THE IMPERFECT SHOW NOTES
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Heather Zoccali 00:00
And so that next morning, I think my husband asked Connor like, how are you feeling buddy? Which is kind of a silly question right? Like is obviously not going to be something awesome. But he looked up and he said like I got hit by a car. And so that dark humor we just all started laughing doctors are like the whole room did crack that man was like we’re gonna be okay he has his humor if he can laugh right now about this at 16 Nine that your life just seems completely blown up and he could find the humor I was like we’re gonna be all right.
Achim Nowak 00:37
Hey, this is Achim Nowak, executive coach and host of the MY FOURTH ACT podcast. If life is a five act play, how will you spend your FOURTH ACT? I have conversations with exceptional humans who have created bold and unexpected FOURTH ACT. Listen, and to be inspired. And please rate us and subscribe on whatever platform you are listening on. Let’s get started. I am so delighted to welcome Heather’s Zoccali to the MY FOURTH ACT podcast. Heather has been in a family caregiver role nearly her entire life with physical and mental health conditions impacting her family. Heather founded the Arch Foundation in 2017. After becoming a full time caregiver to her eldest son Connor, Connor was injured in a vehicle pedestrian accident while walking to school on March 10 2015, resulting in a catastrophic spinal cord injury. In 2018. Heather founded the caregivers program for No Barriers USA. Her programs mission is to encourage and provide tools for critical and often forgotten self care and foster individual empowerment. Oh, there’s so much we have to talk about and I’m just while I can’t wear to what always strikes me about all life journeys, I’m looking at where I ended. And chances are when you were a young girl growing up, you didn’t think that this is where you would be. So I’m really curious. Because you also have a background in strong background dance. And it’s almost a cliche, will you a young girl who always wanted to dance or where did that all come from?
Heather Zoccali 02:31
When I was little I love dance. I haven’t taken dance and posh probably five years old. Yeah, yeah, dance was always part of my, what I wanted to happen. It kind of altered to high school and things like that for a little bit. For a while I wanted to be a scientist, I wasn’t sure what kind and then that really, it’s always been theater and dance. Those were the two things that I just was like, oh, that’s what I’m going to do. I was always involved in like high school theater and dances, community theater. So yeah, it’s been a huge part of my life. And then my high school theater teacher was a incredible mentor to me, like she helped really me believe in myself and find kind of my joy outside of the family.
Achim Nowak 03:16
I’m always curious, because you know, my first career was in theater. So you know, I also went in parallel direction to yours. And I always think it can create a quandary for parents, because some parents, they said they want to encourage the artistic expression. But there’s the fear of, well, gosh, that’s a very insecure profession, and why doesn’t she want to be a doctor or a psychologist or a lawyer? How did your parents navigate all of that?
Heather Zoccali 03:43
Well, I had a fairly complicated relationship with my parents to begin with. So I would say for the most part, they were okay with it. I think they had realized by that point, they’re like, well, we’re not going to stop her. So we might as well support her mean, but it did come up out. What are you going to do with the theater and dance degree, which I get? At least at that time, I feel like now there’s more avenues for it, possibly, but mid 90s. It wasn’t like that was career that you could look and be like, Oh, I’m gonna get out and make $90,000 with benefits now. But that didn’t happen. So it was an evolution for me to going to school for it at the University of Wyoming. And I was a single mom. And so I didn’t know exactly how that was going to look like is it going to be performance? Probably not. Because when I was young kiddo with me, and so that kind of evolved into using dance as a different tool. But yeah, my parents and my grandparents were I guess we’re supportive of it now. But I look back. No one’s ever asked me that question.
Achim Nowak 04:43
I love the statement you made again as somebody who also pursued the arts. When I was in my early 20s, a notion of 90,000 and benefits, I just couldn’t couldn’t care less like that did not motivate me to do anything. Saying I wasn’t gonna pursue what I wanted to pursue, right?
Heather Zoccali 05:03
Oh, absolutely, yeah. And I think my parents at that point, and like I said, had realized, well, she’s going to do whatever her heart desires and what she feels right. So I might as well just support her. Yeah, that wasn’t even in the I mean, it was a little bit in the wheelhouse cuz I had a son. So obviously, you’re thinking about that. But yeah, money. Money’s never been the driver of what I wanted to do. You don’t work in nonprofits in theater to like, make a lot of money, you’re hoping to, as my husband says, He makes a living and I make a difference. So I like that.
