From sailing the seas to prosecuting criminals, these amazing women are changing the world and setting new standards for women in their workplaces.
In Northwest Quarterly’s ongoing series about women with unique jobs, we meet four more amazing women. These women are changing lives and inspiring others every day.
Sally Barkow, Professional Sailor and Volvo Ocean Race Participant
There may have been something in the water in Wisconsin, or perhaps it was in her blood.
Nashotah, Wis., native Sally Barkow started sailing at the age of 5.
“It started out as a summer activity, but turned into something I love,” she recalls of her childhood. Her parents and siblings are avid sailors, too. Barkow loved sailing so much that she made it a full-time career – a profession that ultimately led to her recent participation in the prestigious Volvo Ocean Race round-the-world sailing competition, an event held every three years.
How did she get there?
Sailing throughout high school and college, she was the Collegiate Women’s National Champion in 2002, while attending school at Old Dominion University. She was involved with the Olympics for 10 years, participated in the Beijing Olympic games, and was named the U.S. Rolex Yachtswoman of the year – twice. Her sailing pursuits mainly focused on small boats in short-course races. Little did she know that would soon change.
In 2012, the opportunity of a lifetime arose when there was a call for applications for Team SCA – an all-women sailing team sponsored by a Swedish hygiene company – to participate in the 2014-2015 Volvo Ocean Race. This would be the first all-female team to compete in 12 years.
Along with more than 250 applicants, Barkow applied for one of the 15 coveted spots. To her surprise, she was invited to the team’s base in Spain for tryouts, was subsequently asked to come back and was accepted. She spent 18 months training for the arduous race, which would take place over nearly nine months. Seven teams with members from around the globe competed, navigating 65-foot high-performance racing yachts through 11 ports in 11 countries spanning Europe, Africa, Asia, Australasia and the Americas. The event began in early October 2014, in Europe, and ended in late June 2015, also in Europe.
Barkow was thrilled to be part of the experience and acted as the driver/trimmer of the vessel – sometimes at the helm steering the ship, sometimes controlling the sails.
“The race was quite an experience,” she says. The life-changing competition opened new places and faces to her. It also challenged her with obstacles like temperamental weather. Team SCA won leg 8 of the competition, the first time an all-female team won any leg of the event. It was an important feat.
Sailing tends to be a male-dominated pursuit, Barkow says, but most challenges come from the competition itself, not from attitudes of male counterparts.
“It does take physical strength, and you have to work hard to compete with the guys,” she explains. “But once they accept that you have skills and are there to compete, it’s an even playing field.”
Proud of her participation in the race, she looks forward to discovering what the future holds.
“Personally, I didn’t believe I would do one of the highest levels in sailing you could do,” she says. “It was fantastic and I learned a ton about myself and ocean racing. It was an intense race and a great opportunity to bond with people. It was such a set of accomplishments; I will remember it forever, for sure.”
Barkow will continue to work as a short-course sailor and hopes to promote women in the sport.
Her advice for aspiring female sailors?
“If you want to do it, the opportunity is out there,” she says. “You can take sailing to a really high level. Never lose sight of your goals. There are not a lot of us, but there is a pathway.”
Marilyn Hite Ross, Chief of the Criminal Bureau, Winnebago County, Ill.
Marilyn Hite Ross considers herself blessed. She’s the first woman and first African-American to hold her current position. Her career path led her down several roads – all of which helped her to perform her duties today. She grew up in Winnebago County and attended the University of Illinois and Indiana University Law School; she also taught law at several colleges and worked for the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office for several years.
Hite Ross gained a wealth of knowledge in the Cook County position that prepared her for the position offered to her by Winnebago County State’s Attorney Joe Bruscato.
“I had to work in Cook County several years, and not Winnebago, but it led to this position and I was then prepared for the job offer,” she says. “It’s a blessing, and every day that I’m able to serve families in Winnebago, I feel privileged and honored.”
What do her daily duties look like? She sets policies for criminal prosecution and trains and supervises about 40 attorneys in the Criminal Bureau.
On-call 24/7, she deals with some unthinkably dark crimes and horrible circumstances, but she’s passionate about her work.
“I enjoy being of service to individuals who come to our office,” she says. “We provide support to help them navigate through the system, to help them understand that we will be an advocate for them in court. We assist and provide comfort; we let them know that we are going to seek justice for them and their families. It’s a difficult time in their lives. But I hope I am a blessing during those difficult times and am able to help them seek justice.”
When it comes to job stress, Hite Ross doesn’t entertain it. “I work out daily and meditate on the Bible, God’s word,” she says. “He’s in control.” One of her favorite scriptures is Psalm 1, on the subject of how to have a blessed life.
Asked about attitudes toward women in the workplace, Hite Ross says she has encountered gender bias along the way, in previous jobs. She feels her current boss, however, is focused on her skill set, not her gender.
“As a new prosecutor, I experienced some racial and gender barriers and was not well received by judges in my early years,” she says. “But I did not let this deter me. I knew my calling and my mission, and other judges were supportive.”
In 2011, Hite Ross was a finalist for Rockford Woman of the Year; in 2012, she was recognized by Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan as one of Illinois’ Distinguished Women. She was recognized in 2012 by Booker Washington Community Center as one of 25 Black Leaders to Watch. In 2014, the National Black Prosecutor’s Association recognized her for more than 20 years of service; she also received the Dr. Martin Luther King Award for service to the community from the Rockford Minister’s Fellowship.
“You cannot be deterred when you meet a new opportunity,” she says. “I truly believe that a wise man may plan his way, but it is God who directs his steps. You land where He wants you. The Lord takes you on a path and you are expected to go. Sometimes people may not see the value of the struggle; they may only consider the end result. Look at the struggle and learn from it.”
