STORIES FROM THE BIG SHIFT – ANNE NOLAN

This profile is one of eight first-person stories featured in Marc Freedman’s latest book, The Big Shift. Each person has taken a deeply personal journey in midlife that has led to work helping others.

Anne Nolan
Providence, R.I.

When I went to work for the corporate world many, many years ago, it was exciting, and it was new, and I was doing things I’d never done and learning things. And it was incredibly exciting. But over the years I lost a sense of purpose. I wasn’t quite sure why I was doing it.

I mean, I knew why I was working. I was working for the money. I simply became more and more emotionally distant, and it was less fulfilling. Still, the president of the company was a wonderful man, and we did good work – we cleaned up the environment. But I didn’t clean up the environment. I was in corporate.

Then, one day in 1999, we made the decision to dissolve the company. It was the right business decision to make, definitely. It’s not easy to say this, but I guess I wasn’t invested enough to really feel any grief about its being over. I did receive a year’s salary as severance, which gave me the opportunity to say, “OK, what’s next?”

That year of reflection was an important part of my journey. Three months into the year, it just kind of hit me that I couldn’t do another corporate job. I don’t think I was really ever cut out for the corporate world.

I mean, I’m a product of the ’60s, for crying out loud. I need to feel passionate about my work. I need to do something that makes me cry, for good reasons, and I hadn’t felt that kind of commitment or passion about a job in years and years.

I was never a walker before that year, but I started walking every day, six or seven miles along the Blackstone River and canal. It was a form of meditation for me. I often had what-if-I-win-the-lottery thoughts, which I’ve had for 20 or 30 years now, ever since I’ve been buying tickets.

I always have the same fantasy, that if I won the lottery, I would start a not-for-profit dealing with homeless families. I also want a house on the ocean, but it was just one of those what-if-I-win-the-lottery things. I can’t afford a house on the ocean, and I thought I couldn’t afford to run a homeless program.

One day, I realized that I was being really stupid, that I had been working for money for so long, and it was time that I worked for passion, and I just had to make the money work. Was I going to spend the rest of my life making money and being unhappy or not making money and being happy?

That’s what it got down to. I was just so sure about my decision. I knew what I wanted and wouldn’t listen to anyone who discouraged me. It was like, “Get out of my way, honey, because somehow I’m going to do this.”

A number of people told me that I should go to a little place called Travelers Aid in downtown Providence. I had never heard of it, and in my mind it was something in a bus terminal. But eventually I called the woman who was president and asked if I could have a tour.

On the day of my appointment, I turned into the building, and I opened the door and – true story – I started to cry. I was overwhelmed by the humanity of the place and the people and the pain.

It was just this awful building with a dirty stairway going down into a basement. And at the bottom of the stairs there was a desk, and the place was packed with people. I mean packed, men and women and some very sick people and some crazy, inebriated people, and people who were terrified and people who were just terrifying.

And I was terrified on top of it all. I couldn’t talk, I was so overwhelmed by what I saw.

I met the woman who was president, and she took me on a tour. She asked me to join the board that day and then said, “But I need to tell you that at the end of the year, I’m leaving.” And it was like, “Yes, OK, here’s your hat, what’s your hurry?” I just knew it was the job I wanted.

I joined the board, and five months later, when the president’s position became open, I applied. I almost didn’t get it. Another candidate had a lot of experience in the not-for-profit world, and the story I’m told is that the committee voted for her, but the chairman of the board at the time changed his vote. The rest is history.

It’s been nearly 10 years now, and it’s the best thing I’ve ever done in my life. We changed the name from Travelers Aid to Crossroads. We do a lot of housing now and we’re statewide, and we deal with all kinds of issues that we weren’t dealing with before.

I want to continue to grow the organization, do more housing, do more job training. I have no plans to leave for a while, that’s for sure. I love my world here very much, and I love this organization. I have learned so much. And mostly what I’ve learned is to appreciate my life so much more.

I’m making all this sound like it’s wonderful and grand, but the one part that hasn’t been easy is the financial part. It’s been very hard to adjust to making half of what I was making. I thought I would simply do less and learn to economize and cut back and blah, blah, blah.

The first year I managed okay, but I went through a lot of savings. And then I started living off the equity in my house, which, given the housing market, is pretty much gone now. Let me just say that I’m still trying to figure this out.

At the same time, I wouldn’t change my position for anything. It’s just so enriching. There’s no way I could ever go back to the corporate world – ever, ever, ever.

Anne Nolan has been president of Crossroads, the largest homeless service organization in Rhode Island, since 2001.