True Believers
Family Cirlce, August 2006

We’ve all got one, don’t we: the dream that will not die. Mine took hold when I was five years old, the first of many times I watched Elizabeth Taylor ride her horse to victory in "National Velvet." Since then I’ve spent hours imagining myself as a young (and then, a not-so-young) Velvet, soaring over hurdles to capture the blue ribbon, my heart pounding with excitement, my hair whipping in the wind. I took jumping lessons as a kid; at nineteen I moved to the country so I could own my own horse. I’m still dreaming of riding that steeplechase, winning that blue ribbon. I’m keeping a place for it on my wall.

I once heard a Buddhist teacher say that life is like gambling in Las Vegas: you must be present to win. But sometimes winning requires more than just showing up. Sometimes it takes betting on your best, bravest self; stretching beyond what you already know you can do, to win the blue ribbon of your full potential and deepest desires.

Here you’ll meet four women who did just that. In order to build a house, publish a novel, run a marathon, or start a business, Dawn, Michelle, Lara, and Heather had to fight off their own doubts and others’, accept help wherever they could find it, hire the babysitters, read the books, run in the snow, borrow the money, and face their own demons. I hope it inspires you as much as it did me to hear how each of them overcame every obstacle in their way, grabbed for that blue ribbon, and got it.

Dawn Janow, 40
Dream: Build a House

When Dawn Janow was a little girl she promised herself that someday, somehow, she’d build her own house. "It must be in my blood," says Dawn, a full-time mother of two. "My dad wasn’t an architect either, and I remember him sitting up at night, drawing plans for our house."

Dawn got a chance to keep that promise in 2004 when her family outgrew their Seattle home. A realtor took Dawn and her husband Gordon to Bainbridge Island, a small, rural community on Puget Sound. "I was thrilled at the prospect of raising my kids in such a peaceful place," Dawn says. But they couldn’t find a suitable house for sale, so their realtor showed them an acre of undeveloped land. "I took one look at that property," Dawn says. "And that was it."

Dawn and Gordon bought the land on Mother’s Day. Then, just as her father had done, Dawn started spending late nights at her kitchen table, teaching herself to design a house. "Everyone told me I was nuts for not hiring an architect," she says, "but I’d done so many things without knowing what I was doing. I started a gardening business in college called "Dawn’s Lawns." I painted a house by myself. I traveled to Iran and Yemen when everyone said it was too dangerous to go. I had to believe that I could do this, too."

She studied house plans in books and on the Internet, practicing her design skills by revising existing plans. Finally Dawn was ready to commit her dream house to paper. "I couldn’t figure out how to put in a stairwell," she recalls, laughing. "So I cut a staircase out of a magazine and glued it onto my plans."

Dawn held her breath and handed her design to the builder. "This looks great," he said. "Let’s do it!"

Toughest Moment:

Soon after construction began, Dawn’s dream literally hit a wall. Because she hadn’t factored in the need for a well and septic system, the house couldn’t be positioned or built as she’d envisioned it. "The beauty of the design was that the house faced north so the light would stream in," Dawn says. "It was devastating to be told that we had to give that up." Construction came to a halt. Dawn’s husband wanted to cut their losses and walk away.

"I cried. I screamed. I let myself go through a grieving process," Dawn says. "And then I went to the site and asked myself what I would do if I were starting today, knowing everything I knew. The answer was, I’d build the best house I could."

Moment of Triumph:

Dawn drew a new plan and convinced her husband and the builder that it could work. She started taking the ferry to the construction site every day–with her two small children in tow. "I’d be up on a ladder with my baby in a sling," she says, "convincing the contractors to do things they swore couldn’t be done.

"It was really scary," Dawn says. "The project was taking every cent we had. But then the Asian tsunami happened, and hundreds of thousands of lives were lost or disrupted. I told my husband, ‘Let’s keep things in perspective. It’s just a house. And it’s still going to be a great house. Which, in fact, it is."

By the end of moving day Dawn was convinced that she’d done the right thing. "We were sitting on the porch with our family and friends, surrounded by boxes, eating pizza," she says. "I looked around and thought, ‘Wow–I did this!’ It made me wonder what I could do next."

Lesson Learned: Go With The Flow

If she hadn’t trusted her instincts, Dawn says, she and her family wouldn’t know the joy they feel every day, living in a house designed expressly for them. "Now I know that if I can just stay open and flexible," Dawn says, "everything is possible."

