This Time Around…

By Meng Qi, Photos by Rudy Arocha, Crystal Dunn photo by Jason Dunn

Three women take a detour from their careers to pursue the jobs they’ve always wanted.

Follow your heart. It’s a phrase we hear so often that it’s become a cliché that’s easy to ignore. By sharing their stories of hard work, determination and passion as they embarked on a leap of faith, these three women give fresh meaning to those words. Each of them has discovered their personal idea of happiness, proving that in life, there is no one-size-fits-all. Through living their own passions, they also found a way to contribute wholeheartedly to their communities.

Angela Martin, Firefighter

It never occurred to Angela Martin to be a firefighter when she grew up. A native of San Antonio, Martin was interested in art at an early age, and eventually attended St. Edward’s University to study graphic design. It wasn’t until she went to an outdoor festival that she learned about firefighting as a career. That experience changed her life.

“I was working at a very small graphic-design firm, where I quickly became head graphic designer and head productions artist,” Martin says. “It was a fun job, it was very artistic, but it wasn’t very fulfilling. I felt like I was just a cog in a machine, like I wasn’t doing something for the world.”

A woman at the festival was handing out pamphlets to other women in attendance and talking to them about why they might be interested in a firefighting career.

“It just sort of resonated,” Martin remembers. “I thought firefighters just sat in a mythological place in the clouds, and then a fire happened and they somehow rushed in. But it’s so much more than that.”

It may surprise many to learn exactly how much more. Firefighters are generally the first on the scene of any emergency. They respond to car crashes, deal with broken plumbing for gas pipes, electric issues and help those with medical emergencies. They also actually do rescue the proverbial cat from the tree, though in Martin’s case, it was a bird.

“We’ve actually had a woman who had an exotic bird that escaped their house, and we were trying to get into the tree to get her bird back for her,” she says. “Really, anything anyone ever asks for help for, we pretty much show up.”

It’s hard not to be inspired when Martin talks about a firefighter’s job.

“You show up at somebody’s house, in somebody’s life, in a time when it’s the worst day in their entire life, and you make it better,” she says. “And I just find that incredibly rewarding.”

Talking to Martin now, she sounds like a seasoned veteran able to handle anything that comes her way. But her journey to officially joining the force was a long one. The firefighter test includes four components: a written test, a physical-fitness test, an oral test and a psychological evaluation. The physical-fitness test requires each applicant to start by wearing a 75-pound vest around their chest and exercising heavily for three minutes and 20 seconds.

They then shed 25 pounds and proceed through a series of exercises, like transporting machinery, taking a sledgehammer to a metal plate, carrying a 175-pound dummy and traversing a maze in the dark. And it all has to be done in 10 minutes and 20 seconds. The 75-pound vest is approximately the weight of a firefighter’s gear, which includes a three-layer bunker outfit that’s “like wearing two oven mittens,” Martin says. Imagine that on a bright summer’s day in Austin.

“Yeah, it’s a workout,” Martin says with a shrug. “It’s intimidating, but it’s definitely doable if you exercise and if you prepare for it.”

The first year she applied to be a firefighter, Martin failed the physical test by 15 seconds. After that, due in part to bureaucratic hang-ups, it took her another four years to get in. She also had to work hard to pass the written and oral tests, which are more about communication than anything else.

“We meet so many different kinds of people,” Martin says. “Like, I would never want to walk up to someone who’s obviously a conservative Jewish man and try to get vitals on him because he can’t, by his religion, be touched by a female. So I need to know certain things about culture, just kind of have interpersonal skills.”

Martin also notes the importance of sensitivity when approaching those making risky health decisions, like addicts, or diabetics who won’t take their medication.

“We’re used to frequent flyers, and we’re used to dealing with somebody who’s psychotic and gets off their meds quite often,” she says. “Lecturing them about taking their meds isn’t going to help them; getting them to a hospital will.”

Martin refers to the station where she works as her house. The crew works in 24-hour shifts, during which time the firefighters cook together, catch up and work out in between responding to emergencies. Martin is currently the only female firefighter during the shift she works. That’s not surprising, considering that, as of November 2012, only 59 of the 1,006 filled sworn-firefighter positions in Austin were held by females. Still, Martin says the Austin Fire Department is “by far the most progressive and open-minded one” out of the many she’s visited throughout the world.

“It’s incredibly hospitable in Austin,” she says. “It’s very friendly. This city has tried really hard to retrofit fire houses with girl bathrooms, and all that kind of stuff.”

The hospitality definitely shows when Martin talks about her fellow crewmembers, as well as the people she helps on a daily basis.

