Five Alumnae on staying well during dark times
BY JULIET EASTLAND '86, P'23
Photography by Tom Kates

When she opened her eight-student girls’ school in 1886, Mary Pickard Winsor hoped to turn out women who would
be competent, self-supporting, and “generous-minded.”


One hundred thirty-six years and myriad service-oriented student clubs and projects later, Winsor students are tutoring local kids, supporting food-bank drives, connecting with isolated elderly people, and more. It’s no wonder that generations of Winsor graduates go on to give back to their communities.

After two-plus years of pandemic-induced isolation, exhaustion, and loss, we wondered how Winsor’s generous-minded women are faring. We spoke recently with five alumnae who have devoted their lives to fostering people’s wellness to find out what principles have sustained them and how they’ve managed to keep tending to others—and to themselves.
 
Rebecca Sparks ’67 has never had a master plan for her life. “My passion has led me in different things, always,” she says. “Nothing was really thought out.” She has always had just one requirement: “I have to love what I’m doing. I’m very spoiled!”

Rebecca has spent her life clothing and feeding others, first as the creator of a knitwear company (“I fell in love with textiles in college”), then, inspired by her love of food and wine, as a restaurant manager. After organizing a large charity fundraiser against hunger, she realized she could use her passion for good: “The event was an eye-opener on what was going on in the world, and really did influence me to worry more about people who were really in need.”

She decided to study nutrition, she says, “because it could help me, and it could help people in general.” After obtaining a master’s in nutrition education at Columbia University, she taught community nutrition at NYU for 14 years and worked as a nutrition consultant at Head Start centers around the city, helping young families improve their eating habits through counseling and cooking classes.

“It felt really good to be doing something for somebody else,” she says. But after a decade and a half, her passion for the work began to wane. She bristled at the narrow focus of many of the NYU students, who wanted to help people lose weight rather than foster broader principles of better nutrition, and she found herself increasingly bogged down by paperwork for Head Start rather than doing what she really loved: working directly with clients.

In 2018, she retired and moved full time to a “beautiful place in the middle of nowhere,” a centuries-old house nestled in the green hills of upstate New York. From there, she watches eagles soaring above the river and keeps an eye out for bears. She shops almost exclusively at farmers markets, works at a local food pantry, and actively supports local farmland conservation efforts. She nurtures a lush garden. (“This year, the rain was unbelievable—I got the best onions and worst tomatoes I’ve ever had,” she says.)

And she’s begun to spend much more time pursuing another long-held, long-unrealized passion: pottery. In the ceramics studio she installed on the property she creates beautiful and whimsical ceramics featuring birds, leaves, and patterns from the natural world. As she says on her website, rebeccasparkspots.com, “Drinking from a ceramic cup is your most intimate relationship with pottery.”

But just as COVID-19 exploded in the country, a diagnosis of multiple myeloma upended her own life. Sparks closed her studio and spent two grueling years shuttling back and forth to New York City for treatment.

At last, she’s feeling stronger, and she is excited to get back to her ceramics work. As the owner of a “pandemic puppy,” she’s planning on branching out into canine accoutrements. “One of the new things I’ll be making is, surprise surprise, dog dishes,” she says, laughing.

Rebecca remains alert to opportunities for joy. “When we talk about health, it’s not necessarily about blood pressure,” she says. “Yes, things like that contribute, but finding the things that make you happy and take the tension away . . . passion is a really important thing.”
 
When we talk about health, it’s not necessarily about blood pressure,” she says. “Yes, things like that contribute, but finding the things that make you happy and take the tension away...passion is a really important thing.”
—Rebecca Sparks ’67

 

For Sonya Khan ’00
, a sense of purpose is nonnegotiable. “I have to feel like there’s that mission behind the work I’m doing,” she says. “For me, finding work that feels like it’s fulfilling and has an impact is part of my wellness.” A big-picture thinker and self-described “fixer,” she insists not just on patching the holes in a system, but on retooling and revamping the system itself.

As director of clinical services at Lowell Community Health Center in Lowell, Massachusetts, Sonya thinks purposefully about how best to support the center’s programs, patients, and staff. In addition to aiding operations, rolling out initiatives, and implementing new grant programs, she manages staffing issues, which have become particularly acute at a time when many health care workers are either burned out or home sick with COVID.

“We’re constantly trying to be creative about the ways we support staff,” she says, such as by shoring up benefits and hiring proactive supervisors committed to protecting their staff from exhaustion. She plans to forge partnerships with educational institutions so that local residents attending school can participate in externships and preceptorships within the center, ultimately becoming health care workers in the facility that serves their community.

Sonya shared that the center is particularly focused on ways it can reconnect with fearful, housebound patients and get them back in for services. As always, she thinks holistically: “It’s about not just health, but the social determinants of health,” she says. “What are the other things at play we need to be considering? The team is so thoughtful and insightful about those areas where patients lack access.” For example, the center has secured grant money to provide low-income patients with smartphones so that they can schedule appointments and communicate with staff more easily.