Achim Nowak 05:37
Well, it sounds like that works for both of you. It means you found the right partner for you. Before you get to your son’s accident, which obviously completely changed the trajectory of your family, your life, which you’re committing your time to right now, I’m so struck by the fact that something very drastic happened to his body. Right. And obviously, you were mostly a body worker before, right? If you would just one little two little snapshots, when you think give me a word in your work in dance up to that point, or I noticed there’s some dance education, dance and communities. Just to give us a snapshot, if you had to think of a moment that stands out, we went, This is why I was doing this work. This was amazing. Like, I’m sure you have more than one moment, but one, but also, having done community work in theater, I know how hard it can be. If you also describe a moment of Gosh, this is hard, you know, take us to both extremes, if you would.
Heather Zoccali 06:45
Like I said performance had been performing had been on my mind. And that’s what I wanted to do like Broadway right when you’re 16. That’s where I had like, envisioned myself, but life took me on a different path. When I got to the University of Wyoming, I was in class and I was still on the performance track for dance. But I had a professor because a couple times when Senator felt there was something I brought my son with me to dance class, which was always fun, because everybody’s like, Oh, these dancers would go and leave with them in his arms, you know, so it was this very community family oriented space that I got to bring my son in. And she said, You know, there’s this thing called creative movement. I don’t know if you’d be interested at all. Would you like to try it, I just think you’d be really good at that. That is kind of when I knew what I wanted to do. I went to a preschool and we just danced with the kid we did all these little warm ups. We did the brain, I was learning about the brain dance by anchoring Gilbert. It was in that moment, seeing all these kids just light up because they were being they were given permission to move how they want to naturally right, you want to get up and move you want to you don’t sit still for eight hours in a seat, and just the laughter and the smiles. I was just like, Ah, this feels good. This is what I want to do. I don’t know what it’s gonna look like, I have no idea. But this bringing this joy to kids is, that’s pretty awesome. How do I do that. And so then that evolved into me studying with angry and Gilbert, who was my mentor, and she studied dance for years. And she’s founded, it’s called the brain dance. It’s based on our first eight patterns of movement. And she realized that that was lacking in a lot of kids. She had taught dance, study dance, and then she was teaching school. And then she went back out and started her own Dance School, where she teaches kids to, they make up their choreography, the teachers don’t they turn to the kid and say, you know, let’s, based on this poem, make a movement, praising or whether it’s ABC, or whatever Harry’s mom call it. I went and studied under her. And I just loved that approach to all forms of dance. She did it in ballet shoe and jazz, she did it modern. And it didn’t matter, the dancers ability, everyone was treated the same, and it was beautiful. And so you just saw for me like dance, how it should be. It’s available to everyone. It doesn’t matter your level or ability. It’s there for you. And you can choreograph it too, which is pretty awesome. And then there’s a lot of life skills that go into that. And so working with her, I was like, okay, that’s what I want to do. Outside. Well kind of added to my whole, like, what does dance gonna look like for me in the real world.
Achim Nowak 09:32
Part of my past, which I really don’t think about much, but I spent three years as a creative movement teacher, the Washington DC public school system, that was a school, just outside of Georgetown. It’s just part of DC, called the Fillmore Art Center. And each day a different school would bust their children in for their creative arts education. So I was there. Five mornings and I had the little ones I had the element preschool kids, you’re helping me remember the beauty of that work, you know, and I, what I also heard about you though, the work isn’t about imposing anything, it’s about sort of allowing to come forth what’s within the child, which is so, so beautiful as you were talking. Because your son, you know, encountered this horrible accident, which also limits his ability to express himself in all ways. And to me, it’s especially startling, given what you described about the work that you were doing, would you? Before we talk about caregiving, maybe just give us a snapshot of what happened to your son as a prelude to the work you’re doing now?
Heather Zoccali 10:45
Yeah, and thanks for saying that about the kiddos. Yeah. And I will say on that flip side, you had asked, I’ll just backtrack. What’s the hardest the hardest is working in schools with kids, right.
Thank you for putting that together. I wasn’t gonna impose that on you. But I know that side as well.
