Northwest Woman

Meet Four Women Who Forged Ahead

By

Through inspiring and unique careers, these four ladies not only had the drive to pursue their passions, but also the courage to change course when the occasion called for it.

(Left to Right) Melody Roccaforte, Tammy Schmidt, Lisa Chamberlain and Judy Dixon.

(Left to Right) Melody Roccaforte, Tammy Schmidt, Lisa Chamberlain and Judy Dixon.

Who says we must have one set path in life?

These four women are living proof that reinventing oneself is often a necessary part of life – and sometimes it’s the key to finding one’s ultimate calling.

Melody Roccaforte, Executive Director, Healing Pathways Cancer Resource Center

Melody Roccaforte decided that, before retiring, she still had one more calling to answer.

She found it as executive director at Healing Pathways Cancer Resource Center – an independent organization that offers free support services to cancer patients, survivors and caregivers in the Stateline area. The organization was founded by the late Linda Huffman Jones, who had benefited greatly from such centers in the Chicago area and was surprised to find none existed when she moved back to Rockford, her hometown.

A Rockford native from a large family, Roccaforte married after high school, had a family and became a stay-at-home-mom.

When her two sons were a bit older, she began working part-time with Rockford Health System and attended classes at a “leisurely” pace at Rock Valley College. For many years she was also involved in philanthropic work and volunteered with the American Cancer Society, eventually serving as its chair and helping to implement Relay for Life.

Roccaforte worked at Rockford Health System for 35 years in five positions, including MRI coordinator and secretary of physician and guest relations. She drew upon her training in relationship development and marketing to hire more than 100 physicians to the health system.

As the director of fundraising annual giving for the system’s Foundation, she set up programming, established relationships and raised the bar for funding. Around that time, Healing Pathways reached out to recruit her to its board of directors. Alhough she didn’t initially have availability for such work, the organization intrigued her, and she thought, ‘What would be the most incredible thing to do before retiring?’

When she discovered that Healing Pathways was looking for an executive director, she knew what to do. Although she considered all of the positions she held at Rockford Health System to be “gifts,” she felt the time had come to move forward in the the final stage of her career with this opportunity at Healing Pathways.

“Rockford Health gave me the world, but I had to listen to where I needed to be,” she says. “I feel like I’ve been given a challenge; it’s where I need to be at least for the last few years of my work life.”

As one of the first people to be employed by Healing Pathways, she wears many hats when she needs to – program manager, marketing person, fundraiser, executive director and operations director. She and volunteers meet with healthcare providers, volunteer masseuses, nutritionists, oncologists and others; she writes grants and gives speeches to “anyone who will listen.” She also implements and runs new programming.

Most of the volunteers at Healing Pathways donate their time and talent because they believe in the importance of the mission. They’re individuals who’ve been impacted by cancer in one way or another and are dedicated to improving the lives of others who are suffering with the illness or are dealing with it in their families. The free programs and resources at Healing Pathways help to ease the emotional stress and physical side effects of cancer and its treatment, and offer guidance.

“There is no map of what is going to happen in their lives,” Roccaforte says of the people who walk into Healing Pathways for assistance. “They are winging it. And some of them have intense roles as caregivers.”

Some of the caregivers are children, she adds, sharing the story of how one young mother came to the center looking for help. Not for herself, but for assistance in supporting her 11-year-old son Justin, who was her caregiver.

After this meeting, Roccaforte says she rallied people together to create the Hope Floats program for kids living with cancer-impacted family members. The program provides children the opportunity to visit twice a month to talk and learn the basics about cancer. Justin became the spokesperson for the program’s Just In Case emergency tool kits – which offer iTunes cards and flashlights, and the opportunity for kids to participate in yoga, art therapy and games. Roccaforte says that most days, the kids simply find peace in being together.

“This program turned out to be one of our biggest pillars,” she says. “If anything, I’m proud of that.”
Although she enjoys what she does, she admits the new path can be very difficult.

The organization is not well-known and relies solely on volunteers and donations from individuals and the community.

Additionally, as someone who recently lost one of her brothers to brain cancer and has a second brother suffering from leukemia, Roccaforte knows all too well the pain that comes hand-in-hand with working with cancer patients.