Sonya recently joined the board of Project Bread, a Boston nonprofit focused on “solving the root cause” of food insecurity, which aligns perfectly with her own convictions. “How do we approach hunger [through] advocacy and policy—not just put a Band-Aid on it, but really solve it?” she asks. “What are the barriers people are experiencing to accessing food? It’s similar to the philosophy at the health center: It’s not just about health, not just about hunger. It’s about social determinants that wrap around a person and create their environment and create these barriers. How do you work through those with them? It makes so much sense!”

The organization’s mission also resonates with her on a personal level. “I’m a woman of color, my kids are one-quarter Peruvian and one-half Pakistani,” she says. “I think of things through a nonwhite lens, and hunger is one of those things impacting those communities [of color] so much more. I appreciate that Project Bread understands that.”

Sonya credits Winsor with instilling in her the need “to have an impact, have my work mean something, be engaged in my community and give back.” With a 3 1/2-year-old and an 18-month-old at home, she doesn’t know that she’s “entirely figured out the balance” between work and family (and who has?). But she does know that when it comes to her professional life, “even though the role is challenging and coming at the most challenging time in terms of being in health care, the challenges are exciting for me. And if anything, the stakes are high, which makes it feel that much more impactful.” That sense of purpose keeps her going.


I’m a woman of color, my kids are one-quarter Peruvian and one-half Pakistani. I think of things through a non-white lens, and hunger is one of those things impacting those communities [of color] so much more. I appreciate that Project Bread understands that.”
—Sonya Khan ’00

 
Clinical psychologist Claire Vicky Wiseman ’83 was accustomed to a hectic pace. Over a 30-year career focusing primarily on eating disorders, she’d spent 75-hour weeks juggling private practice and academic teaching, most recently as assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at Yale School of Medicine. After seeing how much her dogs helped her primarily adolescent clientele relax, she became a registered therapy-animal worker, then a certified practitioner of equine assisted growth and learning (Eagala), a form of psychiatric therapy using horses.

Then came the pandemic.

Adolescent mental health during the pandemic has been a “disaster,” she says. “Terrible, horrible.” The crisis was so acute, her patients so desperate, that she didn’t even cancel her online sessions when she herself developed COVID in December 2020. “It was just too hard to reschedule,” she says.

But powering through took its toll. “I was so burned out from doing Zoom sessions,” she says. “I was sitting in an office doing psychotherapy 30 hours a week. It’s hard to recover from that.” Her colleagues have suffered similarly. “I don’t have any mental-health friends who are not literally fried from one year of Zoom,” she says. She finally had to slam on the brakes. “You get to a certain point and realize, ‘Oh my God, I can’t do this,’” she says. “The way I take care of myself is to stop.” Vicky took a leave of absence from work and threw herself into the athletic activities she’d always loved, volunteering on a New Hampshire ski patrol and sailing competitively on her boat (her eight-woman crew plans to sail in the upcoming Bermuda Race in June 2022).

“For me, the sailing and skiing are the things that really help,” she says. “Being outdoors, endorphins, building self-esteem by having a skill—it’s good to be smart, but also good to be not just book-smart, but a problem-solver. Sailing forces you to be a problem-solver . . . you’ve got to figure it out. Here’s a roll of duct tape and a knife: Fix it.”

She especially savors “saying no” to the wired world. “I was just in New Hampshire for four days, and I didn’t turn on my laptop at all,” she says. “Sailing or ski-patrolling, I don’t use my phone for six, seven, eight hours. It’s so refreshing. And you know what? The world survives!”

Vicky has since returned to work, but on her own terms. She joined St. George’s School in Middletown, Rhode Island as a part-time school counselor. And she’s relocated her therapy practice to a farm in RI, where she keeps five miniature donkeys and a horse. “The animals are the best. They’re so innocent,” she says. “Sometimes I’ll do a psychotherapy session and we sit in the donkey paddock, and I talk to the patient and the donkeys are just around . . . or I’ll give someone a task—brush the horse, pet the horse—and as they’re doing these activities, it’s sort of like a metaphor for what’s going on with them. They can talk about what’s going on in their life through the horse.” Her dogs, of course, are always there, too.

She’s embarking on a program where schoolchildren come to the farm for an hour a week, and she’s looking forward to launching an entirely new program in the spring. The focus? Empowerment for women.

You get to a certain point and realize, ‘oh my God, I can’t do this’. . . The way I take care of myself is to stop.”
—Vicky Wiseman ’83

 

“How do you as a family help someone who doesn’t want to help themselves?”
Arden O’Connor ’96 and her family asked this question for years, as her younger brother cycled in and out of drug rehab facilities. “Is the Al-Anon ‘Let them hit rock bottom’ the only thing you can do, or are there other options?” they wondered. “Where does he go on his fifth, sixth, seventh facility, and what do you do when he leaves? Does he go from a 24/7 supervised environment back to college, and we just hope for the best?” No one seemed to have the answers.

Arden founded O’Connor Professional Group (OPG) in 2011 to help families address these questions. The group’s goal is to help people navigate the behavioral health industry, both during a crises and after treatment, and figure out sustainable recovery plans that enable individuals and families to thrive.