Heather Zoccali 11:04
Like, what am I doing?
Achim Nowak 11:08
When you’re suddenly in the middle of chaos.
Heather Zoccali 11:14
I mean, I think a lot of things in my life had led me up to this moment, to be able to prepare with Conor, I do feel my work with the body gave me a different perspective. And then now I can look at things with Connor. And I think it gave me a different mindset after he got hurt. So I’ll just preface it with that there was a lot leading up to this, that prepared me or to be able to handle this situation. And so on March 10 2015, started out like any typical kind of high school, parent morning, at that point, I was talking to Connor and me and we’re having a fight. It was about like, not living up to your potential, I think you can, you know, kind of that typical, which I realize now is, was so not important in the whole big scheme of things. But I didn’t know that at that moment. He left the house. And normally if we were kind of arguing at that time, I would say I love you make good choices. Those words didn’t get out of my mouth that day, he left the house and slammed the door and I wasn’t able to say I love you make good choices. And I had had a really bad headache that morning, like a migraine I had suffered from migraines, chose to lay down and was just like, oh, at this headache, I want to just get this better before this afternoon. And then as I was laying down, probably five minutes later, there were these sirens like, you could just hear something really bad happened. I heard all these sirens. In my mind, I was like, Oh my gosh, I hope whoever that is, is okay. Lay down. And then probably five minutes after that my husband comes screeching in the house like with that you could hear the car might and driveway and opens the door and he’s like, Heather, weren’t you answering your phone? And I was like, Oh, I turned it off. I got this headache. I just wanted to lay down what’s going on? And he’s like Connors been an accident. At that second. It hit me like, Oh my God, those sirens were of my fun. Oh my god. Okay, so then I was like, Alright, what do we need to do? Where is he? And he’s like, Well, they won’t tell me anything over the phone. But we got to get down to medical center of the Rockies, which is about 20 minutes from our house. So I called the hospital. And again, they don’t tell you much over the phone. It was like you need to get here your son’s in critical condition. And that’s all we can tell you. So whole way down. I’m just talking and I have been in every scenario is going through my head like oh my god, what is it easy, like dying? What’s my critical condition? I turned to my husband and I was like, please don’t let I hope this isn’t like what how we left it this morning can’t be how we leaving forever. I have to be able to see him and say I’m sorry, I can’t believe we’re fighting over like silly stuff this morning. And so we get there care coordinator meets you and takes you in I call it the room and doom because nothing good ever comes out of that I had been in that with my father after he had a stroke. When I was really young. That was nine. And then I had been brought in that when I had dealt with a bunch of health issues. So I was very familiar with that room. And when they bring you in there, nothing. Nothing good ever comes to that conversation. And so I go in and I had noticed a police officer in the corner, which didn’t really strike. I was just like, Okay, I’m not sure why cops here and then there was the ER doctor. You said, Look, right now he cannot feel I move his legs and we don’t see that changing. And so we’ve got to get him into emergency surgery. What do you want to do? And I was like, Oh, I mean, yes. Let’s get him into surgery. I’d like to see him though before we do that. He said, Yeah, we can do that. And so he said before we go I just wanted to tell you some Hey, I wanted to tell you, you have a really amazing kid. And I just started bawling. I was like, I know I need to see him I was so like, we fought this morning. And that’s just hanging over me. I just have to see my son. And he said, since people that found him, and I didn’t know at this point, it was a hit and run. So it was kind of like, Wait found him or was kind of like, okay. People that found him from the police officers, the firemen, the EMT, you name it, Connor has only been asking you about you. He hasn’t asked about his pain. He hasn’t asked why his