From the Heart: Kristen H. Gardiner

Publisher’s Note:

I am happy to introduce our new feature column, “From the Heart”. This is an oppurtunity for women to share their stories, struggles, inspirations, and achievements.  To share your story email us at lehighvalleywomansjournal@gmail.com.

When I graduated high school in 1992, I hadn’t given much thought to the future. By the urgings of my teachers and parents, took the SATs, applied to colleges (the majority of which were Ivy League schools in which I never imagined I’d be grated acceptance), and I put on the façade of an eager young woman ready to enter the real world. Yet inside, I was clueless and afraid – I had never considered myself good at anything, although I performed well in academics, I never felt any particular attachment to one subject area.

Worse still, was when letters from the colleges to which I had applied began to appear in the mail box in thick, official looking envelopes.  So off to various New England campuses for tours and meet and greets, and more of the same question, “So, what is your proposed major?”  I had indicated Liberal Arts on the majority of my applications, throwing in pre-med or pre-law here and there for fun, but when confronted verbally with the question, my mind would draw a blank. I couldn’t picture myself in a courtroom or an ER; I cringed at the idea of siting at a desk all day. Worst of all, I hated the idea of working as a bio-chemist in my parent’s environmental testing lab; pipetting water into flasks, adding this or that chemical, putting so many drops into this machine or that, pressing buttons, recording numbers, and so on. I know that was my father’s dream for me, to enter into some scientific field.

In the long run, all of my procrastinating led me to the status of freshman biology major at Moravian College, and at the very least, I was grateful that my parents allowed me to live on campus rather than commute the three miles to school. Needless to say, after the first semester, I was ready to change my major to anything other than biology. And change my major I did…several times, until I finally settled into education, with a focus in educational psychology and English communications.  I had finally found something I liked: helping people.

I greatly enjoyed my student teaching experiences, and loved being with the young adolescents in my classroom. That’s why I was devastated in the Fall of 1999 (I had finally graduated the preceding May) when I could not get a full time contract with a school district. I spent a great deal of time subbing, but it wasn’t enough. I decided at that point that I wanted to use my communications and interpersonal skills to start a business – I wanted to embark on something that was rewarding and enjoyable; I wanted to do something that made people happy, so in 2000 La Bella Sposa, a small couture bridal salon on Elizabeth Avenue, opened its doors to perspective brides.

I was proud of my accomplishment at such a young age, and I deeply enjoyed watching these young women smiling and feeling beautiful and knowing that I would be a part of their special day. Yet, I knew little about running a business, and although I held my footing for a while, I began skidding in the Fall in 2001, and by December of 2001, my dream had faded.  Almost broke, jobless, and with a newborn daughter and a husband still in college, we needed to make changes quickly.

I took a job in the communications office at Lehigh University as a secretary – and a disgruntled one at that – and jumped at an opportunity to interview a Muslim student for a 9/11 piece that would be appear in the LehighNow publication. After that experience, I rose to the rank of an official copy writer. In the almost two years I spent at Lehigh, I learned more than I had in six years as a college student. I sat down with a variety of faculty, staff and students and discussed topics ranging from the philosophy of existence, to new frontiers in nano-technology. I enjoyed the writing, but what made me the happiest was being able to sit down and connect with all of these different and exciting people. I asked questions, shared stories, and really came to know the motivations of each individual. I loved that aspect of my job, and having the capacity to share these stories, but where was the pay-off? Who was I helping and how? I needed something more out of my career. I needed to be doing, not just telling.

In the fall of 2003, I accepted a long-term substitute teaching position at Nitschmann Middle School in Bethlehem. By this time, I had been published in a professional teaching publication and was ready for hands-on experience in my chosen profession. The 2003-2004 academic years still weighs among the best times of my life. I was teaching 13-year-olds, and they were learning. I listened to their problems, gave advice, helped with homework, worked with parents – I was in my glory. But, all good things must come to an end, as did my temporary tenure at Nitschmann. I did obtain a full time position in the Easton School District, which was a major awakening for me on a personal and career level. I was pregnant with my son, and entered into this situation completely oblivious to how completely horrible life for some of these children could be. I had a normal childhood, a happy and loving family; I had come from an experience where very few of the students knew true hardships, and here I was on the set of a Michelle Pfifer movie…and pregnant.

I committed three years to these children, until one day I realized that I was devoting 110% of my energy to other people’s children, children upon whom I had little relevant impact, seeing them only 40 minutes a day for 180 days. While at the same time, I had two of my own children who were only getting the remnants of my compassion. After only four years in the classroom, I was burnt out. I did not have the capacity to tune out the individuals and simply teach and enforce school rules, nor could I find a balance that worked for me…I wanted to save the un-savable, and when I did not succeed in my mission, I blamed myself.

In the late spring of 2007, I entered into a new venture – marketing and development for non-profit organizations. It was when working for ProJeCt of Easton, under Marty Magee, that I realized that my calling was helping people, but in a capacity that I could emotionally handle and in a way that made a tangible difference.  As 2008 came and went, I saw more and more people struggling to survive monetarily, myself included. Jobs were being cut, paychecks were getting smaller, and everyday expenses were rising.

I came to the conclusion then, that helping people to manage and save their money is truly a commendable task. I had often thought of financial advisors as stiff, gray suits wanting your money, but the more I learned about saving, budgeting, and investing, the more I wanted to share this knowledge with everyday people like myself and my family. I never thought that I would ever hold the title “Stock-Broker” or “Financial Advisor,” but I was a woman on a mission: to shatter the illusion that investing and money management is a thing for the wealthy.  It doesn’t matter if one’s net worth is ten thousand or ten million, people need to know how to save and manage so they can be prepared for potential hard times and hopefully, meet all of their financial needs and goals.

In this day and age, women need to work to help support their families. Women also control 33% (and rising) of America’s wealth, and are the money managers in nine out of 10 households. Still we see the financial industry focused on men. I found my calling in this conundrum – women need to be financially educated by advisors who understand and care about their financial security, and their hopes and dreams for future generations.  I found such fascinating aspects in the world of finance, and I also found ways in which to help people, make them smile and feel good about themselves, and much like the bridal salon, be a part of something meaningful in people’s lives

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