love and support. I realized that was missing from many young people’s lives and I started to feel the injustices around me. I had no intention of moving that knowledge to action; I was going to donate or volunteer but not change my life around it.

But one day, I sat in a peace circle and heard a story from three young men who were going to be jailed for a childhood decision and I started writing a business plan to try to help them. Eight months later, I was sitting in a gutted café telling the workmen how to build out a restaurant and trying to find volunteers to help me open Curt’s Café—a concept I made up in my living room—with a business plan that made little sense to a businesswoman like myself. The P&L (Profit and Loss) was in the red and the mission had not been tried or proven. But I never questioned it. I just moved forward like I had in so many other things in my life and didn’t really think of it as a life-changing move. Just something needed to be done and I thought I could do it.

Cafe Picture Amanda

 

What is your next act?

CurtsCafe_logo_webI am the founder of Curt’s Café, which I opened in 2012, at the age of 54, in Evanston, Illinois; it’s a working café that trains at-risk, underserved, young adults, primarily those coming out of prison or with high judicial contact. In April of 2015, we opened our second café, also in Evanston, to serve teen mothers and at-risk underserved girls with the same mission. We are actually PS It’s Social, doing business as Curt’s Café, a non-profit 501©3 organization—designed to grow and expand into other areas that could use our programming.

We have had about 150 students come through the program and most keep coming back for further needs, mentoring, hugs, and love so we are busy. That and serving coffee and scones to the public makes for a full life. I designed our program after meeting with youths and understanding what their needs were and what they wanted in order to move their lives forward. We address what they want by giving them a purpose-driven workforce program. They train in job skills for six hours a day while running a coffee shop/café, which is supported by community members and neighbors.

Photo - Students Feb 2014

We address their individual needs by having a full time social worker on staff and also by giving them support on intellectual and life skills for two hours every day. We have tutors come in to help them get their GED or High School Diplomas; we have mentors in all the time; we teach anger management, financial literacy, and relationship building.

Our goals are two-fold. For our young men (we work only with young adults 15 to 24 years old), our first goal is to keep them from returning to prison, our second goal is to help them get jobs, and then we help them keep those jobs by making sure they are in secure housing, have transportation, and are getting the social services they require. For our young women (same ages, but primarily teen mothers) we work to get them jobs and to help them secure daycare, safe housing, and support services as they navigate raising children, when many of them are children themselves.

Girls at Curts

Girls at Curt’s, including my daughter

To date (almost four years), we only have two young men who have returned to prison, which is a 2% recidivism rate. The national statistic for young men is 86% recidivism rate after just three years of their release. To put it another way, we have a 98% success rate, as opposed to the national average 14% success rate. We also have 80% of our students in jobs and over 50% have received their GED or High School Diplomas. Our young women’s program has only been open for one year and the ladies from our first two cohorts are still in their jobs. The ladies that trained in the summer all returned to high school and are still coming to the café on weekends to work or just visit.

Curt’s Café is run now by amazing volunteers and ten great staff so I don’ t feel comfortable taking credit for our students’ success because it does take an army. But we have all enjoyed watching so many successful students move on, get their first apartments and first cars, find a special partner, come to the café to tell us first that they are expecting a child, inviting us to their high school graduations or calling many of us on Mother’s Day. We have seen our young men move out of gangs, even if it was a dangerous thing to do. We have seen our young women move out of abuse relationships, even if it meant living in a shelter with their children. We have seen our students rally together to support one another, and all of us staff, when one of our students was shot and killed, and they always hug us when we get stressed and tell us everything is going to be okay. Apathy is what they come to the café with because their lives have been so difficult and sympathy and love is what they leave with. I am touched by every one of their stories and I am humbled by their strength and perseverance—once they start to believe they are worth the effort!

Elena, Chris, Devante

 

Why did you choose this next act?  