legs aren’t moving. He’s been just on like, kind of rerun. Have you found my mom? Have you told her I’m so sorry, I’m gonna be a better son. I’m so sorry for this morning. And I was like, Oh, I’ve been doing the same thing. Please let me please let me see my kiddo. And then on the way out, the officer goes, Hey, I know. We don’t have to talk about a lot. But just so you know, it was a hit and run. And I was like, Oh, wow, okay, there’s some more information then I’m totally not prepared to even deal with emotionally. Now I said, Thank you. I’ll talk to you. I can’t have to shelve that right now. I have to just see my son. I finally get to see him. And they walk me into this room, nurses, doctors, wires, every kind of like what you see in movies or TV and Connor. He was he’s my SpongeBob he always had a smile. He was laughing just because this light is this light hearted kiddo. I see him and he has these big blue eyes and tears just start streaming down his face. And I was like Connor, I’m like, I’m so like, I just want to hug you. And he’s like, Mom, I’m so sorry. I was such a jerk this morning. And I said, don’t worry about it. I was we were not our best this morning. Meaning we’re not like, we gotta let that go. You’re here with me. We’re in the present. And I just want you to know, I know, life’s gonna look different right now. But I can promise you, we’re gonna get out there and do everything we did before just in a different way. How we’re going to do that? I don’t know, is it going to be hard? Yes, it’s going to be super hard. But we’re going to figure it out. I just need you to get through this surgery, and I’ll see you on the other side. And then he said, Mom, can you fix my legs. And I was like, and up to that point. I had failed epically as a mom, I had failed on every single level. I didn’t say I love you. I wasn’t paying, I was a patient. I couldn’t protect him. And now I couldn’t fix him. So for me, when he asked that, I was just like, Oh, my God, I have failed on you today completely. And I said, I can’t picture the eggs. And we’re pretty open, honest family. And so I said, I can’t fix your legs. But I do promise to be beside you, in front of you to try to make this as easy as possible. And I said, Look, I just again, get through this, and I’ll see you after you’re done. And so we got through the surgery. I mean, it was effective in that. You know, they saved his life. They stabilized everything. But he wasn’t he is a teacher of paraplegic. And so that next morning, I think my husband asked Connor like, how are you feeling buddy? Which is kind of a silly question, right? Like, it’s obviously not going to be fun, awesome. But he looked up and he said, like, I got hit by a car. And so that dark humor, we just all started laughing. Or like, the whole room did crack that man was like, we’re gonna be okay, he has his humor. And he can laugh right now about this at 16. Knowing that your life just seems completely blown up and he could find the humor. I was like, we’re going to be all right. And I said it’s going to be easier. Any of that that was the day it all happen. When I look back on that day, obviously you can’t change the past, only how you react to it. And I think in a way, I can look back now I always say things are brutally beautiful. It was obviously that’s one of the most brutal things as a parent, you can watch a kid go through, but it was beautiful. And the fact that I was able to say I’m sorry to him, we were able to connect, I didn’t want to lose him that day. And all the beautiful things that have come out of it. And so when I look back at that day, if there’s one like phrase I can say it was a brutally beautiful moment in our lives.
Achim Nowak 19:32
Word from your sponsor. That’s me. I invite you to go to the website associated with this podcast www.my Fourth active.com You will find other equally inspiring conversation with great humans. And you will also learn more about the my fourth act mastermind groups where cool people figure out how to chart their own fourth acts. Please check it out. And now back To the compensation thank you for sharing that story. Before we go to your journey and outter after what happened, I just wonder how is Connor today? Can you just give us a snapshot because this is I am looking at this week this is like their what the seven year anniversary of it happening is this week as we’re recording. This is seven years later how was gone?
