The concept of creating the project “Women of Substance” came about when I watched amazing women around me overcome extreme obstacles, create something wonderful to help others, or provide much needed love and encouragement to those who need it the most. Watching these women do what they do with love and determination inspired me to showcase what they are accomplishing. My goal is to show everyone, particularly young girls and women who are struggling with their identity, that we can accomplish amazing things if we just believe in ourselves.
Each woman highlighted will have a few photos and a brief bio posted on social media of who they are and what they are doing that makes them wonderful. These posts will be found on my website, Instagram, Facebook, Twitter and Tumblr. So stay tuned to see the many women out there who deserve their time to shine!
This is June. She is a lovely, warm and friendly lady with a spunky personality and spicy sense of humor. June is the executive director and instructor of The Gathering Lighthouse in Lombard, IL. This center specializes in helping men and women learn “self-empowerment, personal strength & leadership skills” in a variety of classes, coaching, support groups, etc. This includes a women’s empowerment & support group which focuses on helping women with their issues in a safe and loving environment.
What makes June stand out is that she is also a psychic medium who not only fearlessly walks through her life with this knowledge, but also dedicates her time to helping others hone their skills at mediumship and intuition. The fact that June has been doing this since the 70’s is what makes her a truly fearless woman. When I asked June if she would participate in this project, June didn’t hesitate. In fact, her immediate comment to me was that when she was a young girl, she watched her female family members of strength and substance never step forward to claim their power. She decided right then that she would not allow herself to submit to the same fate. And she hasn’t. When asked about her bio, June said to inform the readers that she opened the center when she was 70 years old, and is definitely going strong now at 75! June pointed out to me that retired women have so much to offer, and to not hesitate to offer their time and talents whenever possible. She is a true teacher to everyone with the goal of having every individual feeling comfortable in their own skin. June’s family supports her fully on her path, and her daughters (Margie Panter and Patty Glade) work as the office staff at The Gathering Lighthouse!
I recently went to June’s book launch which is entitled “Owning Our Truth”. I was surprised to hear that this book does not promote June. Instead, it promotes the individuals in her classes who have stepped forward to claim their “truth”. The authors of many of the stories were there for the launch to sign books and answer questions. June was just there to hug (literally) everyone and introduce people. It was amazing to see that day. I aspire to one day be as fearless and kind as June. This tiny lady packs a HUGE amount of love, and is someone you should know.
This is Debbie. She is a smart, strong, sarcastic, kind and talented personal trainer & Pilates instructor at Life Time Fitness in Burr Ridge, IL. I met Debbie several years ago after watching her work as a personal trainer with folks of all ages, shapes, sizes & athletic levels at another local fitness center. When I finally went to Debbie for help with a chronic pain problem, she worked with me on a new fitness program that worked around my joint pain. That woman tolerated my swearing-laden angry tantrums and helped me when I sometimes teared up in pain-induced frustration. Hearing her inspiring words to “just keep moving” (along w/ copious amounts of sarcasm to my snarky remarks) really helped turn my life around. I’ve since watched her inspire those around her who would otherwise not even bother trying to “get healthy” and workout. What really took me aback was when I finally learned that Debbie is a Type I diabetic, and has been since she was a little girl. In spite of that fact, Debbie grew up to become a professional dancer and instructor, and eventually migrated to personal training. Realizing that I had (on several occasions mind you) previously spent a ridiculous amount of time arguing with her about the greatness of Twinkies, Cheetos and all things dark chocolate was quite a horrifying realization. However, as always, she shrugged off my apologies and kept me on task with my healthy regimen. You see, instead of using her condition to shame those around her into healthy habits, she instead meets you where you are while helping you to improve any way she can. Her passion for health, along with the desire to help others, makes her quite a significant inspiration. Debbie is truly is an incredible person inside and out, and is someone you should know.