I honestly didn’t choose this act. It chose me. As hokey as that sounds it is the truth. I had no skill set in working with ex-offender youth or teen mothers. I had no prior interest, excluding one class when I was 18—and I had taken that class because they went on fun field trips! I had raised two of my own children and helped raise my niece and nephew (Curt and Nancy’s kids) and I thought that was plenty. I was not affected by youth violence; I did not have anyone I loved arrested or incarcerated; I did not know people who were greatly affected by injustice.

I simply had an idea that could help. I saw that no one else was doing specifically what the kids were asking for, so I did what they asked me for and built a workforce program around the industry that I knew and loved. I moved one foot in front of the other without taking time to really think about spending my days with 18-year-old boys coming out of prison or 15-year-old mothers of two. I was moved to do what I do. I listened to my heart and moved in the direction it took me. And I have never ever been happier.

The only other option I considered was opening another type of business. I am very entrepreneurial and I don’t love working for other people. But it could have been a moving company, another restaurant, or a clothing store. I never thought about a nonprofit because I like making money and I have never understood how nonprofits work and didn’t have a deep desire to learn.

South - Mary Kay[1]

With new lipstick!

 

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

Taking the plunge was not easy but I moved fast and didn’t allow myself to get discouraged. My husband and I took a home equity loan against our house (not a good idea, I know) and secured a place to open the café. I determined how much I could spend to build out the space to make it into a café and, with the remaining money, hoped to pay the rent for a few months until I could get grants.

I spoke with many people who thought it was a great idea, but when it came to writing the grants and getting money, none of them came through with funding. The reason I was told most often was that my idea wasn’t proven and they couldn’t give money to my good intentions. Of course, I understood that but it was painful. I ended up taking money out on credit cards, hoping a few people coming into the café and seeing the students improving every day would leave a donation, and I asked friends and family to help. The first two years were not pretty!

I met a woman, Lori Dube, before I opened and she believed in what I wanted to do and she has been a huge supporter to the café from day one. She was an angel in an apron because she helped recruit her friends for funding, she made scones, she cleaned tables, and her husband even helped with our legal struggles. Without her help and belief in me and my crazy idea, I don’t know how I would have done it.

After two years of a proven track record, we have been able to secure grants and larger donations but it is still a huge struggle. The young women’s program gets more funding because who doesn’t want to help a teenage mother who is struggling? But we started with the boys’ program, and funding young men coming out of prison is not quite as intriguing.

Our first Board of Directors helped me to build the café/job training part of the program because I knew that could bring in at least 50% of the money needed to run the program. Basically I hoped the sales at the café would cover general operating and half the staff; this has turned out to be true. But we continue to fundraise for stipends for the students, the social workers, the overhead for students needs, our management staff, and a small portion of general operating expenses. Our evolving Board of Directors is charged more with funding and support for services required by our youths.

John DeRosier and Me

With John DeRosier, a chef, friend, and volunteer

 

How supportive were your family and friends?

Our kids had gone to college by then and from a distance they thought it was cool. They didn’t understand why I was doing it but they were 100% supportive. My husband was rock solid behind me. He never questioned what I thought I could do; he supported me financially and allowed me to make very generous loans to the organization to get it started. He didn’t question me working 18-hour days for two years, not taking vacations with him, or not helping around the house. I am still only about 30% back on a normal track but he is patient and understanding.

My family has always been supportive and, although they questioned me more than my husband, they all helped paint, hang pictures, cook, design, whatever I needed. They continue to have my back all the time in every way. I am lucky because I have six brothers and sisters and all of us have been in the restaurant business for long periods of time. Until last year, we all lived within 15 miles of the café. Now one of my brothers lives in San Francisco, but that’s okay because our son is there and they have had dinner together most Sundays—keeping up our family tradition of Sunday dinners and hanging out together.

All the Grandkids

All the grandkids

My sister Nancy bought my shares of stock at Food For Thought, which helped me tremendously my first three years at the Café. She supplies all the food for our fundraisers and takes our students on tours of the catering kitchens whenever we have a graduating class. Her kids, Adam and Rosie, helped paint the new café on Thanksgiving break and both donate to the café. Amazing young people, if I say so myself!