Heather Zoccali 20:31
He is good. He’s 23, which is crazy. I’m like, Oh, I’m 23 year old. COVID was hard on him just like everybody else. He and I think we know people living with disabilities, that isolation just made their normal isolation pretty amplified it. So he moves back in with us, which I love. I know he can find it frustrating. Well, he actually started a kind of a blog and a travel thing where he gets his words, I always preface this, I tell people, it’s his life, his experience. And these are his words. So it’s not meant to offend anyone. But he calls it the wandering cripple. You have a sense of humor. He goes and travels and shows what it’s like to be in a wheelchair. This is how life is for me. And these are the things you can do to help support people in chairs. And so he’s doing that. And then he’s also working part time at Lowe’s right now just to have a job and as on spending money. And he boxes and does paired jiu jitsu handcycling is about to start right now. Because once we’re in Colorado, so once the snow melts, he’s going to start back to biking. And he really in how you talked about the body the crazy thing to watch him he wasn’t super athletic beforehand. Before the accident, he was in the skateboarding but he wasn’t really like a team sports. And he did dance with me, but it wasn’t. Yeah, just I didn’t feel like his whole body was integrated and moved. Like as you see I integrated kiddo move. But after the accident, it’s been so fascinating to watch him. His he’s still athletic now. And so I’m always watching him and be like, Man, how did like what happened in the body just take over different ways. But he plays basketball. He does boxing and jiu jitsu he rides horses and all this stuff that was so opposite of his body, how he was before. Now so for me, it’s like working with the body has been super fascinating for me to watch. And just if even as coordination, all that stuff is totally opposite of the Conner Creek accident. Anyways, that was just a side body note that I’ve watched. That’s been I appreciate
Achim Nowak 22:51
that, that perspective. And it actually totally makes sense to me. So when you were describing what happened, and I know you I’ve heard you speak about forgiveness and forgiveness really important. And I was listening to you and I was going Gosh, given the fact that you two had a fight, this must have been just hard for you about your relationship to being a mother and how you showed up as a mother that day. Would you talk a little about forgiveness and maybe in general, but also how will you have forgiving yourself and making the assumption that you have if I’m wrong, correct me but
Heather Zoccali 23:37
no, yeah. That was a hard day. Forgiveness has been. It has been the one kind of consistent throughout my life, like as far as lessons learned. Growing up, I had a pretty tumultuous upbringing. Like I had said, My father had a stroke and Ms. And so he was partially paralyzed. I had a mother who had severe mental health disorders. And it was pretty hard growing up with her. And then I had a brother who again my younger brother who had severe mental health issues, so I had a lot my upbringing was not you know, all rosy for a while I had a Core i was able to find love and it was stable and then after dad’s stroke, it just kind of all fell apart. For me forgiveness started there when I was 18 Moving out and then I had an older brother just stop it off older brother who had addiction issues and then also sexually abused me for years. When I left at 18 I had to really a forgive myself knowing that it wasn’t my job to make the family work and for the longest time I thought that that like I don’t know Peacemaker I had why it didn’t work and this is because of me. I mean really, um my stuff that then let my family on theirs be Okay, I knew they were toxic for me and I had to let that go. So forgiving myself, like being like, this is okay, this is what I need. And it’s not a bad thing, not feeling guilty about it. And forgiving my mom for all the stuff that we went through. And I hadn’t quite reached forgiveness with my older brother yet. But that’s to come back forgiveness started, like I said, probably 18 was kind of my first aha moment of like, wow, that I need to forgive myself. That wasn’t all my fault and what was on it and go through it. And then do my divorce, again, wasn’t at my best at lot, none of my best moments. where I’ve had to really sit and be like, kind of reframe myself talk and tell myself, it’s okay. I’m human. This is part of it. And if I, I tend to, like, fail, epically. And that’s where I learned the most that we have to pick yourself back up. And then a year before Connors accident, my older brother reached out to me and he said, Hey, I just wanted to say, I’m really sorry, can we ever meet and talk, and it took me a while to get there. This is my older brother who abused me for years. But I did not done the work. And I was like I hadn’t I saw my family hang on to bitterness and anger. I saw how it does warped them in their worldview and all that. And I know I didn’t know. I mean, I knew I didn’t want that. I got to the point where I was like, Yeah, Brian, I’d love to meet. When I talk about forgiveness. Sometimes people are like, well, I don’t want to forget. And I’m like, I’m not It’s not forgetting or condoning. It’s forgiveness. A always for me. It starts with myself forgiving. It’s a kind of a selfish journey is what I call it. I hate for that selfish, but it’s a self compassion journey, right? You’re giving to yourself, so you can move on and feed your soul and let go of the icky stuff. So good stuff can come in. For me. That’s what forgiveness means. And so I forgave my brother again, you