This is Cheryl Wash, the founder and business owner of Global Executive Media. I first met Cheryl when she gave a speech at the launch of June Kortum’s “Owning Our Truth” at The Gathering Lighthouse. Cheryl is actually the publisher of that book, and works closely with June on several ongoing projects. I immediately asked Cheryl if she would participate in my “Women of Substance” project. Cheryl didn’t hesitate to say yes. This independent, open-minded AND open-hearted brand leader is literally a wealth of information and inspiration. In fact, while I was photographing her recently, Cheryl continued to brainstorm ideas and strategy’s for me to use in my own business. I was simply amazed to see the energy and generous spirit emanating from her. To say that Cheryl has a passion for her business is a grand understatement. When interviewing her, Cheryl described herself as shy and insecure as a child, escaping into the stories of classic books to help her see that her life struggles were shared by others- that she wasn’t alone. In time, Cheryl became an avid writer, creating plays and screenplays of her own. After completing her masters degree and working for over 20 years as a global media consultant for huge corporations, Cheryl decided to break out on her own. While she is a writer of her own merit, Cheryl decided instead to help promote others’ stories and brand names. “Doing right by people” is Cheryl’s daily mantra. In fact, her goal is to create a legacy for years to come with all of her clients. At one point, Cheryl told me “I am a person who helps you find your story that your soul came here to tell. We all use our stories to heal ourselves and others. Our authentic stories matter and are important to everyone.” I couldn’t agree more. Cheryl is definitely someone you should know.
This is Jennifer with her constant companion and (totally adorable) furry protector, Daisy. This warm & friendly creative is the co-founder of the new “Orange Art Box” monthly art subscription service for children 5-12 years old. Previously, Jennifer spent many years in the corporate world as a photo stylist and merchandiser for large retail chains all over the Chicagoland area. Finding few opportunities for growth in the corporate arena, Jennifer finally decided to take the plunge into the entrepenuial world using her creative skills and passion for inspiring children to create and “play”. After brainstorming ways of inspiring children’s creativity and the enthusiasm for all things art with her cousin & co-founder (named Jen- yes, I’m serious), the brilliant idea of having art supplies with a monthly theme delivered to children was born. The color orange on this fun & festive box is symbolic for joy, warmth, enthusiasm & creativity, so that became the color AND name for this festive monthly package. The launch party was just in October of 2018, and the first month’s subscriptions began in November. As I listened to the story of how this idea came into being, Jennifer simply exuded excitement for the project. It was wonderful to see since it had to be a hard decision to leave the “safe” corporate environment and strike out on her own using her artistic passion as her guide. Knowing that this professional creative is behind the business is guaranteed to be a success not only for Jennifer, but also all of the children that enjoy these art boxes. Jennifer is definitely someone you should know.
I met Carol several years ago when we were both part of a pet portrait art exhibition, and instantly felt a warmth and friendliness emanating from her. As our friendship continued, I’ve watched Carol travel through her life with strength, generosity and love. While she is a lover of the arts, Carol is also a huge animal advocate and has opened her home to several homeless pets needing forever families. I once watched Carol give a talk to a large audience about creating pet portraits. The moment she mentioned her beloved dog named Shannon, Carol’s eyes welled up with tears as she paused a moment to collect herself. That touched not only me, but the others listening to her presentation. I was amazed to realize that Carol wears her heart on her sleeve every day. However, don’t let that sensitivity fool you. Carol is tough in spirit, yet still remains a sweet and gentle soul, with an unwavering loyalty to all of those that she loves.
Carol has had her fair share of trials in her life; most recently, successfully battling breast cancer, then enduring the loss of several family members and friends thereafter. While all of this has left Carol spent physically and emotionally, it has not stopped her from opening her heart and home to a beautiful rescue collie/puppy named Abby, while continuing to help others in the art field. What really struck me is that as an artist, Carol will not hesitate to share her knowledge in all aspects of the art world. You see, I learned years ago that in this field artists NEVER share information with other artists. After all, they’re considered “the competition.” Carol, however, clearly ignored this trend by spending a great deal of time sharing with me all of the knowledge she has gained over the years in this industry. Her generous spirit was stunning to see, and she shrugged off my astonishment with a simple “I love to help people I care about.” Carol truly exemplifies a Woman of Substance.