Our Mom, Betty, was diagnosed with cancer the day after I opened the first Café. She fought the disease for a year and for most of that time you could find her sitting on the couch at the Café chatting up people and telling them about the program. She was so proud of me but, more importantly, I believe she was happy to see that I had found my passion, one that would make me soar and that would change my life in a positive way forever. We lost our Mom in 2013 and the day one of our graduate students found out, he came right to the café to see if he could take me out for pizza because he knew I was sad. This from a kid who was making $8.25 an hour and had a child to support!

Mom and Me

With my mom

I have been fortunate to have won awards like the “Key to the City of Evanston” and was a runner up for Loréal Paris “Woman of Worth”—I received a trip to New York where I was on the stage with the Loréal spokespeople and many celebrities. Although I missed our mom, I knew she was there, smiling and so, so proud. The fact my daughter nominated me allowed me to fully embrace the experience and walk proudly. Even though I didn’t win the biggest prize awarded, I felt I had!

My friends were very supportive and all wished they could have helped but most of my friends are doing similar work and have no time. I have made the most amazing friends since I opened the café—friends I will have for a lifetime. People like Lori Dube who believed in what I wanted to do when I might have questioned it. Who came in at five in the morning and left at ten at night and said, “Wow, this is amazing.” The best friend a girl could ask for.

Lori Dube with Djorgy

Lori Dube with Djorgy

 

What challenges did you encounter?

The hardest part for me was when people would come into the café the first six months and say “you are so brave to do this,” or “you are living your dream, I am so envious,” or “you are so smart to be able to do this,” and so on. That was hard because it made me think, “what the hell have I just done!” Up to that point, honestly, I moved with my heart and my calculated business plan, but not fully with my head. I also still don’t believe I did anything that special so it was very embarrassing and difficult for me to navigate that public image.

I have learned to accept the compliments gracefully but I still do not feel as if I’ve done something great. I see the students we work with doing ten times more work every day than I do and they take many more risks than I ever could. They have to walk past dangerous gang neighborhoods; they also have to try things that they have been told they would fail at because most of them have had verbally abusive parents, teachers, “loved ones,” who told them they wouldn’t amount to anything. The students also risk failure—one more time—and that is the hardest risk of all. You can only get knocked down so many times (homelessness, abuse, failed schooling, jail) until you decide to just stay down there.

Crew at Curts June 2013

Financially, I encountered many challenges. I have run out of money often because asking for money, writing grants, etc. is not a skill set I have. I am actually terrible at it. I continue to struggle with this but I knew enough, as a businesswoman, to surround myself with people who shored up my weaknesses. I have just hired a part time Director of Development with the hopes that we can grow our program and, more importantly, ensure that we always have funding for our existing program.

Then there was the physical challenge. I am no longer a young woman and working 18 hours on my feet is hard! I don’t ever feel it during the day but I get home and question what I was thinking. Who, at almost 60 years old, works 80 hours a week, physically and emotionally always on the high shelf of insanity, and then wonders why she is tired? The body and mind have different ideas and the body seems to be whining a lot of the time.

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I was able to jump right in and identify the needs of the students from day one because our son always had a living room full of friends at the house. He was a kid who didn’t see color, economic differences, or the importance of hanging out in just one group or clique. So our house was filled with every kind of kid possible. They were always hungry and I was often home from work when they got home and fixed platters of food—which made me their best friend fast! I also was raised not to judge, and I think the students see that in me right away.

I do struggle with compartmentalizing the stories I hear. I still keep my phone on all night, on my nightstand; I have answered many calls late at night from kids who need blankets or bus cards, kids who just want to talk, and kids who are scared or lonely. When we were able to hire full time social workers, I noticed I got fewer calls but I am very much a mother figure to many of the students—and one of the kids just said I reminded him of his grandmother. I had to scold him for that but then realized I was actually older than his grandmother!

