Michelle Sullivan + Her Tour Guide

Balancing a career and a family is a challenge at the best of times, but Michelle Sullivan had it figured out. She had a successful wedding photography business and with her husband Eric they were raising 3 beautiful girls. Michelle thought she wouldn’t miss a beat adding a fourth child into the family. But the universe had bigger plans.

Michelle’s son, Eli, was born chromosomally enhanced (one extra chromosome).

At her 20 week prenatal appointment the doctor told Michelle and Eric their son’s intestines were blocked and he had a heart defect. This combination often indicates a chromosomal abnormality.  A blood test would later confirm he had Down syndrome aka Trisomy 21. The doctor said there was a strong possibly he would be stillborn and if he did survive birth he would need to have open heart surgery right away.  The doctor didn’t give them much hope and even suggested terminating the pregnancy, all of which left her feeling overwhelmed and terrified.

She cried herself to sleep that night and grieved for the little boy she thought she was having. But when she woke in the morning, she believed deep in her heart that everything was going to be alright. Although, changes would need to be made.

First up, canceling a photography contract for a wedding that would happen one month after Eli’s due date.

Soon after Eli was born Michelle knew the next couple of years would be filled with hospitals, doctor visits and therapy. She didn’t want to disappoint any more clients so she closed her photography business. There was no sadness – it was just the way it had to be.

With the hospital bills piling up she needed to find a way to earn income while staying home with Eli so she could take him to all his appointments. The thought of a t-shirt business to spread awareness and inclusion came to her. And just like that Littlest Warriors was born.

Michelle took a leap of faith and several small steps to get to exactly where she wanted to be – there for Eli. And in the process, she found so much more than she ever expected. The experience transformed her into a stronger, more tolerant, and more compassionate person. She gained a deeper understanding, respect and acceptance of all people. She closed one business, only to open another and discover her life’s work of spreading awareness and inclusion about Down syndrome and kids with special needs.

None of this would have been possible without Eli.  Together this dynamic duo is helping to change the conversation about kids with special needs one rad t-shirt at a time!

Michelle tells us more.

Do you miss being a family/wedding photographer?

I still use my photography skills quite often – I bring my camera pretty much everywhere I go. I use it for my t-shirt business and just everyday lifestyle shots of our family. 

What was the hardest part of your reinvention? 

To be honest it came so naturally, I can’t think of a hard part – sorry! 

In moments of self-doubt or adversity, how do you build yourself backup?

My kids really help keep me grounded and remind me daily why I need to pick myself back up, brush myself off and keep going. Eli is my biggest hero – if he can go through everything he’s been through and still have a smile on his face, so can I. 

One thing you want people to know about Eli or your family?

The last thing I want is for people to pity us. We don’t feel sorry for ourselves or Eli and neither should anyone else. We love Eli and every single one of his chromosomes. 

Tell us where your inspiration for the t-shirts comes from?

Clearly Eli is my muse!

My very first t-shirt design, the Holland Tour Guide, came to me after Eli was born. While pregnant with Eli I read the ‘Welcome to Holland’ essay written by Emily Perl Kingsley. For those that haven’t read it, it’s a metaphor about welcoming a child with a disability. It brought me great comfort and gave me a new perspective.  After Eli was born I started calling him my little tour guide. So when it came time to design my first t-shirt I hoped the slogan would do the same for others. I love that when we wear Littlest Warrior t-shirts, they end up being conversation starters and that’s a great way to spread awareness.

Have the goals for the t-shirt company changed over the past two years?

At first I just wanted a little side business to help with medical bills, but now it’s turned into something I never dreamed of. It truly is a community. When I started meeting other moms of kids with special needs I learned so much about disorders and diagnosis I had never heard of before. It’s become my mission to educate and spread awareness

You give a significant percentage of profit to charities, why is this important to you?

I believe in giving back. So many people rallied around us when Eli’s medical bills were overwhelming for us. I wanted to be able to pay it forward

What does success mean to you? 