I met Aimee about six months ago in a metaphysical class at The Gathering Lighthouse, and was immediately struck by her confidence and abilities. Since getting to know her better, I’ve realized what an accomplished energy worker she is. All together, Aimee is a Reiki Master, psychic medium and Akashic Records reader. In spite of this, Aimee remains kind, caring, and very approachable for those of us who still struggle with just about anything regarding the spiritual realm. I sat down with Aimee over coffee one day and asked her more about her story. What I heard struck me as interesting, and inspiring. You see, Aimee spent her entire childhood seeing strange lights and shadows and simply dismissed them as fantasy. By the time she grew up, she paid no attention to anything considered “spiritual”, and instead had a successful career on the west coast working in sales for a large television network. She even published a children’s book entitled “Take Me With You, London.” However, in 2016, everything changed when she said that literally- in one moment- her whole perception changed. She was driving in the car one day when it suddenly felt like a lightening bolt hit her and her abilities “opened up”. Of course, Aimee thought she was having a panic attack and immediately took herself to the doctor. Only after getting a clean bill of health did Aimee started to explore the possibility that she was in connection with “the other side.” Over time, Aimee finally came to the conclusion that she actually did have abilities, and decided to fully immerse herself in research to find out more about the field.
If you watch Aimee work today, she exudes an absolute faith in her guides and angels, and works with them at her own business called Form Energy Therapy (https://formenergytherapy.com/). She offers Reiki sessions, teaches yoga and reads Akashic Records for clients. In spite of all of this, Aimee still attends classes at The Gathering Lighthouse, and continues to study online with research/classes. I admire her willingness to still consider herself a student even though she has mastered many aspects of her field. I’ve watched as Aimee helps, encourages and supports those around her on their paths to knowledge of this field. In fact, her fearlessness and confidence becomes contagious if you spend any time with her. The best part is- Aimee now says that she is living as her authentic self and is truly happy. I admire her determination and drive to become the best at what she does. Aimee is definitely someone you should know
I met Sharnette recently in the community of Hyde Park. She was recommended to me by another Woman of Substance- Cheryl Wash. Once I heard about her inspirational career path and community activism, I knew I had to meet her. Sharnette proved to be a wonderful person to get to know, and she spent quite a lot of time chatting with me recently about her life and aspirations. Sharnette is warm, funny and kind. Her story begins when she started out studying computer science in college and earning her bachelors degree. She then followed up with a full time position in that field. However, with the collapse of the telecom industry, Sharnette found herself looking for new employment. At that time, Sharnette was recommended for an entry level position at a local bank. Even though it was completely out of her comfort zone and specialty, Sharnette chose to think of it as a new opportunity for growth and took it. With hard work and dedication over a 17 year time span, Sharnette’s temporary part-time job has now blossomed into a full time, high-ranking position at a large retail bank. She is an Assistant Vice President and Small Business Regional Champion/Manager for the Mid South Region which has 14 branches in that region. During that time, Sharnette also went back to school to earn an MBA in Business Administration. What’s more, as Sharnette moved up the corporate ladder, she began working with the Community Development department. Sharnette says, “Community is where I truly want to be. Where my heart is.” Sharnette sees the need, and wants to help educate her community with financial literacy. She now teaches credit and savings and budgeting workshops which instructs folks about credit and personal finances and the impact it has in their lives. Her continuous goal continues to be to help her community with their financial health and well being. I also have to tell you that Sharnette describes herself as “formerly shy and introverted.” So, after hearing all that she has accomplished in her life so far, I am amazed that she has so successfully battled her shyness and has turned into such a community champion and financial leader.
Sharnette and her husband Marc Keith have co-created the brand Black is Love, Inc. This genius idea was, according to Sharnette as she laughed, created by “accident” during an in-depth and powerful conversation they had one day. The 4 core values of this brand are: God, Health, Family and Education. Black is Love Inc. not only signifies black culture, but also financial strength (ex: “financials in the black”- genius, right?!?), is regal, powerful and dignified. The color black is also the blend of all colors, which makes it a unifying shade for all. They have now celebrated this brand with an annual event/picnic that Sharnette and Marc has hosted for the last 11 years. Sharnette and Marc have big plans for this brand, so keep your eyes out on what’s to come with this creative brand. In the end, the best way I can describe Sharnette is a powerhouse of leadership and love, and is definitely a Woman of Substance.