don’t condone their actions or any of that. But then a year later, he died in a freak car accident. And so that moment, that release I had with him followed by his death, I was like, Wow, I wonder if I hadn’t taken that moment what happened or not happened? That’s when forgiveness really became I was like, Okay, I’ve got to work on. That’s a pretty big release and a pretty amazing moment to have. And so when it came to Connor, it was forgiveness of self. I had to forgive myself for that day. And then I hadn’t so many people had reached out and like, how can you not be angry? How could you not want to like, hurt the man that hurt your son? And I was like, Hey, I don’t have time for that. There’s so much going on in my life right now. And I want to model what Connor how he can get through this. If I’m angry, I’m bitter. I just want to have revenge. What am I teaching my son, that’s not what I want him. You know, I grew up with that. I don’t want that. Throughout this whole, that whole journey I had written I wanted two lives to become better instead of worse, meaning Connors life and the gentleman that hit because the gentleman that hit him had a record out a lot of stuff. And I did really mean that. So I worked with restorative justice. Restorative justice helps you meet with the person that hurt you or your family member. And so it was a like about a year process that I worked with them that I wanted to meet the gentleman and let him know that I forgave him, that that it was also a dual thing. It was me being okay forgiving myself completely that day. So I knew I was going in to forgive myself because I, again, wasn’t my best that day, and forgive him. And so when we met, it was just this massive release. Like, I just felt like the weight of the world go off. And I was able to forgive myself, because I asked the gentleman that was like, Look, I forgive you, and I want you to be better be better than that day you lost my son on the side of the road, I’m going to be better because that wasn’t my best that day, kind of we’re both better. Like, how amazing what the ripple effects be. We don’t know what that’s gonna be like a little corner of the world. And we’re both trying to be better. Like, that would be the best outcome for me. That day. I forgave myself and I forgave the gentleman and it just released all that stuff for me to figure out what was next. Forgive. Yeah. And then just in 2020 Forgiveness came along again. I was back home. I had been estranged from my family for 15 years. My brother asked me to come home, my younger brother, Mom and Dad weren’t good. I said, Okay, I’ll come home instead of resources. I get there. And I could tell within five minutes my mom had severe cognitive issues, but went on. And then my dad wasn’t doing very well at all. A couple of days after I got there, and my father chose to end his life he committed suicide it was when I was there, I’ll just leave it at that. So I was struck again with man, here’s forgiveness, and I had hadn’t been super patient with my dad. So it was forgiveness of spells and forgiveness of him again, like, it was just like, Oh, my God, what? Like, am I a serial killer my past life? Or what? Because this stuff just like keeps coming back? Make a big time for that. Yeah, I find myself always, for me, at least. I mean, other people might take other lessons, but it’s always forgiveness. And it’s a beautiful, hard, messy, it’s not easy. Yeah. It’s a fluid, right? You don’t just have to decide one day, oh, I’m gonna forgive myself. Now. It takes a lot of work. And it’s easier to stay bitter and angry. I think if you wanted,
Achim Nowak 30:59
I am very familiar with and love the word restorative justice. Just want to make sure that we’re very clear. And then that the understands if I heard you correctly, you because I was thinking, you met with a person that hit your son and ran away? Did they get that correctly? Yes. How did you find that person?
Heather Zoccali 31:22
They he ended up being caught because Fort Collins is like 150,000. And I was big news, right? We were all over the news. And they were saying, here’s the car. And then there was a liquor store. And they were able to tie him like, that was the car. And so he did get arrested. We had to go through a whole trial. Honestly, out of everything, that trial was the hardest and hardest for Connor. Because the gentleman didn’t the judge decided it wasn’t it was just an accident. Like, like he gave him 30 days in jail. I think he was sentenced to 68 and got 30. And so that was a moment where I looked at Connor and I mean, here’s a 16 year old kid, right? Or at that time, 17. And he was being told by a judge, what happened to you is no kind of no big deal. And this guy is gonna get there. You know, it’s like, you’ve got to choose right now, we can’t control that. But you can control how you react right now. So after that restorative justice reached out and they work with you and the person that hurt you or your family member, and it’s a it’s a beautiful process. What they do is incredible,
Achim Nowak 32:25
incredible, incredible work. So you’ve described beautifully once, it’s your pretty intense, private journey, and I’m just listening to God, there’s a lot of forgiveness that you had to do. So I just salute you as I’m listening to you. But you went a step further, because you also became the caregiver to Connor. And you found an organization the Arch Foundation and now you have you also had the caregivers program at No Barriers USA, would you just give us a brief snapshot of Arch Foundation and also no barriers, which is an extraordinary organization, just for informative purposes. So our listeners know what these two organizations are and who they serve.