“Though at a low point in my own life, I am privileged to be chosen,” she says. “I ask other people who are interested in working here, ‘Tell me, how are you are going to take care of yourself?’ You have to have a strong constitution for this work. If you don’t take care of yourself, you cannot survive this job. You befriend these people.”

She says her sons are supportive and now better understand what drives her, and why she insists they get together every weekend for Sunday dinners.

“I’ve always told my two sons that philanthropic work has to be part of your life, that there are benefits to giving back,” she says. “Now they understand why it’s so important to give back – and to get together at our weekly meal.”

Roccaforte says she’s never worked harder than she has at Healing Pathways, but loves being part of it.
“It’s a positive process in a negative piece of life,” she says. “You cannot walk into this facility and not hear laughter and joy. On the worst days, I can come in here and enjoy it. There are incredible people. Some volunteers are survivors, and it’s a legacy that needs to be carried forward.

“Giving as much sunshine as you can. It has changed my life. It’s a privilege to walk in here every day, to have an incredible network. We have to make life with cancer better.”

Tammy Schmidt, Novelist and Interior Designer at Novel Interiors

Lake Geneva resident Tammy Schmidt – known to her readers as Tamara Lyon – not only opens up new worlds to readers with her colorful novels, but also helps people to rewrite their own life stories within the comfort of their homes.

A novelist as well as an interior designer at Novel Interiors, Schmidt believes that women can have the creative careers of their dreams while also balancing family life.

Getting to that point wasn’t exactly a straightforward shot, however.

Schmidt grew up in Sugar Grove, Ill., and attended college at Northern Illinois University. She majored in English but wasn’t sure what she’d with her new degree upon graduation. Indeed, she neither taught college English nor penned the Great American Novel after graduating. Instead, she found herself sitting in a corporate world cubicle, in 1997, attempting to fix the Y2K computer bugs that were expected to destroy computers around the world at the turn of the new millennial.

By this time, she’d married her husband Chris and moved to Wisconsin. She worked as a computer programmer on the project for a few years, until, in 2000, she left the cubicle behind and focused on being a stay-at-home mom to her newborn son. It was also during this time that she began to write her first manuscript under her maiden name, Tamara Lyon. Writing was always something she’d wanted to do, but the dream had fallen by the wayside as the years went by.

“I always wanted to write funny stories growing up,” she says. “Every year I put on a Christmas play with my cousin. Telling stories was just part of who I was … I lost sight of it for awhile, but it was always on my bucket list.”

As she penned and finished her first novel, Schmidt had a revelation: “This is what I was put here to do.”

Around this time her husband decided to attend medical school, so she needed to find a regular job. She started her own cleaning business to make ends meet, but also continued writing novels. She published five titles, including “The Ugly Tree,” “Cane’s Justice,” “The Road to Justice,” “Fixing Forever Broken” and, her most recent release in 2015 and Amazon best-seller, “Post-Traumatic Brazilian Wax Syndrome.” She also won several awards along the way and is now in the process of writing the sequel to her most recent work.
Although writing remains central in her life, it’s not the only thing she does.

The career of a writer can be a bit of a waiting game, at times, and Schmidt likes to keep things moving. So, she called upon another of her passions and opened an interior design business.

“As a kid, I was always rearranging and decorating,” she says. “I always had a knack for helping friends and other people with décor … I even staged and sold one of our homes myself without a realtor. I thought, ‘I could do this,’ and wondered what was holding me back. So I decided to go for it.”

As a designer, Schmidt helps people to organize, re-imagine and redesign their homes and personal spaces. She says she aims to make her services easily accessible and affordable by specializing in working with small budgets.

“I call myself a home organization guru and master, helping you purge and donate,” she says with a chuckle. She even creates customized design boards for her clients and enjoys redoing entire rooms just by “shopping people’s houses” and scoring great finds at discount stores.

She’s having fun with her new venture and has picked up a steady client base, but there are positive and negative aspects to each of her careers.

“The creative process for each art is different,” she says. “As a writer, you have to be pensive and by yourself a lot of the time; it can be isolating when writing stories. I love creating stories and beautiful worlds. But it’s a lot of waiting for someone to react. The financial reward is not always immediate – you have to price it right or have a publisher behind you. So I don’t always get immediate gratification from that.”