The women you see in these photographs are Susan Bartlett, Peggy McGahan, Alice Wych and Kathy Steere. They are the core group of fine artists of the longstanding “Art Lunch” get-togethers. These women have met for lunch & art discussions every month since 2008 I was lucky enough to be invited to this get-together a few years back, and have thoroughly enjoyed every meeting ever since. Mind you, this is just a small sample of the many more artists who have come and gone over the years. Consequently, the number of artists in attendance can vary from as few as 3 women, to as many as a dozen every month. What I’ve noticed is that even when the ladies who don’t live in the area anymore come back for a visit, they make a point to go to this lunch just to “touch base” with everyone. The brainchild for this brilliant idea is Kathy Steere, a longtime artist and instructor at the Morton Arboretum. Back in 2007 Kathy was thinking about how she thoroughly enjoyed meeting with the artists in classes and events, and wanted to come up with a concept where she and the others could get together on a regular basis. The goal for this gathering was to share their work, critique each other’s ongoing projects, and provide support to each other on their journeys. After getting a big thumbs up on the idea from her art friends, Kathy decided to pick a time and day every month for this casual “meet-up.”
Recently, a group of us enrolled in a colored pencil class together. Somehow, the idea came up to do a group project for the upcoming Nature Artists’ Guild of the Morton Arboretum’s Spring Exhibition. The fact that this has never been done before didn’t stop these women for a second. So, with the creation of our colored pencil works, combined with Susan Bartlett’s creative genius with scissors and an x-acto knife, a 3-D work of art was created! We’re all very excited to see our project included in the show.
There are so many things I love about these women, from their wicked senses of humor, to their kindness and compassion to the other artists in attendance when discussing a project or idea. I have watched as they support, guide and sometimes instruct each other in all aspects of the art world. Showing up every month with something to “show” for critique keeps us accountable as to what we’re creating, and keeps everyone moving forward doing what we love most. I am so incredibly grateful to be included in this amazing (and sometimes hilarious) lunch. Each of these women, and the countless others who’ve joined us over the years, are definitely Women of Substance.
I recently met Ahalya at her home with her mother Anna Lettenberger, and was immediately struck with this young woman’s maturity and composure at the young age of 18. I was initially recommended to Anna by another Woman of Substance- Jennifer McDonnell. However, the moment I started talking to Anna, she immediately asked that I instead focus on her daughter. Ahalya, according to Anna, is the true Woman of Substance. Anna called herself “just a mom who does whatever she can for her children- like any other mother.” Right then I knew that Ahalya would be someone special to speak to- like her mother.
Arthrogryposis is a congenital disorder that Ahalya was diagnosed with at birth, resulting in limited use of her legs. This, however, never slowed her down for a moment. Literally. You see, I quickly learned that Ahalya is a longtime sports phenomenon, including medaling in multiple international sporting events. Ahalya‘s mindset is that of excellence in all that she does because it reflects not only on her, but on those around her. She knows her loved ones are watching, especially her younger brother who was also born with the disorder. She wants to show him that he can do anything he sets his mind to.
Ahalya was born into a sports family, and started playing soccer at the age of five. As the fields got bigger as she got older, Ahalya decided to start swimming as an alternative. And wow, did she succeed. At the age of 12, Ahalya participated in a developmental swim meet put on by U.S. Paralympic Swimming. It was at that meet where Ahalya first felt where she truly belonged. Because of that, Ahalya says that she was able to fully accept her disability and who she is, as well as find good friends who share the same story. In 2014, she made her first international meet- the Para Pan Pacific Championships. Ahalya was 13 years old at the time and was the youngest competitor on the team. In 2015 Ahalya made the Para Pan American games. In that competition, she won Gold in 100 meter backstroke, and was the youngest gold medalist at the games.