Michelle Richmond, 35
Dream: Publish a novel

Michelle Richmond grew up wanting to be a writer, and a mom–in that order. "I believed that motherhood and the literary life were mutually exclusive," says Michelle, an Alabama native and creative writing teacher at the University of San Francisco. "Writing takes such intense concentration, I couldn’t imagine doing it with a baby around." So she and her husband Kevin decided to postpone having children until Michelle’s writing career took off.

By age 33 Michelle had written The Girl in the Fall-Away Dress, a collection of short stories based in the South, and a novel about a woman’s voyage to China called Dream of the Blue Room. Both were published by small presses and earned great reviews, but not much money or readership. Michelle was rewriting her second novel–the one she hoped would bring her the commercial success and wider audience she’d always wanted–when she got two pieces of unexpected news. First, an agent called to say she loved Michelle’s novel and thought she could sell it to a big-time publisher. Then Michelle found out that she was pregnant.

Toughest Moment:

"I was thrilled on both counts," Michelle says. "But I thought my pregnancy meant putting my writing aside as soon as the baby was born." Michelle raced to finish rewriting her novel–the last one she’d write, she thought, until her child started school. Just after Oscar was born on December 5, 2005, Michelle got another surprise. Her agent had sold her novel to Bantam Books, along with a second novel that Michelle hadn’t even written yet.

"For the first time ever, my writing was bringing a paycheck into our household," Michelle says. "That made it seem genuinely like work–which made me feel it was worth the time and sacrifices I’d been putting into it for the past fifteen years. And having a major publisher enthused about my writing meant there was a future to it, and new goals to reach for."

It also meant that Michelle had to do what she believed couldn’t be done: write a book while being a fulltime mother and a part-time teacher.

Moment of Triumph:

"I found out that a writer I admire had five children when she wrote her first book," Michelle says. "I thought, if she could do it with five, I can do it with one."

Michelle taught herself to write in half-hour segments and on very little sleep. She strolls Oscar in Golden Gate Park till he falls asleep, then writes in a café while he naps. She takes Oscar to the childcare center at the YMCA, and sits on the exercise bike scribbling furiously on her yellow pad. "They’ll take care of Oscar whether my feet are moving or not!" she laughs.

Lesson Learned: Don’t Defer a Dream

Today Michelle is a happy, if exhausted mom and a happy, successful writer who divides her time between her teaching, her writing, Oscar, and "the fourth category, which is everything else." Her second novel, Ocean Beach, will be published this summer; she’s just begun work on the third.

"Much to my delight," Michelle says. "I found out that I don’t have to choose between being a mother and being a writer. I don’t have to defer either of my dreams."

Lara Mitchel, 36
Dream: Run the Boston Marathon

"I’ve always been athletic," says Lara Mitchel of Chicago. "I played soccer in high school, and I kept playing after I got married. But in the back of my mind, what I always really wanted to do was run a marathon." It was that goal that spurred her on to train for and compete in "the World Series of running," the 2005 Boston Marathon–while raising four boys under the age of six.

"I love being a mom," Lara says. "But after my fourth son was born in 2002 I felt like I’d forgotten who I was. It was time to do something for myself."

A former jogger, Lara started training in the summer of 2003 for a marathon in Salt Lake City, where she and her family lived before their recent move to Chicago. Her husband Nels helped cobble together the childcare she needed; friends and neighbors pitched in too. Lara ran fast enough in that first race to qualify for Boston. Her triumph kicked her hopes into high gear. "I knew if I held Boston as a goal," Lara says, "I could push myself to do whatever it took."

Lara embarked on a rigorous schedule: five-mile runs on Mondays, gym workouts on Tuesdays, eight-mile runs on Wednesdays and Thursdays, a day off on Fridays, and twelve, then 18, then 24-mile runs on weekends–even when it was raining or snowing; even when she’d been up all night with a sick child. She loaded her diet with carbs and proteins, lifted weights, and kept herself motivated by devouring books about marathon racing and about Boston, a city she’d always longed to see.

Toughest Moment:

A few weeks into her training Lara was feeling sluggish and tired. She started doubting that she could meet her goal. It took some soul-searching to figure out what was wrong. "I realized I was feeling guilty about asking relatives and neighbors to watch my kids while I trained," Lara says. "I thought I was being selfish, taking time away from my kids."

Moment of Triumph:

Lara asked Nels, "What if I don’t finish in Boston? What if all this is for nothing?" Nels answered, "You’ve already finished. Look what you’ve already learned and done." Lara’s sister and closest friends reassured her that they were behind her, too.