Mr. Bradford[1]

Mr. Bradford, killed 1/19/16 from a gunshot to the head — we are still devastated

Staffing is always a challenge in the restaurant business and Curt’s Café is no different, and I’m still learning to navigate the differences between the way social workers think and work (“lets take a minute and talk about that”) and the way restaurant managers think and work (“do it fast, do it now, and do it my way so the customer is happy and comes back!”) but it’s getting easier. We are all doing the work for the same reason—to give the students a chance in life—so we have managed to navigate our way. My current desire is to get a benefit package funded for our staff so we can get and keep the same caliber of staff that for-profit organizations can attract.

 

Were there times when you thought about giving up?  

I never thought about giving up but I did question my sanity more than once. Lori Dube, my husband, family, and kids were all there to tell me I was on the right path and help me—even when I didn’t know I needed the help. Also, our students seem to rally when I am down and they keep me moving with hugs, successes, phone calls about their new jobs, or just calls to see how I am doing. It’s amazing.

 

Sandwich

 

 

What did you learn about yourself through this process?

I am stronger and smarter than I ever gave myself credit for. I need to learn how to ask for help. I am stubborn when I see someone is being taken advantage of. I will always advocate and speak up for those who have lost their voice because one day that person might be me.

 

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

Not one thing. If I would have learned more about the nonprofit industry or the young adults I chose to serve, I could have made it much easier for myself and others concerned, but I might have also decided not to do it! I realize now that I took a huge risk—and continue to actually—because I had no idea if the program would actually work. I still have a tremendous amount of money on the line (and I didn’t get paid for the first 3 1/2 years) but I believe in the work with all my heart, I believe in the students, and I know I’m smart enough to figure out how to make it sustainable. Opening a nonprofit with no nonprofit experience would not be considered a good business move but moving forward I feel I have the skills sets required to do the job better.

I had no money to fall back on and I had no plan on what to do if I ran out of money. The kids I choose to serve have been in prison sometimes for 5-10 years and if I had really thought about it maybe there was a reason very few are willing to put to much time or money into them.

Again, I moved with a full heart and a pretty good business plan. More planning and knowledge would have told me to run in the other direction and not look back! But the success our students have had (2% recidivism vs national average of 86% recidivism) proves that the kids are well worth every dollar we spend and every tired night I spend.

Tedx Talk

With other TedX Winnetka presenters

 

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

Go with your heart and be brave. Find someone to take the journey with you if possible. It is so much more fun if you have someone else to run ideas by, enjoy a glass of wine with, or brainstorm next steps with. Someone who understands why you are doing what you are doing even more than you do. Someone who believes in you as much as you believe in yourself and someone who has strengths that you envy. But do it! Make the change, if you feel you should. Don’t be someone who “wishes they would.” Be proud that you tried. There are no failures in trying in my book. The only failure is listening to fear, not your heart!

I would encourage all the women reading this not to write a script for their lives in pen. Write in pencil so you can gracefully erase if you choose another path. It is so admirable, in my eyes anyway, when I hear about people who followed their heart and work harder than ever but share stories and belly laughs about what they do. “Genuinely happy” can’t be bought or pushed, it must be lived by being true to yourself.

 

What advice do you have for those interested in starting a nonprofit?

Meet with those of us who have taken the leap and learn from us so you are looking for the guideposts on your path. They aren’t always visible but they are important. They keep you out of the ditch and from skidding into the car in front of you. Make sure it is what you love by working with one of us doing this work. If it’s meant to be, an opportunity will present itself.

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What resources do you recommend?

I read Father Boyles’ Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion when I was at a low point and it motivated me to keep doing what I’m doing. He tells real stories. They spoke to me in a unique way.