When designing, she tries to tap into what people love and attempts to tell their stories through their living spaces.

“There’s an immediate reaction there, it’s really fun,” she says. “I love having people tell me about themselves and their hobbies. I love making their spaces meaningful.”

But with design also comes the challenge of unrealistic clients or those who have trouble knowing what styles they enjoy.

“These careers are a balancing act,” Schmidt admits. “But I always make it a priority to take care of myself and work out to stay physically and mentally healthy. I continuously set goals for myself and never lose sight of who I am – it’s important to set goals and follow through with them.”

Her advice for people who desire careers in creative fields?

“Just go for it,” she says. “If you want to define yourself as, for example, a writer, define yourself as that. Create a website, Facebook page or a blog. Set goals. Write 5,000 words a week, or set mini-goals per day. Be professional. If you hold yourself in high esteem and treat yourself as a professional, success will follow.”

Lisa Chamberlain, Inventor and CEO, Guardian Angel Armour, Inc.

When a certain product to improve her son’s quality of life didn’t exist, Lisa Chamberlain decided to take matters into her own hands and invent it herself.

One might think this Rockton resident and inventor of the Guardian Angel Armour Magnetic Shield has a degree in engineering or some other scientific field. But she doesn’t. The Beloit, Wis., native majored in business management at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater and went on to work in bank management for 10 years.

A mother of four children, Chamberlain decided to become a stay-at-home mom after her fourth son, Myles, was born. In 2013, when Myles was a year old, Lisa and husband Erik received unfortunate news. Myles was diagnosed with hydrocephalus – a buildup of too much cerebrospinal fluid on the brain.

Myles underwent three brain surgeries and had a shunt with a programmable valve surgically placed inside his head. The Chamberlains were told to keep Myles from coming into contact with magnetic fields over 90 gauss – the strength of the average, small bar magnet – since the programmable valve could be reset by magnets, which could lead to serious consequences for Myles’ health.

At first, Chamberlain didn’t realize how complex the magnet issue would be. After she purchased a high-quality magnetometer, however, she and her husband discovered how common high-powered magnets really were. The magnets were everywhere – in the home, the community, workplace, schools, airports, hospitals, stores and libraries.

“I couldn’t believe how many things around the house had magnets,” she says. “Anything with a speaker has them, even baby toys. There were 100 toys at his preschool alone that could reset his device.”

One of Myles’ favorite toys, the iPad, was also a no-no.

Chamberlain started researching what she could buy to help with the situation, but discovered there wasn’t anything available.

“I just wanted him to have a shield so he could play with his toys,” she says. “I started geeking out on engineering, though I had no background in it. Growing up, my dad was like MacGyver. If there was a problem, he would have to fix it, and we would have to use all our resources. (Erik and I) did this, too. I knew I could make a sample.”

After about a month, Chamberlain found the type of metal she wanted – a metal used to shield engines. With some careful work, she was able to create what she wanted, and she covered the piece with soft material. She also made a hat and used the same material to make a case for her son’s iPad. She bought a lab-grade gauss meter and tested the magnets with her product. The GAA Magnet Shield lowers gauss levels to below 10 gauss, when used to shield against common household magnets with levels below 600, and lowers levels to below 20 for magnets with gauss levels below 1500.

“It was all just done for this need of my little guy,” she says.

After inventing the shield, she took it to her son’s neurosurgeon.

“They were amazed and asked if I had studied this sort of thing,” she says with a chuckle. “They encouraged us to get it patented and to get the product out there. It crosses a lot of other lines too – pacemakers, brain stimulators, defibrillators. There’s potential there to help a lot of people. Many other implantable systems can also be affected/reset by common magnets.”

The patent was submitted and is currently waiting approval, and Chamberlain says it’s looking strong. It also must gain FDA approval and Chamberlain must find someone to license the product for manufacturing, although she and her husband are prepared to make the shields themselves if necessary.

A whole team of people will stand behind the shields, including attorneys, marketing assistants, doctors and consultants.

Chamberlain says there have been some challenges.