“There’s a lot of people who are going through horrible, incredible things, but they have such a positive spirit about it,” she says of those she encounters on the job. “And it makes you love humans all over again, you know? So, I think I definitely get from everybody as much as I give. And that really surprised me. It’s more than I ever thought it would be, and I already thought it was going to be the best job in the world.”

Crystal Dunn, Dog Behavior Consultant

The rumor is that January begins the high season for pet trainers. If Santa brought your family a Christmas puppy this year, you’ll probably understand why. Are your favorite heels in tatters? Is your rug smelling a bit unseemly? Enter Crystal Dunn, pet trainer extraordinaire. Dunn is the owner and founder of Leaps N’ Hounds, a pet-care and training business that provides specialized services on an individual basis. Dunn loved working with animals from a young age, but her path to the career was not a direct one.

“I didn’t grow up in a family that was like, ‘Go to school and be whatever you want to be,’ ” Dunn says. “Going to school alone was going to be a giant challenge for me. So, I really felt compelled coming out of high school to pick a career that I knew was going to be financially beneficial. I was really missing that growing up since we struggled a lot.”

Dunn initially went in to account management for a software company, which helped her achieve that sense of financial stability. Six years in to it, Dunn remembers being “left with a very empty feeling, like, ‘What now?’ ” Of course, life is full of surprises, and stability can change almost overnight.

“The Monday after we moved in to the first house we’d bought, I got laid off,” she says. “Our company had been bought, so I then had about three months [the length of her severance pay] to reflect. All of a sudden, I went from a 60-hour work week to complete freedom.” Those three months allowed Dunn to get a taste of her dream career, as she spent much of her time walking and training her new dog, Lyla. In the meantime, she found a new job in business development, which, on the surface, was idyllic. Still, Dunn felt there was something missing.

“I was back in an office, and I was like, ‘Oh my gosh. I really miss being able to be outside.’ All those things had become really important to me: being outdoors, being active and being involved in something that I believed in.”

After some serious soul searching and discussions with her husband, Dunn decided to give her dream a chance. “I remember the day I gave my notice,” she says. “I told my boss what I was going to go do. And he looked at me like I grew a second head, and he was like, ‘What? You’re going to go train dogs?’ ”

At the beginning, Dunn shared some of this skepticism. After getting an apprentice-trainer job at a pet store, Dunn recalls, “I got my first paycheck and I cried. It scared me to death. I was like, ‘What have I done?’ ”

Still, she persevered and eventually moved to teaching her own classes and even training other trainers at the store. She also put in her time to learn as much as she could about animal behavior and training. “I went and observed every [trainer] I could for about a two-year period. I wanted to know what they were doing, how they were doing things differently, and, in the meantime, I just read obsessively,” she says. “I read book after book until I got to the point where I really felt like I knew what I was doing.”

All that work paid off, and Dunn was eventually able to not only establish a successful business in Houston, but also re-establish it when she moved to Austin about three years ago. Listening to Dunn describe her training sessions, it’s clear that her success lies in the thoughtful one-on-one attention she provides her clients.

“Most people go through an obedience class and they learn it in a certain way, but applied obedience isn’t necessarily taught,” she says. “I’ve found that being in somebody’s home and actually seeing the environment they live in, I can learn more about the dog’s behavior and the human’s behavior, and how the two affect each other. That’s very hard to get in a class setting.”

Dunn’s business has become so successful that she got the opportunity to volunteer her skills in the community. In Houston, she worked with assistance dogs for Healing Species, a non-violence outreach group that visits inner-city schools to teach about compassion, empathy and anti-bullying messages.

“We had assistance dogs that would come in to classrooms with us and help kids loosen up,” Dunn says. “The dogs served as role models because all the dogs in the program were rescues and they had gruesome histories. They were this perfect example of how you could overcome hardship in life, and how when bad things happen to you, it doesn’t have to ruin you.”

During the classes, Dunn noticed that pit bulls, often the “underdogs” of the community, seemed to be especially effective with the kids. “A lot of the kids we were talking to had pit bulls at home, and it felt like there was a better connection,” she says. “It seemed like while we were in class with a pit bull, the kids really tuned in because this was not the pit bull they were used to seeing.”

When she moved to Austin, Dunn discovered Love-A-Bull, a local pitbull advocacy group. She eventually became the trainer for Pit Crew, the group’s volunteer therapy-dog group. The crew visits hospitals, support groups, elderly care centers and schools. They even do a book-buddy program in which elementary students can read to the dogs in a low-pressure setting.