Heather Zoccali 33:13
Yeah. As I became a full time caregiver with Connor, I quit my dance stuff. You know, it’s pretty obvious I wasn’t going to be able to do that right. Having to care for him. As I was doing that we rehab at Craig Hospital down in Denver. It’s one of the top spinal cord and brain injury rehabs. It was there that I known as caregivers, family caregivers, not formal but when you’re thrust into a situation, or you have to care for somebody. I just saw the life being sucked out of them. I saw them not showering, not taking a moment for themselves. And so that struck me like probably first week I was in the hospital because I got up early walked and got my chair. I was like if any I have to, like I You want me to be nice. I need those two things, a walk in a tie in the morning. And I kept that up and I realized how what it was doing for me and I saw these other people not thinking that they were worth it or that their grief and trauma and last was just as valid as their loved ones. I remember asking a group of ladies to go have a drink after our loved ones were like in their beds because you stay in a different wing of the hospital or different building. They were like wait, can we do that? And I was like, wow, okay, yes, we are you are allowed to be your own person right now. Like your whole identity hasn’t just collapsed. And so out of that I realized I wanted to do something for caregivers outside of their caregiver role. Like yes, I was being taught to caregiver for him. But to be the best caregiver I can be I need to feed myself I need to make sure I’m taken care of. And so that’s where the Art Foundation came out of it was to support caregivers outside of their caregiver role. Let them know to deal with their grief, or trauma or loss, find their joy again, find dreams and visions outside of that role. I went to crag and we had dinners and we had like to kind of sit, we had support groups. And then we started retreats, where the caregivers would come without their loved one. And it was just time and space for them. It was dedicated to them, which is super awkward for a lot of caregivers, because they don’t know, again, give themselves permission, they don’t think they’re worthy of that. So that’s how the Arch Foundation came in. We did we use No Barriers campus, for our retreats, and no barriers was created. 15 years ago, its founder Eric wine, Mayer was the first blind man to climb Everest. And when he was at the top of Everest, his guide told him don’t let Everest be the best thing you’ve ever done. That stuck with Eric, and he came back and created no barriers. Their mission is what’s within you is stronger than what’s within your way. And so no barrier serves now family caregivers, people living with disabilities in their communities, had had martinis with some people from barriers. And I was like, Hey, we’ve been with you guys for a while now. I just coming to your events, and you have lots of caregivers and you’re not taking care of them. Why don’t you bring me on to do that? half joking. And then so I got a call and they’re like, Hey, we thought about that we’re going to bring you on. So they called my bluff. It’ll be through three years, in October, that we work with caregivers, we have an online community, we still have the retreats, four days, three nights, where again, they come it’s just for them work on grief challenge to build community because isolation is a big thing in the caregiving world. You know,
Achim Nowak 36:41
there’s, I’m thinking about our audience, because the fourth act is about the choices we make later in life. And for so many folks like my age, and I’m 66. Now, most of my friends are 50s and 60s, they’re all caregivers in some form or other for their aging parents, right? And you know, it’s coming. But it’s you know, my circle is full of stories of people who change jobs change where they live, to be a good son and good daughter and take care of their parents. So based on what you’ve learned with, with your son, the Arch Foundation, what you do and no barriers, what would you say to our listeners who just the natural cycle of life has suddenly made them to be caregivers like what would you like to say to them? From your based on your experience?
Heather Zoccali 37:32
Yeah, I first would like to say that I see you and I hear you and I see you we put the spotlight on the people we care for him we’re kind of in the theater, right, I think of us is kind of where the crew were making where the lights were making it all happen. I see you and hear you there’s 53 million plus caregivers in United States family caregivers. I know often we feel alone in our journeys, you’re not alone. Because there are there is a group here you are worth, you’re worth giving yourself permission to take care of yourself. It’s not selfish, it’s not. You aren’t not deserving you deserve that. And you can also have a role, but you can also be a person outside of the caregiving role, because caregiving does tend to suck the life out of you. And if you don’t get back to yourself and refill your cup, it’s will break you. You don’t want that right to be the best caregiver for your loved one. Start having some self compassion for yourself and treat yourself like you would a friend if somebody came to you and was like, Okay, but what I do for that friend, I needed to do that for myself. And so I see I hear Yeah, give yourself permission to take care of yourself, and know you’re not alone. All your feelings and your grief and loss is just as valid as your loved ones.