During that time, Ahalya‘s dream was to qualify for the Paralympic Games (founded to be parallel to the Olympics). However, in the 2016 trials, she JUST missed the team- coming in 4th. The competition only took the top three. So, Ahalya took time out to regroup, and that’s when she tried triathlon. Yep, you read that right- this young warrior started training for the triathalon. Why? She says that she just wanted to “try something new.” So for the bike she uses a hand cycle. With running, Ahalya uses a racing wheelchair. Swimming was a no-brainer for her. In 2017, Ahalya made the world championships for triathlons at the age of 16. Since then, Ahalya has gone back to swimming with more confidence than before- as well as feeling most at home- and made the US National Team. In the summer of 2018 she made the Pan Pacific Championship team in Australia. While there she won 1 silver and 3 bronze medals. She also competed in the Triathlon World Championship in Australia one month later. She has her yes set on qualifying for the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games in both swimming and triathlon.
Ahalya now speaks to grade schoolers about overcoming challenges, the benefits of positivity and non-stop determination. Her goal is to show them to accept everyone for who they are. Ahalya stated, “It’s how you perceive differences and challenges that make you who you are.” Ahalya‘s dream is to study biomedical engineering in college, with the goal being to design prosthetics and devices to help people with disabilities become more independent. She wants to show that these disabilities can be a positive thing and help lift you up. And because of her academic accomplishments, she literally has THE top universities vying for her attention in the hopes that she will join their university. In the meantime, Ahalya is loving life with her friends, family, and doing all of the “normal teenager things” in her down time. I am so proud to have met this young woman, and am cheering her on with all of her future accomplishments. This beautiful young lady truly exemplifies a Woman of Substance.
I’ve known Elizabeth, aka “Beth” for many years now as our children grew up together in our close knit community. I’ve watched and admired my friend as she raised four children, acting as the classic “Momma Bear” to help them through their struggles as they sailed through their school years. During that time, two of her children were diagnosed with special needs, including sensory integration issues, central auditory processing disorder and autism spectrum disorder. Because of this, Beth became an expert at providing assistance for the learning disabled and acquired many techniques to help them better navigate life. In addition, she became an accomplished writer, publishing several fiction books and short stories. She also worked as a teacher’s aide at a school for special needs children, and more recently, worked as the director of community relations at a non-profit which provides support for people diagnosed with permanent vision loss. However, the reason I asked Beth to participate in this project is because of her one specific passion I want to share with you all. What you’ll notice in these images is that she is at the water’s edge of a lovely little pond. This tranquil space is where one of her children attempted to take their life just a few years ago. Thanks to the vigilance of the police (and I believe an angel standing over him) Beth’s son is still with us and thriving today.
The root of her son’s suicide attempt was a psychotic break caused by schizophrenia. This severe mental illness impacts all aspects of cognitive ability: rational thought, decision making, speech, the ability to bathe, dress, brush your teeth, read, and has virtually crippled her son for long periods of time. Beth has struggled, fought, and rallied for-and with- her son without ever giving up or walking away. On the day of the suicide attempt, Beth received a rambling, incoherent email from him, explaining that he could no longer fight the ghosts who tortured him and asked her to let him go. I can’t imagine what went through Beth’s mind as she read those words. Friends and family immediately rallied to help, offering to send out search parties. Beth admits that this was her breaking point. In her head, she had already begun to plan his funeral. Thankfully, her son had second thoughts. After another attempt to take his life at the nearby train tracks, he decided to empty his bank account and begin a new life on the streets in New Orleans. His rapid bank withdrawals were the lucky break the police needed. They were able to pinpoint his location. An emergency medical team was able to talk him into going to the hospital where he signed himself into an inpatient psychiatric treatment program.