I read all business books, not nonprofit books very often. I want to run our business like a real business so it’s up to us to keep it open, not a government funding agent or a grant funder. I read books like:

The Power of Unreasonable People: How Social Entrepreneurs Create Markets That Change the World by Elkington Hartigan

The Great Game of Business: The Only Sensible Way to Run a Company by Jack Stack

Small Giants: Companies That Choose to Be Great Instead of Big by Bo Burlingham

The E-Myth Revisited: Why Most Small Businesses Don’t Work and What to Do About It by Michael Gerber

I also enjoy Success Magazine and subscribe to SmartBrief on leadership every day because it always has a link that pertains to what my business is going through.

I also read appropriate websites and books on judicial justice, such as:

The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander

United: Thoughts on Finding Common Ground and Advancing the Common Good by Cory Booker.

I have over 30 years in the food business but I still read all those magazines as well, like QSR (Quick Service Restaurant), Catering, and Tasting Panel.

For website development, I use Laura Fairman of Blue Canvas in Chicago. She was 100% on top of what I asked her for, she understood my vision and my business, and she continues to be at arm’s length when needed.

 

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What’s next for you?

Because it is such a young organization, I am dedicated to making Curt’s Café successful and sustainable. We are on our way and work hard every day to get the kids jobs and to make sure we are here for them as they grow and mature. Our 2016-2017 goal is to open one or two other Cafés for kids in Chicago and North Chicago/Waukegan so that will keep me busy and focused.

I would like to visit other like-minded organizations in the United States and abroad to see how they are handling workforce development, recidivism, and youth needs (highly at-risk underserved youth). I think there is a wealth of information out there that I just have not had the time to tap into. Because restaurant people work on their feet, making phone calls would not be as beneficial as working next to someone for 3-4 days and then documenting best practices. Fellowship would be amazing to build an even stronger foundation to what we do.

susan_staff

 

Contact Susan Garcia Trieschmann at susan@curtscafe.org

Locations:

2922 Central St, Evanston IL

1813 Dempster St, Evanston IL

Website

Watch my Ted Talk

Facebook Page

Twitter: @Curts_Cafe




Shining a Light on Women and Transition: Linda’s Story

rosetti_018full_RESOLUTIONA call from her husband about a mix up in childcare was the last straw for Linda. Soon, she would leave her corporate job and begin a journey that would culminate in the publication of her new book, Women and Transition.

 

 

Tell us a little about your background…

I am a third generation Italian American who has lived in/around Boston for most of my life. In my early twenties I lived in Sao Paulo, Brazil when my then employer, Bank of Boston, sent me there. I’ve traveled extensively for my various jobs but always called Boston home.

My family and I live Northwest of Boston. I have two children, who are eleven and twelve.

I hold a BA in Economics from Simmons College, an all women’s liberal arts college in Boston, MA. I also had the great good fortune to attend the Harvard Business School where I earned an MBA.

My work experience leading up to my next act was largely in the technology arena. My coolest/best role in that arena was when I started and served as CEO of EMaven, Inc., a technology services company. Our customers were companies like Sunoco, GEICO, Merck, and Amgen. We raised $1.5MM in venture capital financing. The company was acquired by Perot Systems, Inc., now Dell Corporation.

After the company’s acquisition, a gentleman who served on EMaven’s Advisory Board recruited me to Iron Mountain where he was CEO. Despite my technology and P&L background, I was asked to run Human Resources and Administration for a company with 21,000 employees in 37 countries. My former colleague recruited me because he wanted a businessperson in the C-suite to partner with him to re-architect the company. I held that position for just under five years.

Business_trip_in_Ireland

On a business trip in Ireland

 

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

I can’t say that my decision was part of a long analysis or big decision process. Instead it struck me that I was done with my prior path thanks to an unexpected event. One day in 2009, when I was 45 and traveling in London for business, my husband called me on my cell phone to let me know that my daughter had inadvertently been left at school on an early release day.