Success to me means creating change and bringing joy to others. If that’s all I do with Littlest Warrior I know I’ve done my job. 

What would you tell yourself knowing what you know now?

Knowing what I now know I would tell my terrified self that there can be so much beauty in hardship, that going through all the surgeries and facing the unknown would give me a strength I didn’t know I had. Eli has truly enhanced my life. He has given me a love for people with special needs. He’s taught me so much about patience and endurance. He has made me a better person and for that I am so grateful. 

Any advice for someone thinking of reinventing themselves? 

My advice would be to do what comes natural. If change comes into your life, follow it, don’t force it. I love the saying bloom where you’re planted. If you try to change things and it’s not a natural process, it might not work.  

Your son’s diagnosis was poorly delivered. Do you have any suggestions for Doctors delivering the news?

I understand it isn’t the easiest information to deliver but with some thought and consideration it could be delivered in a more sensitive and complete way. The good: people with Down syndrome have a greater quality of life and a longer life expectancy now, more than ever before in history. The bad: the health problems that are typically associated with Down syndrome. In addition, they should provide information connecting parents to the various support systems in place today as well as other families of children with Down syndrome.

I’m hopeful things will continue to get better. It wasn’t that long ago that parents were told that their child would never walk or talk and it would be best for everyone if they put them in an institution. Slowly parents stop listening to the doctors and instead they brought them home and loved them and amazing things started to happen: their kids walked, talked and many started to go to college and get jobs. 

Recently a friend of mine brought her son with Down syndrome to a college for an observation day with pre-med students. If we can expose students to people with Down syndrome then hopefully the next generation of doctors can be fully educated and not just rattle of some old statistics they read in an outdated medical journal, but instead tell them all the amazing things they’ve observed with their own eyes. 

Do you have any thoughts on how Doctors could break life changing news?

Photography: Michelle Sullivan

 

Michelle Simmons – Life Is An Adventure!

For Michelle Simmons life is one big adventure! However, it wasn’t always that way. Designing the life of her dreams required some big changes, including going through a divorce.  

Michelle, a legal secretary for 10 years, longed to travel but didn’t feel she could do it alone. When she met her husband, she thought she had found her life and travel partner.

After a year of marriage, Michelle and her husband thought living apart (but still committed to each other) might be best for their marriage. For some couples, living apart can help preserve the spark in the relationship.

For Michelle, living separately made it confusing.

She hung on for years hoping they would live under the same roof again. But the years came and went. From time to time, she contemplated leaving, but there was always something to get through first, some life event that needed to be sorted.

On the morning of her 35th birthday she woke up feeling deeply sad and alone. She realized that they were never going to live in the same house again, that he didn’t like to travel or try new restaurants or really do anything she liked to do. Bottom line, he wasn’t going to change. Michelle knew she had to take action if she didn’t want to be in the exact same place a year from now.

She filed for divorce and has never looked back. She was free to live her life on her terms and that included traveling.

One of the first things she did once the divorce papers were filed was to grab her sketch book and camera and start driving. She spent the day exploring. She soon discovered that adventure is everywhere.

As her confidence grew she ventured further afield, hopped on plane and went to Bend, Oregon to visit an old friend from college. While hiking she had a break through: with each step, she felt stronger, more powerful and more like the person she was meant to be. By the end of the hike she had an overwhelming feeling that Bend was home.

She returned to California and told her friends and family she was quitting the safety of her day job, moving to Bend, Oregon and finally focusing her efforts on growing her photography business. Michelle’s true passion is telling stories through photography and she only realized this when she was in need of a photographer to capture her nuptials (the silver lining?!). She immediately set up her business, The Suitcase Studio, but it was only something she pursued quietly outside of her day job, never believing she would be able to pay the rent, put food on the table and clothes on her back with photography.

But now she was ready. She didn’t want to waste any more time and she certainly didn’t want to miss out on HER life.