Achim Nowak 38:51
This was like an obvious question, but this is where my mind is going. So how does Heather take care of herself
as somebody who’s been a mega caretaker.
Achim Nowak 39:01
And then I want to preface my understanding is that how we take care of ourselves is very personal. So there’s nothing prescriptive. It’s not like we’re not asking you to give a recipe for others but what does taking care of yourself look like for you right now?
Heather Zoccali 39:16
Oh, first thank you for saying that. I would never tell anybody how that like it’s so personal and we all have our different ways that feed our soul. For me nature has been nature is most beautiful caregiver. To me too weak no matter how we treat around we abuser, you can go out she’ll take all your butt and give you just fill you back up. And so nature anytime I can go out and hike or be at the beach or whatever nature is my biggest respite to myself. And then I’ve learned to just take even moments throughout the day if a meeting gets canceled or we get off early and I have 15 minutes instead of like sitting on my computer trying to get stuff done or clean up the dishes. I’m like, You know what, I’m gonna Have a cup of tea and just sit here. Because right now, that’s good for me. I don’t have to always be on. And then I make appointments with myself weekly to wear whatever that looks like. Yeah, I’m pretty big at setting boundaries to boundaries have saved my life literally over and over again. I guess for me is that like that self compassion part giving myself a break be unkind reframing, I have that inner talk, and then making time for myself because I know that I’m, I’m worth that.
Achim Nowak 40:30
That’s wonderful wisdom. And it just requires us remembering to do it right, and to give ourselves the time and the space. I have, honestly, I realize, gosh, life has given you lots of lots of life lessons, right? And it’s never about rewriting the journey, because the journey was the journey for you in this lifetime. Right? But based on what you know, now, if you could whisper in the ears of young Heather and say, give her words of wisdom, like you’re the fairy godmother, you know, what would you want to say to young Heather that just might prepare her for the future?
Heather Zoccali 41:13
I think I’d like to take that and make it present. Because like in the past, it’s a pass. And I think just whispering to myself every day like, you got this, it’s not that it’s going to be easy. It’s not that it’s going to be hard. Just trust in yourself. And know, know that you have it. You know, I think just sometimes we forget that. And we feel like we have to have all the answers, we have to do all these things, right? It’s okay to fail. And just like you got it, because it has been a lot. I think sometimes I haven’t always believed that I was doing the right thing.
Achim Nowak 41:51
As you look to your own future, what would make your life sweeter richer are the things you want to do more of or less of, in the spirit of creating something that touches your soul going forward, what comes to mind,
Heather Zoccali 42:10
oh, my goodness, so many things. I want to build this program to where I can leave it and it runs without me. And it’s funding and all that is there. And then once that’s done, I’m working on a book with my best friend, and we’re working on our podcast, and I would love to continue to travel and learn and grow fine. You know, I’d love disaster aid work with the Red Cross. And so I’d love to continue that in the future. And it was silly, but I can’t wait to get grandma like I’m so excited. And like take my grandbabies all over the world and have fun and go flip chips. And I just life is so short and it can change in an instant. And it has with me over and over. I just want to soak up as much life as I can and never stopped being curious. I think anything that feeds to that completely open to
Achim Nowak 43:07
you. Thank you so much for all of your insights today, I can’t imagine that some of our listeners won’t be curious about all the things you do and know where to learn more. So if you Where would you direct them? Like where should they go to learn more about the work you do?
Heather Zoccali 43:24
I think right now the best place is to go to nobarriesusa.org and then there’s a caregiving tab, our website is changing, like in a month, so it’ll be completely different. But if you go there now and there’s a caregiving tab, and that has all things, caregiving, you can get a hold of me that way. So that’s easiest.
Achim Nowak 43:46
Awesome, no barriers usa.org And you’re saying the caregivers have just continued to do this amazing work you do. And I salute you for wanting to be a grandmother. That’s cool.
Heather Zoccali 44:01
Well, thanks and thanks for having me on. And it was fun to chat. Just thanks for having me on and listening. I appreciate that.
Achim Nowak 44:09
My pleasure. Bye bye. Like what you heard, please go to my fourth act.com And subscribe to receive my updates on upcoming episodes. Please also subscribe to us on the platform of your choice. Rate us give us a review and let us all create some magical fourth acts together. Ciao