While the immediate threat was over, an even tougher road lay ahead. Schizophrenia is a life-long struggle. The brutality of untreated severe mental illness like paranoid schizophrenia affects everyone it touches: the person who has the illness, their friends and loved ones, and in many cases, the surrounding community as they struggle with homelessness, crime and other unfortunate side effects that can accompany this disease. Finding the right medication and treatment plan is difficult. Repeat hospitalizations, insurance denials and lack of hospital beds make long term success feel like an elusive dream. During her son’s recovery, Beth has managed to find treatment options, housing, and even a job for her son. Each successful step helps him gain self reliance, resilience and pride. Thanks to her strength, and her son’s determination to live a full life, he is now thriving on his own with daily visits to his family for some home-cooked supper and family connection. What I’m most impressed with is that Beth not only wants me to share her family’s story, but is eager to get it out for everyone to know. She doesn’t want to hide this diagnosis, and advocates for all who struggle with mental illness. In fact, when I picked her up the morning of her photo shoot, Beth surprised me with props & makeup, a wardrobe and even posing ideas. I was very excited to see her eagerness to tell her story, both visually and in written word. I hope that everyone who reads this story pauses to think about those struggling in the mental illness community, and does so with compassion and support. Thank you Elizabeth Loan. I am very honored and humbled that you trust me enough to share your ongoing journey with everyone. You truly exemplify a Woman of Substance.
I’ve known Melissa for almost 10 years now, and have been continuously impressed with her dedication towards helping those who need it the most, both behind the scenes and on “the front lines.” You see, Melissa has spent many years tirelessly championing for many groups and organizations who need volunteers to help make a difference. If there is a cause Melissa believes in, she will not hesitate to step up and fight for it. Frankly, I have no idea where she gets the energy to volunteer her time and energy to all of these different causes. Currently, Melissa volunteers for the NEIL Area Agency on Aging, Humanitarian Service Project, the Holiday “Meals on Wheels” Celebrity Chefs Brunch (as the “Event Chair”), the Lombard Citizen’s Police Academy Alumni Association and Adopt-A-Highway clean-up in honor of her late father. This is in addition to being the President of Apple Concrete Coring Co., working full time to keep her business running smoothly and her customers happy.
If you look at Melissa’s resume, you’ll notice a pattern in her advocacy/volunteer life. It almost always relates to the elderly, underprivileged, animals (domestic and wild), and her community. Any of these categories is monumental enough, but Melissa has, and still is, tackling each of them in an effort to make positive changes. She is a no-nonsense type of person, and lets her actions speak for her when working for any cause that needs fighting for. Melissa has delivered meals for “Meals on Wheels”, offered children the opportunity to read stories to her beautiful pooch named Bella, assisted her local police department with their “Shop with a Cop” and food pantry committee, volunteered at special town events including the huge “Lilac Day Parade”, and so much more. This is just one woman, working to help those who need it the most.
In addition to all of this volunteering work (as well as running a full time business), Melissa has begun making huge efforts to help the Monarch butterfly populations recover in our area by caring for the “babies” (eggs & caterpillars) in her own home. Not only that, she has helped other people learn how to do this as well, and provides encouragement and support to anyone who wants to make the effort. I’m not at all surprised that she has begun tackling this cause because, of course, she has also volunteered for Willowbrook Wildlife Center in an effort to help the center continue to provide assistance for injured or orphan wildlife. Again, one woman working to make a difference every day.
I am so impressed with Melissa’s commitment and dedication to what she values the most, and am grateful that she let me highlight her for this series. Melissa is certainly a Woman of Substance, and is someone you should all know.
This is Melissa Schwartz, travel blogger, family historian, and local community advocate here in the Chicagoland area. I met her a few years ago through another woman of substance- Carol Foster, and started following her blog A Little Time And A Keyboard. I’ve always enjoyed reading about the new places Melissa has explored and the people she’s met. When she agreed to let me include her in this series, I was really looking forward to hearing about her background, history and motivations regarding the blog- which has now gone for more than nine years. However, when the interview began, I quickly realized that the focus wasn’t on herself. Instead, it was the places, events, people and businesses Melissa loves that she really wanted me to know about. Clearly, her focus was on the “treasures in the suburbs” (her term) that she’s found in her travels. I quickly realized that Melissa was all-too-correct when she compared herself to a quilt- she IS a beautiful collection of stories and experiences.
