Switching Gears
Some SJ residents are changing careers in mid-life – and loving their new roles
By Terri Akman

Mark Hodges woke up one morning three years ago, sat on the side of the bed and asked his wife what day it was. It was Wednesday. Not Friday, as he had hoped. A feeling of dread came over him as he realized he had to work three more days until the weekend.

Mark-Hodges_0474-1516“I realized I was in a job I didn’t like anymore, and it was time to get out of it,” says Hodges, who was 55 at the time and the senior vice president of operations for a large North Jersey builder. “I know it seems positively insane. But I’ve always had a personal rule that if I wasn’t motivated and enjoying my job in a meaningful way, I was gonna leave it.”

Hodges spent the weekend talking with his wife and two adult children about what he wanted to do. And on Monday, he resigned. He decided to move back to Haddonfield, where he grew up, to be closer to his children and mother, who was showing signs of dementia. “I had a lot of personal reasons that caused me to decide I needed to be back in South Jersey doing something different, because I just wasn’t enjoying my day. I wasn’t having fun, so I made that choice.”

Hodges says he was financially able to quit before landing another job because he had been a saver most of his life. “I couldn’t have retired, but I could have lived for 10 years on the money I set aside,” he says.

“But frankly, I’m not sure that would have influenced me one way or another. When I was younger and had two small children, I left a job as a new home salesperson for another builder. I left that job because I wasn’t happy and I don’t think I had $1,000 in the bank. It didn’t matter. I just decided it was time to move on.”

Within 24 hours of his return to Haddonfield, Hodges received a phone call from Monsignor Bob McDermott, who ran several ministries in Camden. Hodges’ name had come up as a candidate to help with a new foundation the monsignor was forming. Hodges agreed to help set up the organization – as a volunteer.

Hodges filled out paperwork to receive nonprofit status, wrote by-laws, recruited board members and begin devising a strategic plan.

“I did it on a consulting basis, mostly pro bono,” says Hodges. “Then I said, ‘You need a full-time executive director. I’ll write a job description. I’ll engage a search and find someone for you and then I’ll move on. I went home, wrote the job description and fell in love with the job as I was writing.

“I showed Father the job description and he thought it was fantastic. I told him I had a candidate in mind – me. He said, ‘Welcome aboard.’

“I came back [to Haddonfield] on April 30th and on May 1st, my cell phone rang and it was Father Bob. For me, this was a miracle; for him, it was just the normal course of his life.”

As executive director of The Joseph Fund, Hodges oversees six ministries that provide education, affordable housing and job placement. A large part of his job is fundraising and developing ideas to spread the word about the ministries.

He also consults individually with each ministry, offering advice on budgeting and planning.

“It’s a natural fit for me,” he says. “It’s meaningful work and calmer work. Working in a high-pressure, publicly traded company has a lot of rewards, but is also highly stressful. I’m much better off physically, personally and emotionally.”

Medical School at 40

For 18 years, Delanco’s Marianne Holler enjoyed her career as a social worker.

“I’d talk to patients about how to improve their quality of life at home or talk to families about making plans for an elderly relative,” recalls Holler, 54. “They’d say, ‘That’s a good idea. I’ll talk to my doctor about it.’”

While many medical decisions are made as a team today, Holler says in the ’90s, most patients saw their doctors as the authority. “So even though I would talk about what was going on in that particular home, people would feel the need to ask their doctor,” she says. “It became a source of frustration. I just had the feeling I should go to medical school.”

When her younger sister became ill and passed away in 1995, Holler felt a strong spiritual tug to follow her dream.

“I believe you are put on this earth to do something and when you are done, you pass on,” she says. “I kept wondering, what had my sister done by the time she was 32? I felt compelled that I was not doing what I was supposed to be doing.”

Marianne-Holler_ChiesaDetermined to become a physician, Holler endured a long and arduous path. While working to support herself, she spent four years attending night school getting a bachelor’s degree in chemistry to complete the undergraduate coursework she hadn’t needed for her social-work career.

“My goal was to start medical school before I turned 40, and I started about three months before my 40th birthday,” she says. “That first semester I was in way, way over my head. What was I thinking to try to jump back into the water at that level academically after not being in the classroom for 18 years? My classmates had just been students. They were used to college, studying and testing.

