Reinvent Yourself After Misfortune

These women never knew their own inner strength—until adversity bent and almost broke them. Here's how they got onto the comeback road and started living their dreams.

by Andrea Atkins
reinvent yourself after misfortune
After a devastating accident, Karen Putz gave up barefoot water skiing. Twenty-five years later, she's competing in the sport she loves.
Photograph: Ben Hoffmann

In 2010, Dakar launched her anti-aging line (sold on Sonyadakarskinclinic.com), which contains only botanical and natural ingredients—including, you might say, her own blood, sweat and tears. Her clinic is now housed in a 12,000-square-foot, five-story building in Beverly Hills. In spring 2011 she introduced a new acne treatment. “I wake up in the morning and think, I can really make it. I have two eyes, two legs, a brain,” she says. “My perspective has totally changed. I don’t cry or whimper or ask for pity. I am strong, and when you learn a lesson, life becomes better.”

 

Empowered by Katrina 

After the killer hurricane struck in 2005, all that was left of Sharon Hanshaw’s Biloxi, Mississippi, home and business was nasty, smelly muck. “My car was nowhere to be found. My house looked like something huge threw up in there,” she says. “The floor was gone, and I was standing in a kind of mud I’d never seen before.” Next door, the beauty salon she’d owned for 21 years was also in ruins. Hanshaw, a widow, went to live with a sister in Houston. “But my life was in Mississippi, and I felt like I had to get home,” she says. She returned to a city in chaos, moved in with one of her three daughters and found a temporary position as a clerk for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. She remembers once lying on the floor of her daughter’s house, crying uncontrollably.

Meanwhile, Oxfam America, the international relief organization, focused its first domestic program on the Gulf Coast. Aiming to develop community leaders, Oxfam invited Hanshaw, as the owner of a popular hair salon, to help. “All I knew was that some women were getting together to see what they could do,” Hanshaw says. The group started attending city council meetings, and Hanshaw began to speak up, arguing for better hurricane preparedness and storm-resistant housing. She insisted that residents be included in rebuilding plans. She wrote letters to senators and congressmen. “There were no jobs,” she says. “The only thing people could do was meet. And we were at every meeting.” The group decided it needed a name, and when Hanshaw proposed Coastal Women for Change, everyone agreed. CWC secured a $30,000 grant from the 21st Century Foundation and hired an executive director: Sharon Hanshaw.

Job one was learning to use a computer. The first time she was asked to “Google” a piece of information, she didn’t know what to do. “Not having an education, that was a handicap in my mind,” says Hanshaw, a high school graduate. “I had no idea that you could create, learn and empower yourself and others through your work.” With Oxfam’s help, she turned CWC into a bona fide nonprofit. She created bylaws, put together a board, learned to fund raise and advocate. Her biggest achievement to date: helping to win a lawsuit compelling Mississippi to distribute $132 million from government disaster funds to low-income households. “The people I’ve met as a result of Katrina are amazing,” she says. “I didn’t know there were people in the world like this. And to have my voice be heard, to know how to advocate for others—that is a powerful feeling. I learned that if you fight, you can make a difference.”

 

Andrea Atkins, a frequent contributor to national magazines, lives in Rye, New York.

Find other inspiring Second Acts stories in More magazine’s recently published book, 287 Secrets of Reinventing Your Life (Wiley).

 

Originally published as “I Didn’t Know I Had It In Me”  in the November 2011 issue of More.

 

Related stories: When Life Forces You to Reinvent

 

First Published November 9, 2011

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