“It’s gotten really popular,” Dunn says. “We’ve had a lot of demand, and we don’t have enough dogs, so we’re trying to get more in the program.”

Her work is never done, and that, in a nutshell, is proof positive of Dunn’s passion for her career and cause. To learn more about Crystal Dunn and Leaps N’ Hounds, visit leapsnhounds.com. To learn more about Love-A-Bull, visit love-a-bull.org.

Karen Kennedy, Professional Counselor

In some ways, Karen Kennedy’s story has the picturesque quality of a blues song with a happy ending. Throughout her life, Kennedy thought, “I want to be a fill-in-the-blank.” She knew she wanted some kind of a profession and a true career, but for a long time, that part of her life was always left unfulfilled.

“My husband’s career always came first,” she recalls. Because of that, “we moved nine times in the span of about 30 years.”

Through the years, Kennedy would take various jobs, but they were all “just a job for a paycheck,” she says. However, right about the time she turned 50, all that changed. Her long-time marriage was falling apart. She and her husband eventually divorced and, at that point, Kennedy had to make some changes.

“I knew, number one, that I had to find a way to support myself,” she says. “And I thought that this time, I should make this about me.”

So, like the aforementioned blues song, Kennedy decided to pack her bags and move from a little town in Mississippi to Austin, a place she had always loved. “I’ll never forget it,” she says. “I got in my car with my dog and we drove out of Mississippi. We drove across the Mississippi River, and I looked at my dog, and I said, ‘We are never coming back here.’ And I’ll always remember it because it was such a metaphor. I was not going to go back [to that life].”

Kennedy is also quick to acknowledge that her divorce was “the worst thing I’ve ever been through. Here I was, at 50 years old, and ‘Who am I?’ ” she remembers asking herself.

Luckily, it wasn’t too long before she found an answer. Almost immediately after arriving in Austin, Kennedy applied for and was accepted in to the Counseling Program at St. Edward’s University.

“I will never forget my first day of class,” she says, “because I was terrified. I walked into the class and looked around and there were all these 20- and 30-somethings.”

However, she soon found out that there were many other older people in the program. In fact, there was another woman her age in that very first class. They quickly bonded about their shared experience and, even now, “she and I are like sisters,” Kennedy says. “We’re best of friends.”

Her interest in helping others through social work actually started from a young age, but it was Kennedy’s own experience in therapy that solidified her decision.

“I grew up in an alcoholic family,” she says. “My father was an alcoholic, so I had to do my own work around what it was like to grow up in that family, and to heal from that experience. I knew the power of therapy and I wanted to give that back to other people.”

She also knew that therapy was an area in which age is truly an asset.

“It’s not that I don’t think there are some wonderful younger therapists out there, because there are, but a lot of what I know about people can’t come from books,” she says. “It comes from life experience. I know now that the world is not black and white; it’s big shades of gray. And that’s something that only comes with time.”

Still, Kennedy admits that the process for getting her license was certainly “a long haul,” and required both persistence and courage.

“I didn’t ever really think it wouldn’t work out though because I had found the right thing for myself,” she says. “I think if you look inward and find the right thing, whatever that is, then even if you have the fear and the obstacles, you just persevere.”

Kennedy now has her independent practice, her own office and takes pride in “having a little shingle with my name on it.” She has decided to specialize in Eye Movement Desensitization Reprocessing (EMDR), a psychotherapy approach that helps people deal with effects of past trauma. Used in conjunction with traditional talk therapy, “it’s great because you can use it for so many different disorders,” she says. “You can also use it to resource clients. We always want to be not just talking, but giving you something that you can leave here with to carry in to your life.”

Kennedy seems a bit surprised herself by the career she’s finally been able to achieve, which she calls “an almost sacred calling.” She’s also overwhelmingly grateful.

“If you think about it, wow!” she says. “It was such a gift in my life. Here I am at a time where a lot of people are slowing down, and I get to do something that I’ve wanted to do my whole life. “It brings meaning to my life,” she adds. “I can’t believe that I, in the latter part of my life, got to do something that, if I died tomorrow, I will be able to say, ‘I did it and I stand for something.’ And hopefully I’ve helped some folks along the way.”

True to form, Kennedy’s not done with exploring new projects. Though she’s certainly happy with her practice, she also looks forward to writing a book that will focus on adult children of alcoholics and will draw from her own life experiences. The idea of writing an entire book is a bit daunting to Kennedy, but if the past is any indication, she’s sure to approach the project with plenty of persistence, courage and wisdom. To learn more about Karen Kennedy, visit 78704therapy.com.


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