In that instant, as I stood outside a meeting in the middle of London, I said to myself, “That’s it. I’m done.” I wasn’t sure what I was done with. But I crossed an imaginary line at that moment. I remember standing there awash in all sorts of emotions—like exhaustion and worry and guilt—but also thinking that there must be something more for me. At the time I couldn’t name it but it was a powerful enough sentiment to get me to act on it. It would take more than a year before my transition got underway. Even then, I wasn’t aware that I was in transition for quite some time.

The London event started a process that, back then, I couldn’t name. I knew I needed to alter things radically but at the time that looked like a new job or maybe a new line of work. I had no idea about the enormous opportunity that lay ahead for me.

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What is your next act

Rossetti9781137476548_flatI am an author, thought leader, and social entrepreneur dedicated to increasing the capacity for transition in women. My first book, Women and Transition: Reinventing Work and Life, introduces women to a new way of thinking about the events that shape their adult lives—like empty nests or career changes or infertility—and offers readers a step-by-step toolkit to help women transition successfully. It was released in November 2015 and is doing great—already in its second printing! That said, I am working diligently to broaden the book’s reach and, more importantly, to gain exposure for the topic of women’s transitions. Since September 2015, I’ve spoken with thousands of women through formal and informal speaking engagements. I’ve also appeared on radio and TV.

My investigation of transitions, an important and enabling force in women’s lives, led me to write my book and to establish a not-for-profit, Women’s Engagement Resources – WER, that focuses on educating women about transition. The organization is still in its infancy. I envision it as a capacity-building organization that will do two things: to create materials to support women’s transitions; and to collaborate on research to advance our understanding of transition in women’s lives. Materials, like workbooks and audio books, will be available for use by women’s not-for-profits to aid their women’s advancement missions.

My next act has allowed me to fuse a lot of different interests—like my life-long passion for women’s issues and my desire to be a visible female leader. The topic captivates me. I believe in its ability to influence women everywhere. While I love this phase, I also acknowledge that it is still ongoing.

authors_copy_arrives_by_mail

My author’s copy arrives in the mail!

 

Why did you choose this next act?  

In hindsight, I chose this next act for a lot of reasons. First, I was tipped off about the topic thanks to finding myself in transition and frustrated by the lack of relevant resources available to me. I outreached to other women to inquire about what to do and found that nearly everywhere I went, women were struggling with the same issues that I was encountering. I saw patterns emerge from my early discussions with women. No one seemed to be paying attention to these patterns. That got me angry – because I saw transition as a broad issue for women. The topic began to captivate my imagination. I was fascinated by it and continue to be. I think raising people’s awareness of transition has the potential to change lives by changing how women view their personal decisions. It is incredibly powerful. I love the work.

As I got closer and closer to transition, I initiated very formal research. Once that started, I began to focus on thought leadership and social change as venues for my next act. It is still evolving and I still love it.

public_library_perch

Working at our public library

 

How hard was it to take the plunge?

It was very hard—with tons of difficult days. As I think about how to answer your question I see that there were a series of gates, not one plunge. The first was my London phone call; that gave me a jolt but only started me on a path.

The next few gates were pretty low risk. The first was I started a blog: Novofemina.com, a celebration of women’s transitions. It took up only a few hours a week while I was doing independent consulting. The second, when I started my research, was a slightly higher commitment level. At that time, I wanted to simply understand transition more completely. I didn’t conduct the research in hopes of one day writing a book.

It wasn’t until after I finished the research and realized how much I’d learned about transition that I decided to pursue a book. This was substantially more risk for me. I’d never written a book nor did I know anything about the process. I guess that was a plunge, although the riskiness of the topic itself had been greatly reduced thanks to my earlier two steps. I already believed in the power of transition so it made the plunge easier.

I guess I learned that it is a series of steps not one swing at the bat that brought me to my next act. There wasn’t one big jump, but a series of steps—each of which provided opportunities for learning and experimentation.

another_draft

Yet another draft

 

How did you go about writing and finding a publisher for your book?