Today, Michelle focuses her efforts on growing her business around the lifestyle she wants to lead. She splits her time between Bend, Oregon and Orange County, CA. and plans to continue to explore the US and the world one image at a time.

Michelle’s divorce signaled the end of her marriage, not her life. Her transformation took time, effort and some painful self realizations. But once she was aligned with her true self, and doing what she loved, life fell into place and now it’s better than she ever expected!

A little more about Michelle in her own words:

Biggest lesson you learned as a result of your divorce?

I don’t need anyone else to COMPLETE me. I am complete in and of myself. And maintaining my individual SELF only adds to my own happiness, as well as to the happiness of those in my life. When I’m happy and content with who I am as an individual, I have more to give back to others… family, friends, clients and community. 

How would you describe your style of photography?

 It’s best known as “lifestyle photography,” which focuses on the storytelling aspect, particularly of real-life interactions + locations. It’s all about capturing pieces of the person’s authentic smiles, laughter and connections with their loved ones… the in-between moments that occur when people forget that there’s a camera in my hand, where their inner beauty shines through in the most natural way. And I try to make things FUN and stress-free, so it’s not just being in front of the camera that is remembered, but the actual moments being captured. 

Can you share some tips for people looking to get into photography?

Practice, practice, practice! And don’t go it alone… reach out and find a community of fellow photographers or creatives (online or in real life) who are happy to share the journey with you, too. I’m a firm believer in community over competition… so much of my growth happened during “shoot-outs” and workshops with other local photographers. The more you shoot, the more your unique voice and style will shine through, and if you’ve built a supportive network along the way, you can find second-shooting or styled session opportunities to gain experience, build a portfolio, try out new styles/techniques, and even refer clients to one another if they’re not a good fit for yourself. 

What is your favorite part about owning your own company?

Hands down, my FAVORITE thing about being my own boss is getting to create my own schedule. If the weather is good (and especially if the dog is driving me nuts), I’ll go walk him down by the river in the middle of the day. Because I CAN. There are definitely times where I’ll need to work 12-hour days, 7-days a week to get everything done… but then I’m able to take a week-long vacation and NOT worry about things slipping through the cracks. And getting paid to do what I LOVE to do, I find that Mondays no longer suck.   

Any tips for someone going through a life redesign?

My biggest tip: build a life that FEELS authentically good; not just one that looks good on paper or in your bank account. There’s a workbook of sorts that I’d HIGHLY recommend to anyone seeking a life transformation, called “The Desire Map” by Danielle Laporte. It really helped me figure out what my ideal life looked and FELT like, and kept me heading in the right direction as I moved forward. As one of the suggested exercises, I created a Pinterest board with images showcasing the core desired values I wanted my life to contain; and one year later I was grinning ear to ear as I looked back at that board and realized just how closely my life ACTUALLY resembled what I’d pinned!

Favorite quotes?

Find joy everyday.

Real life doesn’t have to be perfect to be beautiful.

Live the life you love. Love the life you live.

And so the adventure begins… 

 

psst…If you’ve reinvented yourself – whether it’s complete overhaul or a small tweak and would like to share your story please contact me here.

 

Photograpy: Michelle Simmons, The Suitcase Studio

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Vera Wang: Life ReDesigned

I was inspired when I came across Vera Wang’s story, but not for the simple and obvious reason. Yes, she is successful, but more importantly she has reinvented herself not once, not twice but three times. This story isn’t new – it’s been circulating for a few years. But it is a good one, so I thought it was worth revisiting. This is a summary of her journey:

Before entering the fashion world as a wedding dress designer, Vera Wang’s childhood dream was to skate in the Olympics.  When Wang failed to make the 1968 U.S. Olympic team, she knew it was time to hang up her skates. Although she viewed this as a failure, she learned an important life lesson: when you fall down, you have to pick yourself up. She has said this experience helped guide her through life.

