Women who have followed their dreams in middle age have often discovered lessons to teach the rest of us. Here are some of their stories.
people in middle age often have difficulty changing careers for a variety of reasons, mostly having to do with their age and the expense of hiring them. But many do and when they are women, the results can be quite satisfying.
Often, these adventurous souls go out on their own, taking salary cuts, changing lifestyles, doing what their hearts tell them is right.
“Follow your bliss” is rarely the primary suggestion from professionals, but it helps create some happy workers. The women profiled herewith did that. And they found what they wanted.
Bayla Sussman, Baylee’s Best
Bayla Sussman’s road has been the very definition of long and winding. She’s followed her dream in fields as varied as acting, marketing research, coding, events marketing, restaurant work, tax preparation, teaching, office management and creating dreamy chocolates.
It is the chocolate phase that has her attention now. She owns Baylee’s Best in Roanoke, crafting chocolate delights to an ever-increasing clientele at her shop on Electric Road. She became a chocolatier because, “I’m not good at retirement” and when she and her husband moved to Roanoke a few years ago, that situation was staring at her.
Sussman, who does not want you to know her exact age, majored in theater at Northwestern University, but for many of her jobs, she had no training other than her own curiosity. After college, she worked for a marketing research firm during the day and studied dance, voice and theater at night. She started an MBA program, but hated it, preferring the theater. She worked for Actors’ Equity and the Illinois State Lottery as a character and spokeswoman.
Marriage changed everything. “Attempting to be a good corporate wife, I followed my husband around the country as he advanced in his career. I continued to perform when possible. I began to do well in New England: some theater, some voice work, some film and video.”
In Roanoke, her husband lost his job and went into business for himself. She went to H&R Block, and “I ended up, teaching, preparing returns, managing an office, dealing with problems—and volunteering to head up the Relay for Life Team after I had cancer.”
The Next Chapter came in March, 2003: “I brought some truffles to a reception at my friend, Gwenda Kellett’s store. She informed me that I would have to go into business so she could sell them.” In September, “I had the kitchen inspected, got a business license and Baylee’s was born. I figured that I wouldn’t lose too much money because Christmas was coming, then I could close it down and they wouldn’t bother me anymore.
“In July of 2008, my inspector told me that the business was getting too large to stay in the house. I would have to close it or move it into a store. I figured it might be time to retire. Husband said: Store.”
Her husband became her “business and technical directors” as she entered a new store in early 2009 “and then he met a younger woman and left me with a lease I could not break. So, I stumbled on, reading, attending seminars when I could, asking questions of knowledgeable people and sharing information with other small chocolatiers. Last year I was able to take advantage of the Scale Up program for small businesses. Fortunately, I learn from my mistakes.”
Lee Hunsaker, The Love Of Writing
Lee Hunsaker grew up with the distinct advantage of being—for the past 47 years—the daughter of theatrical, eccentric, bonvivant, raconteur Julie Hunsaker, among other things. Her evolution and Next Chapter are the result of consistently following her bliss and looking for opportunities for change.
Let her tell the story: “After spending most of my adult life working in film, moving from job to job, traveling, forming and losing friendships (nature of that business), coming back to Roanoke was a shock to my system. I was, and in many ways still am, in the throes of an epic identity crisis.
“I realized that a part of me that had been pushed away and buried was my lifelong love of writing. I enrolled in some classes at Hollins ... immersed myself in motherhood and my family, and slowly began to find my footing again.
“I [organized] writing workshops in my living room, which branched off into public spaces like Sweet Donkey Coffee and even at Parkway Brewing! From those and from keeping strong ties to Austin, Santa Fe, New York, etc., I realized that Virginia is rich with stories and storytellers. I took a chance and organized a monthly Moth-style live storytelling series called Hoot and Holler: Our Stories.”
Hoot and Holler is no way to get rich—it pays very little—but in the “finding your bliss” attic, it’s in the big trunk. Hunsaker has always sought out that particular part of life, from attending high school for theater and writing near Boston, to majoring in English and theater at VCU.
Her mom “always encouraged me in the arts. My love of costume and film began in my childhood, as my mother owned the first vintage clothing store in Roanoke and eventually came to own the Grandin Theater. I was introduced to the film business when ‘Crazy People’ chose the Grandin as a filming location. From there, I ended up in casting in Baltimore for John Waters and eventually made my way to Austin, Texas.”