“It’s starting a company, which is not my wheelhouse,” she says. “I had to learn everything and get help from a lot of professionals. NIU-EIGERlab has been a huge help; they’re great for helping startup businesses.”

A strong support system is beneficial, too. Her husband and extended family are always willing to help out when needed.

As Myles continues to improve, Chamberlain takes one step at a time.

“We believe people need this, so we don’t feel guilty at all about the time we spend on it,” she says. “To be able to get this out there for patients like him and other people – if somebody has this condition, I want to be able to help them find help, because it wasn’t there for me. It can bring peace of mind for people.”

The Chamberlains host a fundraiser at their home every year for children like Myles, with the goal of eventually doing away with the need for shunts and improving the lives of children with this condition. A portion of the proceeds of their product sales will also be donated.

Chamberlain is very passionate about what she does and offers the following advice for people who want to invent something: do it for the right reasons.

“When there’s a problem, there’s a solution,” she says. “If you have a strong enough desire, you can do it. If it’s something your heart is in – whatever your inspiration – draw on that. And remember, when things get tough, go back to that.”

Judy Dixon, Painter and Musician

Dixon, Ill., resident Judy Dixon says it was her mother who encouraged her first steps toward painting and creative work.

“As a child, my mother would hand me a pencil in church to keep me busy and I’d draw in the church bulletin,” she says with a chuckle. She went on to dabble in art in high school, creatingcommunity posters.
When she attended the University of Illinois, she majored in English and psychology. She thought she might like to be a writer. After graduation, she worked for Sears Roebuck, writing for its catalog. She got married and had three children, but found herself dabbling in art again.

“I started experimenting with watercolor painting in 1972,” she says. “It was a good choice because I had three little kids at home and it was an art medium that was easy to wash out.”

She enrolled in art classes at Fox Valley Community College and entered her first art show. She entered more shows and joined a local art club. Her foray into painting began to take off from there, and she eventually became a signature member of the Illinois Watercolor Society.

“I’ve shown work with them now for a long time,” she says.

Dixon’s beautiful paintings revolve around local scenes. Her art is also inspired by France – a country she’s visited several times.

She sold her work not only through local galleries but also outdoor shows and shows around the region.

Dixon says she has been forutunate to have a lot of free time to paint.

“I always have something better to do than clean,” she says. “And my husband, a lawyer, has always been supportive. He always would come take a look and see what I was doing and take an interest. He is helpful and encouraging, and he encouraged me to do exhibits. He never told me not to.”

In general, her entire family has been supportive, although there were moments when she worried that one of her children would destroy one of her paintings.

In recent years, Dixon has slowed down her painting pace. These days, most of her work can be found on display at The Next Picture Show gallery in Dixon.

“I give to charities now – like the Special Olympics auction,” she says. “I market my work through The Next Picture Show Gallery. I still enjoy painting, though, and it’s nice to do local shows. I still enter work at outdoor shows sometimes, though I used to do many a year. But now I’m getting a little too old and cranky. It can be hard fighting with the weather and rain sometimes – I’ve done it all. I’ve even had to sit in mud and sweat.”

But don’t get the idea Dixon is just sitting around.

To the contrary, she’s begun a new chapter of creative life as a bass guitarist in a local five-woman ensemble called the House Wine Band.

“We like to call ourselves ‘unpretentious, but still pretty good,’” she says.

She says her husband James is supportive of this venture and appreciates her music.

Why become a musician now?

Because she enjoys it.

She first picked up a guitar three years ago. After her son went away to school, she began using his guitar for continued practice. She hired different teachers and had “such a good time playing,” that she started a band with four other women.

“We play local shows and also perform at The Next Picture Show Gallery,” she says. “It’s so much fun. We’re like the Gray Panthers. Making music is a pleasure at 73 years old.”

Dixon’s life is full of artistic wonder, but she cautions that such opportunities don’t just fall into one’s lap.

“A blank piece of paper can be a challenge,” she says. “Starting music can be a challenge. As an artist of any kind, you have to be good to have a solid career.

“But if you enjoy it, just do it anyway. You can’t expect to do everything like an expert right away. You need to go for it and try it, or you are just letting someone else have all the fun.”

Bookmark and Share

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Comments are closed.