My earlier career stops all made sense once I got hold of this topic. After graduate school, I’d spent a few years in a management consulting firm. That experience schooled me in primary and secondary research. As a result, I conducted the research myself—everything from question design to facilitating focus groups to analyzing data.

I also relied on my experience networking and leveraging other people as I began the process of writing a book. There were several flights of activities. In the first flight, I focused on educating myself about writing books. I dug into topics like publishers and agents and the mechanics of book writing. Ultimately, I learned that I needed a proposal for a non-fiction work. As I developed the proposal, I networked to generate a list of agents and publishers who might help me. It was a huge effort.

Ultimately I connected with an Executive Editor at Palgrave Macmillan who was interested in my project. The entire process—from initiating the research to signing a contract for the book—took 16 months. It then took another nine months to write the book.

I’ve blogged about the mathematics of dreaming: 73 versions of the proposal, 12 agent/editor connections, 3 versions of the manuscript before my editor said, “I finally am hearing your voice”, 1 book.

During this time I had two other part time jobs and my mom become very ill. In fact, I missed a deadline for the book thanks to a trip she made through the ICU at a large Boston teaching hospital. My point is that life doesn’t stop. I was so committed to the topic and its usefulness to women that it kept me going.

rossetti_ladies_cape_cod

With my mom and sister

 

How supportive were your family and friends?

At one level, my family and friends were very supportive. But I don’t think that they really understood the enormity of what I was undertaking.

My mother, who is in her 80s, couldn’t understand why I wasn’t working at the breakneck pace that I’d always chosen to work. She didn’t really understand the consulting projects that I was taking on. Also, early on, we didn’t have the vocabulary of transition to help us talk about what was occurring. My mother would say, “I spoke with Mrs. So and So. She can’t believe you are still not working…” This went on for months while she went through her entire address book.

My mother worked when I was a child. Over the years, she has always reminded my sister and me that we have choices. When she was graduating from college, her choices were limited—sadly. I’m not entirely sure why she struggled with my decision. My guess is that it was outside of our social context; I wasn’t working full time but I wasn’t able to say what I was doing. There was no vocabulary.

I honestly don’t think my husband really understood my transition until my book was nearly done. He kept saying to other people that I would “go back” after I finished writing. My next act isn’t about going back. I will only go forward from here. I don’t think he really got it until the book was finished and he saw my commitment to the topic in a broader sense.

My female friends were incredibly supportive and gave me a gift beyond belief. They assumed that whatever I tried I’d be successful with. In all of their actions, they neutralized failure. That was a real gift. The executives with whom I worked—both female and male—were curious but distant. I was a science experiment to them only to be viewed at a distance with safety glasses. They were similar to my mom: The lack of a shared vocabulary really strained those relationships.

My children were in early elementary school as I exited full-time work and embarked on this uncertain course. On a practical level, they loved it because mom was around more. I no longer disappeared to London or elsewhere for a business trip. As my research took shape and I started writing a book, they were incredibly interested in what I was doing. I am thankful that they’ve seen this cycle. I had a question and a dream. They saw me work through it. They saw me try and fail and try again. They were both at my book launch party. My son was 10 and my daughter 12 at the time. I am grateful that they’ve seen this whole cycle. They each played a role. The book’s early success—like my TV appearance—was very visible to them. They are great champions of my work. But I’ve also given voice to a process I hope they embrace in their own lives. What a gift.

family_book_launch_party

My family at the book launch party

 

What challenges did you encounter?

There were lots of challenges but probably the most substantive were those tied to societal expectations. These are the ones that come out as “I should do….” They influenced my judgment about what was or was not a viable path, particularly early on. These expectations also influence our beliefs about what success is. It was tough wading through all that early on before I had the benefit of understanding transition more completely.

 

Were there times when you thought about giving up?  