"As soon as I let go of the guilt, I soared," Lara says. "I pushed myself beyond where I thought my limits were." On April 18, 2005, Lara beat her own best time in the Boston Marathon. Her husband and kids met her at the finish line, cheering her on.

Lesson Learned: Lose the Guilt

Since she’s been running, Lara has been happier, healthier, and more energetic–which makes her husband and kids happier, too. "My win was a win for all of us," Lara says. "And that’s the sweetest victory of all."

Heather McCartney, 46
Dream: Teach Kids About Their Heritage

Heather McCartney will never forget being forced to defend herself–and her race–as a third-grader in the schoolyard of her Manhattan elementary school. "What good did any black person ever do?" a white classmate taunted her.

"I didn't have the information to answer the question," Heather says. "But I made my mind up that I’d get it. And I’d make sure that other African American children got it, too."

A talented ballet student from age five, Heather kept her commitment in 1982 when she made her first career choice: to teach dance in the public schools and community centers of East Harlem, where she grew up. "I wanted to use movement to teach my students," Heather says, "that people of color have created wonderful things in this country, and continue to do so." A 1997 trip to South Africa with her husband and then-22-year-old stepdaughter sparked an idea for bringing cultural pride to greater numbers of young people.

"I brought home several African masks as gifts," Heather recalls. "But I couldn’t bear to give them up. So I baked cookies that were replicas of the masks, and gave them to family and friends instead." The enthused response convinced Heather to start a business. After months of "market research"–asking her fellow subway commuters to fill out a questionnaire–Heather decided to produce kits containing everything needed to bake "cultural cookies," and learn about Africa in the process.

In 1999, while continuing to teach part-time, Heather took a business class. "I was a teacher," she says. "I needed to learn to be a businesswoman." Then she emptied her savings account, got a $5000 loan from Count Me In, a lender that funds women’s businesses, and spent months searching the Internet for vendors willing to accept her small orders–200 pounds of cookie mix instead of the usual 1000-pound minimum; cookie cutters in shapes no one had manufactured before. She found a flour manufacturer who was sympathetic to her story and a man who made cookie cutters in his garage. Once she had prototypes to her liking, Heather started assembling sets of cookie cutters in four shapes: a drum, a mask, an African doll, and the continent of Africa, along with a story about each shape, a bag of instant cookie mix, a bag of icing, and some cookie recipes.

Heather launched Ethnic Edibles in February, Black History Month, in hopes of attracting media coverage. Her strategy worked. The company was featured in several newspapers, which led to an order from Macy’s. She got smaller orders from stores and cafés after she showed up, cookies and cookie cutters in hands, and gave out free samples. Soon fan mail started pouring in from educators, grandmothers, and Girl Scout leaders in the New York area where her products were being sold. "People in integrated families thanked me for bringing their families together," Heather says. "Teachers said my products were getting their students interested in African culture. Parents told me that by baking my cookies, their kids were learning history in a fun way, and building their self-knowledge and self-esteem.

"On my down days," Heather says, "I’d pull out my ‘happy sheet’ and read all those thank-you letters."

When the bills started piling up, Heather’s down days grew more frequent.

Toughest Moment:

"In my third year," Heather says, "I was preparing my taxes and I saw all the expenses and the lack of revenue. I put my head down on my desk and cried."

Heather asked herself if Ethnic Edibles was worth her efforts, even if it didn’t pay for itself. The answer was a clear ‘yes.’ "I was doing something creative, something purposeful," she says. She took a second part-time job at the renowned Alvin Ailey Dance Theater, and kept the business going.

Moment of Triumph:

In 2001 Heather got her first big order. A catalog wanted 500 sets. It was great news, except that Heather had no staff, and no way to fulfill the order. Or so she thought. "All these people who believed in me came to my rescue," Heather says. "We set up an assembly line in my house with my neighbors, my godchildren, and two of my nieces. Little hands are good for shoving things into bags." Heather chuckles. "They all worked for free, and we got those 500 sets out."

Lesson Learned: Find the Joy

The addition of a line of products celebrating Puerto Rican heritage, and a sideline of cookie catering–baking and delivering custom-made cookies to companies and private parties–have helped Ethnic Edibles grow. Even so, today Heather works three part-time jobs to support her business and her passion. She’s a marketer for Alvin Ailey, a teaching artist at Manhattan’s Joyce Theater, and a dance teacher in a Harlem performing arts conservatory.

"Every entrepreneur dreams that her business will be her rock financially," Heather says. "Ethnic Edibles is not going to do that for me. But it’s meeting my most important goals. And that makes me more successful than any amount of money could."