Huff/Post 50 recently asked readers to submit nominations of people who've reinvented themselves for the better after age 50 as part of an initiative launched with the TODAY show called "50 Over 50." We were overwhelmed with submissions. Every day this week we rolled out 10 more nominees. Today, in our final look at 50 inspiring people over 50, we focus on those "Giving Back."
A devastating tragedy nearly 15 years ago brought change to Kenneth Barnes’
life in a way he never imagined. In 2001, when Barnes was 56, his son -- Kenneth Barnes Jr., 37 -- was murdered by a juvenile, group home delinquent. At the time of his son’s death, Barnes was working towards a doctorate in psychology, interested in cognitive and behavioral issues. Through the loss, Barnes realized something needed to be done about violence, particularly in the African-American community.
In 2002, Barnes formed Reaching Out To Others Together (ROOT),
a non-profit, to work to reduce gun violence and juvenile violence, at a local and national level. “We are seeing some of the most violent young people in the history of the United States,” Barnes said. “What is causing this? The acronym means, let’s get to the root of the problem.”
Over a decade later, Barnes is still going strong, advocating for an end to gun violence, bringing communities together, and working with at-risk youth who need guidance. On a national level, his efforts have also led to the introduction of gun bills in Congress.
“The whole direction of my life has been changed,” Barnes said. “I feel fulfilled that I am a voice for a lot of people that don’t have a voice ... To educate, innovate, and support victims of violence.”
In 1998, at age 54, Jose-Pablo Fernandez and his wife moved with their three children from Mexico City to Houston. It was a life-changing decision that involved many risks because, to get a permanent residency, they needed to invest in a small business. Everything was foreign to them, but they liquidated all their assets and started the new business. "We soon proved the statistic that 98 percent of businesses fail within two years,” he said.
He wound up as the executive director of the Mexican Cultural Institute, a branch of Houston’s Mexican Consulate. “It was really boring -- all formalities and bureaucracy, and I felt that I was wasting my time,” he noted. He convinced the Ministry of Foreign Relations in Mexico to spin the Institute out of the Consulate and launch it as an independent nonprofit. Then he gave it a new focus: educating Hispanics. He brought in a program to teach computer technology in Spanish to low-income Hispanics. The first class had just 12 people. But, when he left the Institute in 2007, it had served 8,700 students, mostly parents.
At age 63, Fernandez founded Parents’ Alliance,
a nonprofit that provides digital learning, financial literacy, and leadership workshops to low-income Hispanics. In 2011, it was named by Mexico Initiative -- the largest funding agency in Mexico -- as the best organization helping Hispanic immigrants in the U.S.
He is now negotiating with the San Antonio-based Association of Mexican Entrepreneurs to incorporate Parents’ Alliance into its education unit for all the Hispanics it serves in its 20+ chapters. He turns 70 in November and says that he is now “in the most exciting part of my career, impacting the lives of tens of thousands of Hispanics who have moved, like us, to this great country. At age 80, I might consider a rest period.”
"Helping to provide educational opportunities -– even small ones -– to low-income parents simply makes my day," he said. "There's tremendous satisfaction in seeing someone experience the empowerment that comes with learning, and watching the ripple effect stream out as they start encouraging their kids in school."
At the age of 50, Tracey Friley left a six-figure sales job after recovering from a major illness. "I wanted to be of service in a way that mattered, and in a way that came from the heart," she said. "I had been thinking about it for years. Empowering kids (and now adults) through travel, and teaching them to travel with heart, was it. And here I stand."
In late 2011, Friley founded The Passport Party Project,
a grassroots initiative that gifts underserved American girls ages 11 to 15 with their very first passports. The aim is to provide international travel experiences with an eye towards helping create responsive and responsible global citizens. Friley said she simply married her two loves -- travel and kids -- and used her well-established social media presence to get the word out.
Friley's been so successful -- organizing a debut international journey to Belize for six young travelers -- she was named a 2013-2014 National Geographic Traveler of the Year.
She said: "I've always been THAT girl: the one who just walks past fear and stays true to herself at all costs."
It all started with a white fluffy poodle named Coco the Love Dog. Nineteen years ago, when Sue Grundfest was recovering from a life-threatening illness, Coco entered her life and everything changed. The fact that she had to care for this special puppy while she herself was healing gave her the motivation and determination to get well, Grundfest said. And in the process, an animal-assisted therapy team was born.