Yes, I remember one day when a friend called to let me know that she’d just gotten a new job after being in the job market only a few weeks. The news sent me into a tailspin. It occurred about one year after I left Iron Mountain. I immediately got self-critical and began thinking how much I’d failed. Questions like, “How could I have gotten myself into this predicament?” raced through my mind. At that moment, I really thought the best path would be to stop and just go get a job—any job. But my belief that something more was ahead for me was incredibly strong. It gave me confidence to continue to explore despite the uncertainty.

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Taping a radio interview in Boston

 

What did you learn about yourself through this process?

I learned that in spite of the career accolades that I’d accumulated, I wasn’t tapping into all that I had to give. I was also surprised how good it felt to dignify my voice. The process of bringing up my voice allowed me to tap into incredible energy and grace. It has been enlivening and empowering. I am happy and never feel as if what I do is work. I am thrilled that I landed here and continue to explore what/where it might lead. I also have humility to know that I am still learning and discovering.

I’ve learned an enormous amount about myself and how I want to interact with this world.

 

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

I wouldn’t invest so much energy in the negative emotions that were present during the early stages of my transition. Now, with my knowledge of transition and its phases, I would recognize that stage and its emotions as only that—emotions. I wouldn’t believe for a minute that they were a proxy for my self-worth. For example, early on I was convinced I had failed as a professional and as a parent. Ironically I also felt guilty for not working the 60+ hours per week that I’d come to know meant “success.” Those emotions took a large toll on me. Now that I understand transition, I would place those emotions within a larger framework of transition. It would help neutralize them and also conserve energy for the later—more exciting—steps.

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

I would encourage women to educate themselves on transition as they start out exploring reinvention. A little context can help reframe obstacles and keep us moving. For me it’s been invaluable.

I have two additional buckets of advice. First is to dream. I observed through my research that women are very reluctant to take the time to dream. Many want to “go do.” Take the time to wish or dream or explore the things that hold meaning for you. This part of the exercise is essential.

Second, create mini experiments to help you bring shape to your dreams. Experiments can range in size and commitment level. A Skype call with a new contact can serve as an experiment. A walk with a friend. An internship. A volunteer opportunity. A new job. A new schedule for your home. The one requirement that is non-negotiable is that you need to explicitly state a learning objective for the activity. As you get going, craft bigger and bigger experiments until you are reshaping your dream.

 

What resources do you recommend?

First, I would recommend that everyone contemplating a midlife reinvention read Women and Transition: Reinventing Work and Life. Additional outstanding resources are below and on my blog.

Transitions: Making Sense of Life’s Changes, Revised 25th Anniversary Edition by William Bridges

The Art of Possibility: Transforming Professional and Personal Life by Rosamund Stone Zander and Benjamin Zander

How Will You Measure Your Life? by Clayton Christensen

Listening Below the Noise: The Transformative Power of Silence by Anne LeClaire

Composing a Life by Mary Catherine Bateson

There are not-for-profits that may be valuable to you. Two examples are The Women’s Exchange or The Transition Network. There are many that serve the needs of women’s development. There are also career and life coaches who can be enormously helpful. I wish there was a fantastic resource that I could reference. Remember my work started when I was frustrated by what was available to me in terms of resources….

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On the set for my first TV interview

 

What’s next for you?

I am continuing to build out my next act. First and foremost, this includes getting visibility for my book. More than 40 reviewers have take the time to share their opinion on Amazon. I am honored and encourage readers to add their voice to the discussion.

Second, I continue to shape my not-for-profit dedicated to increasing the capacity for transition in women. It is in its formative stages. I hope that it can be a resource to women and women’s organizations as this topic gains awareness. Through it, I also hope to collaborate on additional research so that we can advance society’s understanding of transition and the role is plays in the lives of women.

 

Contact Linda Rossetti at linda@womenandtransition.com

Book: Women and Transition: Reinventing Work and Life

Website

Nonprofit: Register for news at womenandtransition.com

Twitter: @Wmn_Transition

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