After skating, a summer job as a salesperson at the iconic French designer Yves Saint Laurent’s boutique on Madison Avenue led to a chance encounter with then fashion director of Vogue, Frances Patiky Stein.  The two quickly connected and Stein asked Wang to come work for Vogue once she graduated.  Two years later, Wang made a follow up call to Stein, which led to an interview and subsequently a job as a junior editor at Vogue.

After 15 years at Vogue, Wang realized she was never going to be Editor in Chief and decided, after much thought and consideration, it was time to move on. She left Vogue and went on to work for Ralph Lauren as Design Director for Accessories.

While planning her wedding to Arthur Becker in 1989, Wang spotted a gap in the market. While shopping for a bridal gown, she was unable to find a suitable dress for a more mature bride. She ended up designing her own dress and hiring a dressmaker to make it, at a cost of $10,000. Surprisingly, it was her father who recognized that if she couldn’t find a suitable dress, other women must be having the same issue.  So he told Wang if she wanted to start her own business, he would help her, but he would only back a bridal business.  The following year, at the age of 40 and with some financial backing from her father, Wang opened her own bridal boutique on Madison Avenue in New York City – a move that changed the course of her entire life.

There is no denying that turning a single bridal boutique into a fashion and lifestyle empire with an overall retail value of over $1 billion is impressive.  But for me, it is her journey and not her final destination that is the far more remarkable part of her story. It was anything but linear. For her, it was a process of self-discovery and reinvention. It took years of hard work, perseverance, failures, luck and even some rejection before she found her forte at age forty. Proof that it’s never too late to reinvent the life you’ve always imagined!

What’s next for you?

Source: Vera Wang’s 2013 SLC Commencement Speech Photography: Pinterest

My Path To Reinvention

I am in the process of reinventing myself…more of a career change than a full-blown transformation. Ok, perhaps there are a few areas outside of work that I’d like to tweak. But I’ve had a hard time moving forward. Like so many people I have a general idea what I’d like to do but I don’t know with 100% certainty. So, I have let self-doubt, fear and the status quo hold me back. As a result, one year into this journey and I am standing in exactly the same place.

Now, I know from previous transformations – yes, I have done this before  – that change doesn’t happen on its own; it is a slow, gradual process that takes time, hard work, persistence and perhaps a little bit of luck. A lesson I learned when I decided to relocate to London, England.

Several years ago, I had a great job working for a company in Canada that went into ‘CCAA Protection’, equivalent to Chapter 11 bankruptcy in the USA. While I still had a job as a Brand Manager, I knew there would be no advertising budget while the company worked to restructure their books.

It seemed like the perfect time do something I’d always wanted to do – live and work in London. So, I threw caution to the wind, hopped on plane and moved to a new country with no job prospects.

WHAT WAS I THINKING?

Let me just tell you, I wasn’t. But it was a great learning experience and believe me there was a lot learn. It took me a year to land a job and even when I finally secured a new position it was not my dream job. In fact, because of having no international experience, I had to take a step back before I could move forward. Adjusting to a new country and looking for work was paralyzing at times and required a lot of self-motivation. I had to take one step and one day at time.

Reinvention is not an easy process. A lesson I am in the process of relearning.

To help keep me motivated this go-around, I have been reading about people that have reinvented themselves. Some of these reinventions involve a complete overhaul while others required small tweaks. Sometimes tragedy or hardship forced the change, while in other cases it was a choice or a conscious decision to change one’s life that brought about reinvention.  

Regardless, most people don’t know where the path will lead when starting the journey. But in almost every case, the courage to look past the fear of the unknown and act by taking those first few steps ultimately led these individuals to where they wanted to be. As Jerry Sternin says in The Power of Positive Deviance, “It’s easier to act your way into a new way of thinking, than think your way into a new way of acting.”

I’m no life coach but if these stories have helped me, I’m hoping they can help others that are contemplating change. Every Tuesday I’ll post a profile of an individual that has successfully re:designed their life to remind us it’s never to late to change, create your own personal definition of happiness and success and live the life you’ve always imagined.  

My career re:design starts today!  

What area of your life are you reinventing and when are you starting?