Dola Gregory, Founder and Executive Director, Rock House Kids
Dola Gregory lives to help inner-city children in Rockford.
The mother of one says her involvement with Rockford’s youth began in 1999, after she and some colleagues set up a Bible study at a coffee house on Seventh Street. A pastor at the time, Gregory was moved by people impacted by homelessness and prostitution, and especially by children with unstable home lives.
A little boy who used to come into the Bible study and eat with her sparked the idea that led to Rock House Kids. He disappeared for several months, but when he came back, she learned that his mother and been shot and hospitalized, and he’d been bouncing around among relatives. The 9-year-old had a place to lay his head at night, but some of his most basic needs weren’t being met. Gregory asked if there were other kids like him. He said yes, and brought 15 of his friends to meet her.
“I thought someone should do something for them, make a community center,” Gregory reflects. “They had needs and they needed food. So I spent some time in prayer, resigned from the church and looked for a building to open up Rock House Kids on Seventh Street.”
With little more than her faith, $500 and a dream, Gregory opened her center, which is still going strong 16 years later near Broadway Street. The organization helps more than 300 children every week, ages preschool through high school. It’s a safe house for children, but also so much more.
“These kids might not have a place to go after school,” Gregory says. “We provide them with food, clothes, coats and blankets. Some of them are children who fell through the cracks. They may have a place to put their heads, but that place could be different every night. We give them a safe place to stay and also free tutoring, hot meals, Bible classes, therapy dogs, dance classes and manners classes. We take them on outings.”
Rock House Kids exists solely through the kindness of volunteers and public contributions. Gregory loves seeing children act like kids again, something they can do inside a safe environment. Some of them bring in their siblings.
There are ample raw, touching moments, such as when staff volunteers are invited to attend children’s sports events.
“Some of them may have never had a visitor at their games before,” Gregory says. “Sometimes we’re the first people to attend.”
It inspires her to see kids graduate from college and remain part of her life. One former Rock House Kids attendee now brings his own son to the program – not because he really needs it, but because Gregory and her staff have been like family over the years.
When she undertook this formidable endeavor, Gregory basically gave up her personal life. She lives and breathes Rock House Kids, but says it’s worth the sacrifice. She believes God helps her through difficult times – which sometimes include attending children’s funerals.
“My faith in God gets me through,” she says. “I wouldn’t be able to do this without that.”
Goals for the future include a five-year expansion project aimed to bring in more children. She’s also writing a “how to” book for people interested in giving back to the community.
“If you’re interested in doing something like this, come to us first and see if it’s something you would really like to do,” she advises. “Don’t start something and not finish it, because steadfastness is what these kids need. Our motto is, ‘If you help a child today, you won’t have to repair an adult tomorrow.’”
Julie Stern, Owner and Practitioner, Tea House Acupuncture
Instead of giving up when she was told she had terminal cancer, Julie Stern fought back. In the process, she forged a new career path that helps others with the disease.
The Cincinnati native was living in Decatur, Ill., and working in a high-stress, high-ranking position for an electronics company, when she felt a pain in her side that changed everything.
Soon after, she was diagnosed with lymphoma.
Stern initially was told she had too many tumors for treatment. Her father and sister had died from cancer. An experienced hospice volunteer, Stern began preparing herself for the inevitable.
“But then, my family started coming to me with ideas and I felt obligated to try,” she says. “You go through a major shift, when dealing with your own impending death. Your attitude changes and you have to do something while you are waiting to die.”
She studied a “mountain of books” and overhauled her daily nutritional intake and lifestyle. Four months later, both she and her doctors were surprised to discover that her cancer had shrunk by 75 percent. By the ninth month, it had disappeared altogether.
“Since 2005, my life has been forever changed,” she says.
After Stern recovered, people who had cancer or knew someone with it came to her for advice. While she wanted to share what she had learned, she found that some people were too sick with nausea from chemo treatments to try her suggestions. She began researching ways to combat nausea and found that acupuncture kept coming up – an ancient practice that intrigued her.
“So, at the age of 48, I decided to go to college,” she says. She quit her job and enrolled in the Midwest College of Oriental Medicine in Chicago, embarking on a grueling three-year program. She graduated in 2010, at the top of her class, with a Bachelor of Science in Nutrition and a Master of Science in Oriental Medicine. She then became a licensed acupuncture practitioner.
Armed with plenty of hands-on experiences with patients, she opened Tea House Acupuncture in Lake Geneva, Wis., in 2011. The business provides a wide range of services, including nutrition counseling and aspects of Chinese medicine such as cupping and acupuncture.
“I was initially working with cancer patients, but this medicine is so enormous in its scope that you can treat just about anything else,” Stern says. “It’s incredible and amazing and has helped with unbelievable healings. I’ve had clients burst out in tears of joy. I really came to understand how effective and wonderful acupuncture is. People with chronic conditions – with no clear diagnosis – can still get better.”
Married with four grown children, Stern believes her biggest challenge is helping people to overcome a fear of needles. She sometimes travels to clients. She offers motivational lectures to her community and holds informative sessions about the nature of her work. Passionate, she strives to spread the good news about acupuncture.
“It’s not just a job, it’s important work,” she says. “I would rather do acupuncture than anything else. I am not motivated by money. I just want to share the opportunity to heal. I am so grateful for the changes this has brought into my life … Almost every fellow student in my class at college had a backstory like mine. Everybody has a story, but sometimes people don’t know what to do. We need more people doing this; there are other clinics, but the community is underserved.”