“As I was going to night school – taking each class and then the entrance exam – each time I’d wonder if the point was to prove I could do this or to actually do it. Once I got into a rhythm I was okay, but the internship was another challenge, because I was 44 and my colleagues were 26.”

Fortunately, Holler hit her stride, even surviving the 30-hour hospital shifts alongside her younger colleagues. She gravitated to older classmates who could better relate to her stage of life.

“I had a good relationship with everyone because we were all going through the same thing, but in terms of how they spent their downtime, I had already been there, done that – 20 years ago when I was in college,” she says.

Holler credits her success to a supportive family. “Going to medical school is very hard on relationships because your focus for 12, 15, 18 hours a day has to be on studying, school, labs and rotations. To have family who understands you saying, ‘No, I can’t go to that wedding or christening’ is important.

“You give up so much. There were many times when my friends and family said, ‘It can’t be worth it.’ I look back and say, ‘Would it have made a difference if I took this day off?’ But you don’t think about that in the moment.”

Holler concentrated on internal medicine, specifically palliative medicine and hospice. “It was the perfect match with my social-work background and medical training,” she says.

Now, as a physician and Palliative Medicine Fellowship Director for Samaritan Healthcare and Hospice, Holler specializes in end-of-life care for people with complex illnesses. She helps people figure out their goals, given the time they have left.

“Because a doctor can do something, it doesn’t mean they should do it,” she says. “If somebody is of advanced age with a number of advanced illnesses, what do they want for themselves?” Her job is to help them figure that out.

“I feel like I’m in the skin I was born to be in,” says Holler. “I always felt like there was a piece missing. I could live with failure but I couldn’t live with not trying.”

Attorney to animals

Every time Mike Sinko left his house to head to work as an attorney – a job he held for 33 years – he winced when his two dogs saw him leave.

“If they could talk, they would be saying ‘Don’t leave us.’” Sinko says. “So every day I would feel guilty going to work. I knew I had to come up with a way that I didn’t have to leave them all the time.”

Sinko and his wife Linda Toogood researched their options and found they could open a pet daycare and overnight boarding facility, a place where Sinko could work – and bring his dogs.

“The rational people, who really don’t know me, said, ‘Are you out of your mind? What are you thinking?’ But the people who knew me, like my family, none of them were surprised.”

Sinko opened Villa La Paws in Maple Shade last fall, and he’s worked 12-hour days ever since.

“It was a big risk,” he says. “My biggest fear was whether or not it would succeed financially. I’m 62 now and it’s a big investment for me, and a big change from my prior life. We got a decent amount of business just from people driving by. Now we are advertising, and it’s been progressing nicely. I’m here 12 hours a day, and I really don’t mind it one minute.”

For now, Linda is keeping her day job, but she does help out with the business.

“I told her that I expect to be gone for six months,” he says. “I want to be sure everything is done right, and I’d like to meet all the customers. Once that initial six months is up, I expect to take breaks. I’ve played golf maybe twice in the last four months, but next year I’ll be able to.”

One rude awakening has been learning how to manage his 15 employees. “They are mostly part-time, and there are a lot of personalities and that’s a challenge,” he says. “That was a shock to me. Sometimes you have to deal with people who have the mentality that they’re just putting in their time. In some cases, for what we’re able to afford to pay them, this is not their desired career. I believe everybody should be on the same page to try to make the business succeed.”

There’s also the stress of dogs that don’t behave, especially at Villa LaPaws, which has an open-space environment without crates. Sinko’s business caters to his “doggie parent” clients, literally day and night. “If your dog is sleeping here and you’re concerned in the middle of the night, you can log in to our webcam and see what your dog is doing. In fact, we had a mother call in at 4:30 in the morning saying, ‘Chester’s not sleeping well, can you go sit with him?’ Our overnight attendant sat with him.”

One great side benefit – Sinko lost 20 pounds. “I’m not sitting at a desk all day long, and I’m not eating big lunches,” he says. “I get to go play with the dogs, so I get a lot more physical activity than I used to.”

Most days, Honeybee, Sinko’s 10-year-old cocker spaniel/wheaten terrier mix, Pixanne, his 2-year-old wheaten terrier, and Boomer, his 5-month-old wheaten/ springer mix, enjoy take-your-doggie-to-work days.

“We’re three months into the business, and we’re meeting all the targets I had set. Business continues to grow steadily, so that’s going a long way to ease my fears. I sleep so much better than I used to.”

February 2014
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