Eventually, I did find out more about this kind, warm-hearted and altruistic person. Melissa’s adventurous spirit is a result of the many road trips she took with her parents as a child, as well the urging of her Grandfather to make the most of life by traveling and experiencing it. Melissa’s love for family is apparent in the many stories I hear about her Grandparents, uncles, husband and daughter, all of whom support her efforts to focus on what’s most important. In fact, her husband travels with her, takes the pictures, and helps her observe their surroundings with keen eyes. So, even when Melissa travels internationally (Iceland is her all-time favorite place), she makes sure to bring back pictures and stories to share with her adventurous extended family.
The A Little Time And A Keyboard blog began in 2003, when Melissa moved to Arlington Heights with her family. She watched as so many small businesses would open, struggle to compete in the market- then eventually close. Impassioned about these local gems, Melissa began blogging about the businesses, events and outings she’s seen and/or experienced. She also began to work with several of the businesses, using her vast knowledge of social media outreach to help train the shopkeepers to gain an online presence, and eventually, new customers. In her words, “Whatever they need, I’ll be there to help.” Her ultimate goal is to make traveling (particularly locally) and small business approachable for everyone. As Melissa likes to say “Travel is experiencing things with new eyes. That’s what travel is- an experience.” Melissa’s blog will continue with her passion for community infused with every new post, and I am grateful to have a presence like her in our midst. Melissa exemplifies what a single person can do to make a difference in our communities, and is clearly a Woman of Substance that we should all know.
I recently met Heather Kadlec Shack because of a recommendation from another WOS- Jennifer McDonnell. Heather is an accomplished watercolor artist who completes fine art paintings and commissioned works for clients at https://www.hmkwatercolors.com and has a clothing & accessories line at https://hmkliving.com. And while Heather’s works of art are beautiful stories in their own right, it’s actually her path to becoming an artist that I want to share with everyone. As you will see, Heather’s story is one of true determination and resilience in its purest form.
Heather’s “can-do” personality was formed early, undoubtedly in part to her playing multiple sports, including winning “State” in doubles tennis and being the starting pitcher for her varsity softball team at OPRF High School. Heather also met her future husband, Jonathan, when they played against each other in recreational soccer as children, and attended in high school together. Heather grew up in a family of teachers, and even now, has siblings that have become teachers. As an adult, Heather’s love for children guided her to first become a teacher for gradeschool and middleschoolers for 14 years, then graduate up to Assistant Principal at S.E. Gross Middle School in Brookfield & Lagrange Park. From there, Heather become the Head of ”Curriculum & Teacher Learning” for the entire BrookPark School district. With this job title, Heather had to know-and teach- all learning proficiencies for the entire school district and thrived in this challenging role.
However, in 2011, Heather’s life would change forever. Heather suffered a severe stroke that put her in a coma for several days, followed up with a stay in intensive care for a month. The stroke left her with permanent damage to 1/4 of her brain that controls critical processing, with the largest part of her brain damage being on the left side. This caused Heather to suffer from aphasia and aproxia, which is the loss of the ability to read, write, and speak. Consequently, Heather had to literally “relearn” everything all over again. THIS is when Heather’s determination was clearly seen once again. She learned how to walk without a cane (in spite of doctors’ predictions that she would always need one), and learn how to become left-handed since she no longer had use of her right arm. And it was during this grueling recovery phase that Heather found her voice again- this time in her art.
What medium? Watercolors to be exact. Heather enjoyed working with the the paints during her rehabilitation phase, and 8 months after stroke, she noticed that the Oak Park Art League offered a watercolor class that artist & instructor Tony Armendariz (http://www.armendarizart.com) was teaching. Heather took the class and was hooked. She tried taking a follow-up class with Tony, but it was unfortunately cancelled. However, as Heather & Jonathan describe it, Tony took her under his wing and mentored her privately. Heather is so grateful to him for that, and you can still see her eyes light up when she talks about that stage of her recovery and the guidance of Tony in the medium.