Informally, the group’s motto might be, “No person an island.” The organization relies on its national network of several hundred clinicians, who specialize in all aspects of behavioral and mental health. Likewise, OPG’s treatment model focuses not just on the person in crisis, but on the surrounding ecosystem: the family. “We really believe in working with the whole family system,” says Arden. “Especially given the cases we tend to deal with, for example the person being unwilling to engage in care, ideally, you want parents or family members to have their own resources... and something separate for the person who’s still struggling.”

From educating families about the various levels of inpatient and outpatient care available, to helping implement a plan that align with the family dynamics, “We get hired for creative solutions,” she says. One clinician might help a family manage a patient’s medications or drug testing, while another might move into the home for several months as part of a customized home-care program.

In 2018, Arden experienced an unimaginable loss when her brother died of a drug overdose. While she doesn’t provide direct care herself, she’s open about the tragedy, and she offers herself as a resource and sounding board to families in crisis. It’s emotionally grueling work, and on top of that, before the pandemic, “despite being in what appeared to be physically good health,” she says, she was prediabetic and had high cholesterol. She took time during the pandemic to practice basic self-care, such as eating a plant-based diet, watching her sugar intake, and meditating. Already the owner of two dogs, she added a puppy to her canine crew. (She lives in the city, but if she had a backyard, she says she’d probably have five or six dogs: “It’s a form of self-care for me.”)

That said, “It’s great to get massages and take care of myself, but you can’t do it if you don’t have a group there.” Arden used the enforced downtime at the beginning of the pandemic to build her company’s infrastructure and grow the community of superior staff.

“I could not do this work without having this team,” she says. Likewise, she relies on community in her personal life, particularly friends from Winsor and from her high school in Arizona, where she moved with her family in her early teens. Recalling the week last spring when both Winsor and her high school held their Zoom reunions, she starts to laugh.

“I loved both schools,” she says. “But the difference was stark. In my Arizona reunion, everyone was very polite, we went around in a circle and mostly talked about personal things. The Winsor reunion was just as I remember homeroom: You couldn’t get a word in edgewise, people were popping up inside and outside, there were crazy stories of accomplishment, laughter—it was very vibrant and interactive.” Two and a half hours later, the reuniting was still going strong.


I do think Winsor gave me this respect for being connected to people.”
—Arden O’Connor ’96

 

“I think part of wellness is knowing what you do well, and doing it well, no matter where you find yourself,” says Kate Baker-Carr ’80. Among her strengths are the ability, in her words, “to help people identify a spiritual practice or practices that will feed their souls, help to sustain them in hard times, and awaken them to greater joy.”

Ordained in the United Church of Christ in 1989, Kate served as a parish pastor and college chaplain for almost 10 years before spending 25 years as an executive in communications, first for Blue Cross and then for Northeastern University. She jumped at the chance for early retirement in the summer of 2020 because “there were a lot of things I wanted to move to the center of my life, as opposed to working on them around the edges.” Now, she is even more actively engaged in her church at the local and conference level, filling in for pastors on vacation or leave, serving as an ordination advisor, tutoring kids in math, and mentoring young pastors.

“I cherish conversations about matters of the heart,” Kate says. “If you’re distressed and need to talk about ‘why is my child ill, why is this happening,’ I welcome the chance to talk with you.” Particularly over the past two years, she’s talked with many people who are seeking guidance, and she has witnessed a great deal of sorrow. “I believe deeply that in those moments of pain, people do not need to be alone, and if they’ve reached out and want to talk, the most important thing you can do is listen,” she says. She recalls a student who said, “I’ve lost so many hugs with my grandmother” during the pandemic. “I ache for kids, and I feel desperately for the elderly,” she says.

When people ask something of her, she tries to measure the request against her self-knowledge: “Will [it] leave me exhausted and depleted in a bad way, or will it leave me exhausted but grateful I did it?”

To sustain and replenish her own spirit, she engages in a daily prayer practice, and she takes photographs. “The camera teaches my eye to see and my heart to pray,” she says.

“Many spiritual practices have to do with beauty—creating beauty through music, dance, painting, baking bread, as well as observing beauty by ‘forest bathing,’ bird watching, or hiking,” Kate says. “Most, but not all, practices have an element of concentration, a focus that is at once internal and external. Meditation, exercise, reading, can all be spiritual practices. Many practices have an element of repetition that can allow a person to use the repetition as a steppingstone to prayer or meditation,” like knitting or using prayer beads.

Ultimately, Kate says, “there are as many spiritual practices as there are people.” One friend of hers “walks each day to center herself, to quiet her soul and to listen to the universe; when her thoughts wander, she recites poetry to recenter herself.” Another friend decided to pray whenever she folded laundry.

Kate’s gift and “great joy” is to help people gain insight into themselves so that they can identify those practices that will sustain them, through the pandemic and beyond.

Mens sana in corpore sano . . . now as ever.  W


There are as many spiritual practices as there are people . . . Many practices have an element of repetition that can allow a person to use the repetition as a stepping stone to prayer or meditation­—such can be the case for example with knitting and prayer beads.”
—Kate Baker-Carr ’80