Grundfest, who for decades was an Estée Lauder Companies’ vice president, retired when she was in her 50s. She and Coco -- by then a senior dog that was blind, deaf and insulin-dependent -- launched Love Dog Adventures,
a Pet Partner Affiliate therapy program, the first in Nevada. Grundfest became a licensed instructor and evaluator for Pet Partners and developed her own team of therapy animals.
She and her animals work with children on the autism spectrum, children living with emotional trauma, stroke patients, children and adults experiencing great struggles in their lives. She created an anti-bully program Be Cool, Not Cruel that teaches tolerance and kindness, all through the eyes of the dogs (and cats!).
“I’ve gone from being a corporate executive to a professional dog trainer and volunteer program founder. I can’t imagine more of a shift in one’s life than that but it is what shaped me and is why I survived all those years ago. From adversity I found peace and my true calling,” she said. “I have devoted this part of my life to improving lives at both ends of the leash.”
Gary Hollander spent three decades working as a public school teacher, school psychologist, and public health researcher. The turning point for him came in 2001 as he experienced the challenges of being a gay man at a time when the myriad health disparities facing LGBT people were becoming visible. He realized that health care and community structures “pathologized” LGBT people. He decided to work to change the social determinants that impact health -– not only for himself, but for all LGBT people. He formed Diverse & Resilient, Inc.
as his encore career when he was 54. For the past 12 years, Hollander has worked to address health disparities faced by LGBT people including HIV, alcohol and tobacco use, mental health, suicide, and intimate partner violence. His work reaches thousands of LGBT people each year and his organization is considered a statewide leader in the field.
“Since I am a pretty motivated guy already, any job can give me the satisfaction of achieving short-term goals," he said. "But only very specific work brings me the joy of making a real difference. I decided to go for joy.”
For 31 years, Suzanne Malloy gave her all to a career in law enforcement, serving as a police sergeant the last 22 years. The constantly changing shifts and stress of the job ultimately contributed to divorce and single parenthood. Her turning point came in 1998, when she was the first responder in a case in which a young man lost his life.
"As the patient was being transported to the hospital, a large group of his distraught friends had decided to go to the hospital to provide him support," she said. "Realizing that the young man would not be revived, I feared the friends would scatter and receive no consolation for the trauma they had experienced.
"When I suggested the friends join in a circle to send up prayers or healing energy, every one of them joined hands," she said. "I found myself part of the circle, and they all looked to me to begin the prayer. Having no experience with public prayer, I simply trusted that the words would come, and prayed on behalf of the patient and his friends."
When she was in the midst of the circle, she knew unequivocally that God was calling her. Later, during her shift, her partner told her, "Suzanne, you missed your calling. You should have been a minister." Within a month, she had enrolled in seminary, and never looked back.
After obtaining a Master of Divinity degree, Malloy retired from law enforcement and, at the age of 54, was ordained into the ministry to become an on-call hospital chaplain. Her on-call status gives her time to also provide emotional support and spiritual care throughout the nation as a member of the National Response Team of Presbyterian Disaster Assistance. She said her 31 years in law enforcement was simply extended training for a second career that allows her to give back to a nation -- and a world -- that is all about resilience.
"Fifty, for me, was a milestone of hope and anticipation for new life," she said. "With it comes a dream that my son will some day understand that retirement in itself is not an ultimate goal, but the means to a lasting legacy of adventure and right action."
At 62, Vietnam War veteran Ed Nicholson found himself fighting a different kind of battle after he was diagnosed with prostate cancer. Nicholson's life changed while he was being treated at Walter Reed Medical Center alongside other veterans, who were dealing with both physical and psychological injuries.
“When you’re in a hospital and you see a young man in his early twenties, with no legs, sitting in a wheelchair, with a baby in his arms and his wife is pushing him down the hallway,” Nicholson said. "That just grabs you. And that’s when I realized I wanted to do something.”
The former Navy captain thought the injured soldiers could benefit from diverting excursions, away from the confines of the hospital. Nicholson recalled learning to fly fish during his days in the Navy and thought it would be the perfect sport to help the veterans regain confidence and relieve anxiety. Project Healing Waters Fly Fishing
“We don’t just take people fishing. We build relationships, and within that comes the healing. It transcends fly-fishing… the friendships are where people heal,” he said.
