Laurie Johnson owned Oma’s Doll Shop in Cape May and volunteered as vice president of the board of directors for Family Promise’s Cape May County chapter, a faith-based organization that shelters and rehabilitates homeless families.
Johnson’s life changed when she heard the requirements for Family Promise’s network director position.
“You are going to look for somebody who can have a baby in one hand (and) be on hold with a foundation in the other. At the same time, you are going to have a toilet plunger right next to your chair,” Johnson said she was told about the job requirements. “I thought, ‘That’s me.’ I knew it. There was no doubt in my mind that that was going to be my career change.”
Research from Encore.org, a think tank on baby boomers, work and social purpose, shows as many as 9 million people ages 44 to 70 are in later-in-life second careers that combine personal meaning, continued income and social impact. That’s up from an estimated 8.4 million in 2008. Those in encore careers work an estimated 16.7 billion hours each year in education, health care, government and nonprofit organizations, the group says.
The fact that Johnson had a dream job at the doll shop led her to Family Promise. She felt so blessed with her career, husband and two boys, ages 19 and 27, that she wanted to give back in 2009. Johnson lost her doll business two years ago when she couldn’t arrange for refinancing.
“I felt like I had the time to volunteer. It just happened to turn into a career,” Johnson said. “I was 48 at the time. I don’t know what it was, midlife crisis or empty-nest syndrome, but I was just like, ‘I’ve got to give back. Now, it’s time to give back.’”
Dawn Kosko, 45, affected people’s lives with the various banking jobs that she held in the first part of her working life.
Kosko’s jobs included branch manager for the former Collective Bank in Absecon, branch manager for Summit Bank in Somers Point and business lending for PNC Bank in Atlantic, Cape May and Cumberland counties. She helped make people’s dreams come true by approving home mortgages and small-business loans.
The Egg Harbor Township resident was an adjunct professor at The Richard Stockton College of New Jersey when somebody brought up to her the idea of teaching high school.
“I was used to teaching adults. I was a little nervous about teaching high school students, but then, I figured, it wasn’t really too far off from the people we used to hire as tellers that maybe just graduated high school. If it was juniors and seniors, it probably would be a lot of fun,” said Kosko, who teaches a financial literacy class at Absegami High School in Galloway Township.
Gina McNeal, 44, of Cape May, spent six years helping people as a front-office manager at a hotel in Washington, D.C. She spent a year working at a hotel when she returned to South Jersey, but the job’s hours were not conducive to raising a family.
“I have two kids, (ages) 10 and 12. As soon as they started kindergarten and first grade ... I sat at the kitchen table and said, ‘What am I going to do with the rest of my life?’ I pulled out an ACCC (Atlantic Cape Community College) course catalog, and I said, ‘What’s going to be a pretty decent salary with a flexible schedule?’ and I opened up the book to nursing, and within probably 15 minutes, I was down at the ACCC office,” said McNeal, who is a registered nurse at Cape Regional Medical Center in Cape May Court House.
It’s not all smooth sailing when people make middle-age career switches. Johnson contemplated quitting her job at Family Promise after three months.
One night, she started crying and yelling at God after work.
“You have to get me out of this, replace me somehow, get me out of this, or you’re going to have to show me I’m right where I’m supposed to be now, and things are going to get better, and I’m going to be able to do this, and I want an answer now,” she recalls praying.
The sign Johnson was looking for came the next day at work.
Johnson was on the phone with Walmart to find out what it needed to give Family Promise $1,000. A 2-year-old sat in her lap, started playing with her hair and began singing “I Love You, You Love Me,” a song from the TV show, “Barney & Friends.” Just then, the child’s brother yelled from the bathroom, “Miss Laurie, the toilet is clogged.”
“I was like, ‘There we go. There it was, baby on lap, talking to a foundation and the toilet is clogged,’” Johnson said.
Suzanne Smigo, board president for Family Promise of Cape May County, said Johnson brought the business skills she’d honed running the doll shop to her job as the network director of Family Promise, particularly her organization prowess. Johnson and Kathleen O’Neill, the family advocate, have built a strong team and complement each other, Smigo said.
“They are both very dedicated,” Smigo said.
Kosko said she felt like she was helping people in the banking business, but she still left in 2003. She started thinking about it two years earlier, after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
“It was just such an overwhelming experience. ... You never know when you are walking out the door if you are coming back or not, so maybe I want to do something else. Do I want to stay in the bank my entire life, or do I want to do something that I would perceive as being more meaningful or helping more people?” Kosko said.
When Kosko worked in banking, she met people who wanted loans but had poor credit histories due to bad choices they made earlier in life. As a high school teacher of financial literacy, she felt she could help people avoid making money mistakes.
“They come back into school to visit after they graduate, and they tell me, ‘I’m using all this information that you taught me. I kept all the information, and we are using almost everything in my Intro to Business class at Rutgers,’ or I’ve had another student come back and say, ‘You got me a job,’” said Kosko, whose teaching salary the past 10 years is about one-third of what she was paid in banking.
Brenda Callaghan, Absegami’s supervisor of math and business, said it is to Kosko’s advantage that she used to be in banking.
“You can bring that street credibility into the classroom. You can articulate how things really appear out there. You can bring insight that some people who go through a traditional education program can’t always bring to the table,” Callaghan said.
McNeal loved working in the hotel industry, but it was time-consuming. She found she also loves being a nurse.
“It’s really nice to see your patient improve and get better,” McNeal said of the best thing about being a nurse for the past 4 1/2 years. “When I leave here today, I know what I accomplished.”
McNeal’s supervisor, Karen Watson, director of the 4 East Medical Surgical Unit at Cape Regional Medical Center, knew McNeal used to work in the hotel business. She said McNeal is excellent at her job, works well with all the other team members at the hospital, cares about her patients and is patient-focused.
“In so many jobs now, you have to have good customer service skills, and I think that has been positive for her changing to a R.N. She’s comfortable around people. I absolutely think that would have been a benefit,” Watson said of McNeal.
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