Now, 10 years after her stroke, Heather has created a flourishing art career. She continues to create commissions for private clients, and has participated in group and solo shows. Heather also has participated art fairs, has shown a collection of works at The Compassion Factory Art Gallery & Studio in Brookfield (The Compassion Factory Art Gallery & Studio" ( http://www.lovelived.com ), and even has a permanent display of paintings at Fortunate Discoveries in Lincoln Park, Chicago (https://fortunatediscoveries.com). I also discovered during our interview that Heather is a talented photographer- due to her need for her own reference material. She showed me her collection of images via Zoom, and even through the app, I could see that she captures images using a keen eye. And while Heather paints a wide variety of subjects, she particularly enjoys creating landscapes/scenery & floral works best. For Heather, art gives her a sense of purpose. And, this purpose and drive has had Heather add a new dimension of how to express herself creatively. Just two years ago, Heather launched her own clothing and accessories line that she designs based on her art at HMK Living (https://hmkliving.com). In this venture, her art now combines with fashion to create beautiful designs that have her works on accessories, clothing and even tote bags.
But that’s not all that Heather has accomplished since her injury. Four years ago, Jonathan and Heather became husband and wife. And just last year, Heather was one of three speakers at the annual “Aphasia Day” at the Rehab Institute of Chicago. I asked Heather how she completed this enormous task of public speaking, especially since speech is a struggle for her. With a laugh, both her and Jonathan agreed she did it with “lots of practice”. No doubt- ALSO with her ever-present perseverance and adapting with everything she does. Nothing, and I mean nothing, stops this outgoing, talented woman from accomplishing her goals. I am grateful to have met her, this amazing Woman of Substance.
This woman of substance was nearly impossible to highlight. For the life of her, she could NOT understand why I would want to include her in this series. After much debate and explanation, she finally relented and let me include her. And for that, I’m very grateful.
Judy is the quintessential “kind” person that folks often hear about. I met her over 25 years ago, and have watched her love, care for, and help out so many people- just because she wanted to. You see, this wife and mother was born to care for and care about those she loves. I’ve watched her crochet blankets for virtual strangers who happened to mention that they were cold or not feeling well. I would get so frustrated whenever we would walk into any restaurant or business, and have to stand there and listen to her strike up conversations with literally everyone around her. Judy walks through life loving everyone unless proven otherwise. Over the years, she has been part of a group that made baby blankets for preemies in the local hospital, and has made countless blankets for those that were in need of some comfort, kindness and/or warmth. Food has been brought over to homes and people who couldn’t cook for themselves, and she has even spent day and night caring for loved ones that were gravely ill and needed 24 hour care. There is little Judy would NOT do for someone she cares about. Go into any restaurant or business that she frequents and I guarantee that she will know the names of at least the employees, and sometimes the manager or owner. She has a genuine love for getting to know people and finding out more about them.
This love also reflects on the many pets she’s had over the years, adopting them from shelter and rescues so that she can care for them and love them every day of their lives. Even now, she’s got a little pooch at home that is living the life of Riley over there.
Judy has also cared for many children over the years, being the caregiver for them so that the parents can work. And when she does, she puts her heart and soul into her “job”, forever considering them a part of her family. What’s great to see is that even though these children are now adults, they all come back to see her and spend time with her. After all, the connection with Judy is forever.
Just recently I met her neighbors since we sit now outside to visit- social distancing due to Covid. And, just like the countless times before, she has nothing but love for all of her neighbors around her, and as a result, they love her in return and offer THEIR help to her whenever possible. Wherever Judy goes, loves follows her- and it resonates off of her. As a result, she is loved in return, knowing that her kindness is genuine. Judy never asks for anything in return. Only a thank you is needed because, as Judy says, “That’s what friends/family do.”
One story comes from many years ago now, when a childhood friend became gravely ill. This friend had move literally all the way across the country, and so had no family to come care for her. Judy hopped right on a plane and stayed with her dearest friend for almost two months, and never left her. Unfortunately, Judy’s friend passed, but didn’t leave this earth alone. She had her friend by her side. Themes of caring for loved ones has carried on throughout Judy’s life, and when asked, said that she wouldn’t change a thing if given the chance. I have never met a more open, kind-hearted and genuinely loving person like her in my life. My goal is to be more like Judy- more patient, caring, kind and compassionate to everyone around me. The goal will continue, thanks to Jude. THAT is what makes her a woman of substance- she is a woman of pure love.