She met the costume designer from “Waiting For Guffman” who “noticed that I had a sharp eye and good sense of style and design. She asked if I would come work on set and from there my costume career took off.” She’d been a costume designer for movies like “Miss Congeniality,” “Office Space” and “Boyhood.”
In 2008 she was diagnosed with breast cancer and had a new marriage and an 18-month-old son. “My world was thrown upside down,” she says. She “went through nearly a year of aggressive treatments and surgeries” and “came to the decision that the stress, hours, and physical and emotional demands of the film industry were going to compromise my health.
“I needed to re-evaluate all I’d ever known in all areas of my life. It was time to prioritize and in doing so, I made the very hard choice to leave Austin and my career as I knew it, and to return back to my hometown of Roanoke. My husband, also extremely successful in his career as a prop master, gave up a lot to be here.”
The move, initially, “was a shock to my system. I was, and in many ways still am, in the throes of an epic identity crisis.” That’s when she rediscovered her love of writing and “slowly began to find my footing again … and I now believe I am finally finding my way back to myself and to what I truly love.”
Cathy Dick, Holistic Wellness Academy
Cathy Dick is 58 and the Next Chapter, she insists, continue to help her evolve. She’s been a teacher, receptionist, a home stager and a certified health coach … just since living in Roanoke.
She grew up in Arizona, dealing with headaches and stomach problems, watching her mother manage a heart condition, and learning along the way “how much stress and tension were the cause of many health problems.”
She moved to Alaska after two years of college, got married, raised three kids, and divorced after 20 years. She spent nearly 15 years supporting ADHD children and operated her own pre-school. “When the time was right, I piled the kids into my motor home and drove down the Alcan Highway in 1997,” she recalls.
About eight years ago she quit her HR position and offered home staging—just about the time of the housing market crash, and so she fell back into ADHD consulting, which did not do well. “This is when I realized my true passion—something I’ve done for friends, co-workers, and family most of my life—helping people feel better and make healthier lifestyle choices for themselves.”
In 2012, she founded One Degree Forward, supporting “women who desire to feel more energetic, confident and inspired and want less fatigue, pain, and being overwhelmed. They just want to live a healthier, happier life. My job is to help them accept who they are in the present moment so they can create the changes needed to be who they want to be in the future. Together we discover how the body is miraculously designed to heal from within when we use food as medicine.”
Dick is now the educational director for the Holistic Wellness Academy, an online school for health coaches and their clients, that opened in early 2017.
“I’m in great health,” she says. “I live in a beautiful place. I have a great husband, children and grandchildren to enjoy. Life is far too short not to live happy and healthy.”
Michelle Belton, Companion Home Care Inc.
Michelle Belton was the first female auctioneer in Virginia with a license, but that wasn’t the Next Chapter; not even close. She was just 23 then. She already had a five-year-old child and had attended 18 schools in 10 years as a PK (preacher’s kid). Her GED allowed her to attend auctioneering school and learn to work the “business of pawnbroker and gemological assessment and grading of gems and jewelry.”
She “conducted auctions ranging from guns, antiques and tools for a Russian gem dealer. She also sold Russian artifacts to art auctions. By 25, she had certificates allowing her to grade and appraise diamonds and colored stones. She managed a jewelry store for 10 years and when she became “bored with selling rich ladies big diamonds” she moved to a position as sales supervisor of “up to 85 employees at a call center.” ‘Course, she hated that and “desperately wanted out … I knew there was something more for me out there.”
All the while, she volunteered with organizations like Meals on Wheels, working with the elderly. She took a course from the Small Business Administration, and “that was the start of a complete reinvention of my life.”
In 2004, she opened Companion Home Care Inc. in a small business incubator. I “decided to narrow my focus from not just ‘non-medical’ help with daily living for seniors to a specialty in understanding dementia and Alzheimer’s.” She is a Certified Dementia Practitioner, “which gives me a group of like-minded individuals belonging to the [national association] to help further my mission in this disease.”
As a result of all this, “I am no longer afraid to take on large tasks, buy a one-way ticket to Maui, introduce myself and shake hands with biggest VIP in a room and every now and again, give myself permission to take a day and do nothing.”