Still fly-fishing and working to grow the program, now in 49 states, Nicholson said the last 10 years of his life have been the most fulfilling.
In 2007, Deena Pierott found herself without a job, after 16 years with the same organization. She was also faced with the challenges of raising a teenaged son and looking after her mother who had just been diagnosed with dementia.
With no business experience whatsoever and knowing she had to support her family, Pierott started her own diversity consulting and recruiting company, Blue Mosaic. The company took off and Pierott says new windows of opportunity kept on opening. “My fifties are my awakening era,” she said. “I feel like there’s still so much more ahead of me.”
In 2011, Pierott was serving on the Commission for African Americans in her home state and saw that minority male students were hindered by a significant achievement gap. She founded iUrban Teen,
a nationwide program aimed primarily at educating minority teen males on opportunities in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) and arts education and careers.
The program has gotten Pierott various accolades, including being named a White House Champion of Change. But the most fulfilling part, she said, is seeing the spark in young students’ eyes as they open themselves up to new possibilities.
Linda Reinstein’s life changed forever when she was 50. That was the year the love of her life -- her husband Alan -- died. He had been diagnosed with mesothelioma, a preventable asbestos-caused cancer.
Reinstein decided to turn her anger into action. Because asbestos is legal and lethal in the U.S., she went to Washington D.C. to urge Congress to ban it. Carrying a photo of her deceased husband and their young daughter dancing, she and her daughter walked the halls of Congress telling Senators that every daughter deserves to dance with her father at her wedding.
She told anyone who would listen how her incredibly vibrant husband had turned into a frail, helpless patient tethered to oxygen -- “right before my eyes". During his three-year mesothelioma battle -– filled with surgeries, chemotherapy, and countless trips to the hospital –- she continued to care not just for her ailing husband, but also for their 10-year-old daughter and was the unshakable rock of the family. In 2004 she co-founded the Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization
(ADAO), a non-profit organization dedicated to education, advocacy, and community, with an end goal of banning asbestos in the U.S. Instead of wallowing in her grief, she began a new chapter in her life, found her own voice, comforted asbestos victims around the world, and become a leading voice regarding asbestos legislation.
As a frequent Congressional witness and a sought after international public health advocate, she has taken an unimaginable tragedy and become a respected expert on harnessing social media to enact social change.
Now 58, she has shown others that using one's anger and sadness to change the world is possible, impactful, and necessary. "Never underestimate the power of love, passion and persistence," she said "Fueled by my love for my late husband and my daughter, life has taught me that even in the most challenging times, each of us holds the key to make change happen.”
---Linda’s daughter, now 21, submitted her nomination.
Marc Shaw’s late father was a popular bandleader, performing at weddings and Bar Mitzvahs in the Philadelphia and South Jersey areas from the 1950s through the 1970s. Shaw started working in his dad's band at the age of 13, first as a “roadie,” and then later, playing the trumpet, and still later, playing the drums. It was the career he was destined for, and when he was in his 20s, the young Shaw formed his own party band. Through the years, he carved out a good living for his family by doing what he loved to do: Entertain people. He never needed a “day job,” he quipped. But everything changed in the early 2000s. Better technology meant that DJs no longer played scratchy 45s, but instead could produce sound that rivaled live music in quality. Shaw’s business fell off, and he knew he had to change along with the times. He tried a couple of unrelated day jobs, but after so many years of being his own boss, answering to “the man” just wasn’t going to cut it.
By then in his mid-50s, Shaw reinvented himself. He took his musical and business talents in another direction: He began entertaining seniors -- in nursing homes, assisted living facilities, senior centers and clubs -- by staging sing-alongs to music tracks. His business grew slowly at first, but word spread. He now performs about 40 one-hour shows a month. He finds his work very fulfilling, primarily because his senior clients show him all the time how much they appreciate what he does. Some of the most rewarding moments, he said, happen when he’s singing to a group of Alzheimer’s patients and they join in -- singing along to songs they knew their whole lives. “Musical memories seem to stay with them the longest,” he said.
“The best way to predict the future is to create it,” he said, quoting his favorite French playwright, Moliere.