Updated: Jan 14, 2019
Photo credits: Amy Free
First generation American?
I am from a small town off the coast of Connecticut. Both of my parents are European immigrants, and I was raised with an intense appreciation for my Danish and Irish heritage. I have a deep love for New England and where I am from, but I am grateful to currently call North Carolina home.
How did your childhood shape your future?
My childhood has most definitely been the biggest influencer on who I am and what I am doing today. I grew up with an innate love of nature and animals. An introvert to my core, childhood freedom often found me exploring the trails near my home, creating original “paintings” from found mud, and exploring tide pools at the beach, full of little sea creatures. There was never a time in my life without family dogs, and my mother's passion for horses ignited my own equestrian career.
I grew up knowing of and watching multiple generations within my family earn a living by designing, creating or cultivating beautifully-crafted things; which further supported my desire to pursue a fine art direction in college. But perhaps most importantly, I grew up watching my parents set a strong example within their communities of giving back and serving others. As I look back, my creative course through life combined with my love of animals and nature has taught me how to have better relationships with people – a concept that is at the core of what I am doing today in my nonprofit career.
What is your “Jack-of-all-trades” approach to learning?
I attended the School of Fine Arts at the University of Connecticut, where I earned a degree in design and photography, and a minor in creative writing. A perpetual learner, I “attend” a lot of webinar conferences and online courses. I have navigated the equine-assisted therapy field to the point of earning my certification both as a Therapeutic Riding Instructor, and an Equine Specialist in Mental Health and Learning, among other credentials. A “Jack-of-all-trades” approach to learning has given me a wide range of skills, most that complement one another. But I also feel strongly about working alongside those who know much more than I do, as there is an infinite amount of knowledge available to us through the unique experience of others, if we are open to it. I know I become a better version of myself with each new person I have the opportunity to work alongside, or be inspired by.
What are some of the hats you wear?
The founder and acting executive director of our nonprofit. A catalyst for the Discovery Trail project. A designer. A photographer. A small business owner. Three semesters as an adjunct professor. A riding instructor and equine specialist in mental health. And maybe a few other things...mine has been a natural path for an “artist” to take – collecting every job opportunity you can to build a portfolio, work for other people, freelance, get creative on how to pay the bills, figure out a way to make your passion your work (in some fashion), and be okay with not climbing the ladder, unless it's one you build yourself. A little bit of luck, the right community, a willingness to create something from the ground up and a desire to give back in a bigger way, landed me here.
What do you love about wearing many hats, careerwise and personally?
The most unique thing about my career right now is that it truly is a combination of all of the different hats I have tried on for size to date; a blend of all of the areas I have interest in, or have learned about. It allows me to be both outside in nature, and in front of my computer; to work independently, and as part of a team; to teach others and to learn. I use my design, photography and writing “degree skills” every day as I work in growing our nonprofit organization, which is focused on helping people grow and heal through a relationship with horses, a lifelong passion of mine. Answering the question “what do you do for a living” is the hardest and easiest question to answer – it's both “a million different things that would take another hour to explain,” and simply, “exactly what I want to be doing.”
What is your dream career?
This one. #grateful
How do you handle always wanting to do more?
The desire to do more, do better, and make a bigger impact is a feeling that I know is not unique to me. However, the personal challenge itself lies in letting go of when things are out of my control, or I am unable to help someone. As an organization, we might run out of time, or money, or resources to add another program or serve another group of people...or even just one individual. We come across stories that make your stomach churn and your heart ache, and you just hope that someday in the future, you've made a little bit of difference in the life of someone else. It is hard not to “take it home” with you each day, but it is also the feeling that keeps you going.
What motivates you?
The same thing(s) that challenge me, also motivate me – the desire to do more, do better and make a bigger impact.
How did "at-risk" youth pull on your heart and lead you in a direction?
As a sophomore in high school, I started volunteering with a program that paired teens in the juvenile detention center with horses – rough, challenged kids who had done or seen things that I just knew of from the media. But when the world of horses that I was familiar with was shared with them, something changed – both in them, and in me. As a result of that experience, I often find that my philanthropic heart lies with youth who are identified “at-risk” – socially, emotionally or physically. I am passionate about human-centric charities and animal rescue; helping those who others leave behind. I am involved with several nonprofits focused on education and conservation; and I am passionate about connecting people with nature (and animals) as a way to re-center or heal.
Any mentors? Who inspires you?
I consider my “mentors” the people I work alongside every day; and the people and animals that I work hard for. They inspire me with their vulnerability, authenticity, resilience, and humor. Over the years, I have had the opportunity for several individuals to take a chance on me, coach me, and provide the tools I need to try (and sometimes fail) as I pursue many projects. And while they are my mentors in a more traditional sense, I feel as though so many people I have met along the way have taught me something truly valuable, even if it's seems “tiny” on the scale of things.
If you could change anything in the world, what would you change?
Stigma, especially as it relates to mental health. Those who are working towards positive change in their life or that of others, or taking a risk to stand up for what they believe, should not have to carry around society-applied marks of shame. They should be celebrated (and supported) for digging deep and working on themselves; or for sharing the most intimate details about what they are going through. Sometimes unknowingly, stigma defines how we react to others …“oh, she's going to therapy, something must be wrong with her.” Or, “Did you hear about so-and-so? I heard he's gone crazy.” Stigma prevents us from helping others based on what we think they are dealing with, when we are only privy to a fraction of their situation. Help for what challenges us in life – mentally, physically or socially – should be readily available without hesitation or worry. Those who are struggling should be able to express publicly that they are proud of taking steps to make changes for themselves, without the fear of judgement or discrimination. And we should all take an extra moment to get to know someone and understand what they may be going through, so that we don't add negativity to their experience; as it is highly likely that we all have gone through, or will go through, something similar ourselves. If we can support each other more, and recognize what others are feeling, perhaps we can all work together on positively affecting the other things in our world that desperately need our collective attention.
Catch up with Erica!