Against All Odds

The below stories are amazing in their own respective rights, and demonstrate the power of the human spirit and the individual spirit to navigate life despite the challenges that come our way.

The persistence and courage demonstrated by these individuals is being shared with us to encourage everyone to persevere in the face of adversity. While everyone has their stories and they may be different, we as individuals can learn from, be inspired by and grow stronger together.

Join us at the Kick Off Luncheon on April 1, 2019 to hear directly from four of these individuals.

Elisabeth Caetano

Down A Rabbit Hole: Can you relate? Having fallen down and gotten out of many rabbit holes in my own life, as a matter of survival, I had to learn how to get out of them on my own. My journey included recovering from being molested as a child for over three years, raped as a teenager, getting out of massive credit card debt and sobriety from alcohol. It included a lot of therapy (some good and some not so good experiences) and self-help books, groups, journaling, tears, forgiveness and insightful discoveries.

Throughout these many obstacles, I discovered that there was indeed, a different way to live life and it included learning to THRIVE rather than just survive. It included going from a victim mentality to VICTOR. I learned that I had to EMPOWER myself with the help of a Higher Power and that no one else could do this for me. My journey and truth were unique to me but the tools and the skills I learned were UNIVERSAL! It was actually through the hardships that I experienced that grew me into the person that I am today.

I was so inspired by what life could look like, that I realized that I wanted to help others go from merely surviving to THRIVING. I went back to school in my late 20’s to get a degree in psychology and began my own business helping people to empower themselves using a no-nonsense, goal oriented and teaching approach to therapy.

20 years into my career, I decided to write the book, Down the Rabbit Hole and Back: Stop Believing the Lies and Live Your Own Truth. It is a guide that teaches the universal tools that can help people get out of the rabbit hole and live wholeheartedly.

Dr. Darla Calvet

Dr. Darla Calvet technically “died” twice while waiting for a heart transplant. She had contracted Congestive Heart Failure (Cardiomyopathy) from a virus that jumped from her lungs to her heart. Since that time, Dr. Calvet went on the journey of a lifetime to regain wellness. She was treated for 14 years with medication, a defibrillator, pacemaker, left-ventricular assist device (LVAD) and ultimately, a heart transplant.

“I tell patients I visit that you need the warrior spirit to battle heart disease,” Dr. Calvet has remarked. “My journey was long and difficult but it has a great ending.”

Dr. Calvet has taken her harrowing recovery experiences and uses them to inspire and help other critically-ill cardiology patients. Since her heart transplant at Cedars Sinai on her husband’s birthday in March of 2015, she has been committed to paying it forward by inspiring those who still wait for organs. She has served as a national spokeswoman for Scripps Health and appeared with her heart surgeon in their national advertising cardiology campaign. She is committed to paying it forward in honor of her 30-year-old organ donor. She is an alumna of the Women Heart national coalition and has worked on Capitol Hill to get urgent women’s heart health research bills approved by the U.S. Congress and the Senate.

She looks at her second chance of life as an opportunity to help others persevere on the long road to transplant. Along with volunteering, Dr. Calvet runs her own consulting company, Blue Tiger Incorporated. She is writing her memoir to serve as a beacon of hope to other cardiology patients. She is also in training to compete in an upcoming Transplant Games as an Olympic Athlete.

“It’s up to us to make the best of our lives,” Dr. Calvet says, “Every day is a chance to use our personal adversity to inspire others on life’s paths.”

Sharon Davis

Being raised in Compton, California at the helm of the "Gang Wars," could not have been easy, but Sharon found a way to flourish. She attended Compton High school, where TODAY the College Readiness Index is at 25.2, according to U.S. News and World Report for Education.

Sharon's mother instilled the importance of working hard and educational excellence. She knew how important it was to go to college. She took her mother's message to heart and worked hard both in school and work. She bought her first car working summers at McDonald's. This is where she met her first professional mentor, John Harlan, a three store McDonald's franchisee, who taught Sharon how to have a strong business acumen.

Hard work and focus got her accepted into UCSD, Berkeley and ASU. She chose to attend UCSD as a Biology major. Looking at statistics today, less than 6% of Compton High school graduates go on to earn an Associate's degree. She nearly failed her first year, given she was not prepared for all the science classes, but her perseverance and winning spirit allowed her to graduate with a Bachelors of Art in Psychology and Communications.

Catherine Dietz

It was the year of 2014. I was 8 years into a wonderful committed relationship and 8 months into starting my own coaching business. I was feeling blessed by all that was going well in my life and proud of myself for having the courage to follow my heart despite the pushback from society’s belief to always be practical. And then, that same pushback came from my partner. He questioned my ability to succeed and said I was being too optimistic…”you need to be more practical."

This broke my heart and I felt abandoned by the man who I thought would be my lifelong partner. My head told me, “He’s a good man and he loves you, maybe you just need to try harder to see his point of view.”’ But my heart told me, "You’ve got this! Don’t let anyone - even the love of your life - tell you otherwise." I felt so conflicted…like I had an internal tug-of-war between my head and heart.

As I was starting my journey of building my business as a relationship coach, I knew this was an opportunity to use the conflict I was feeling with my partner to heal from past wounds of abandonment and to get in touch with my heart’s wisdom. And out of that experience, A Healthy Path to Love was born. I let the pain of that experience teach me what I needed to learn. To trust my heart’s guidance and wisdom. To always be true to myself. To speak that truth to others and ask for what I need. And, most importantly, that it was way more important to stay in integrity with what I believed about myself than to let the influence of others discourage me from tapping into my own power. Always be true to your heart.

Janeal Ford

My name is Janeal Ford and I haven't always been a successful fundraiser and business owner. I worked hard to overcome tremendous barriers after having my daughter at the age of 15. Statistically, more than 50% of teen mothers never graduate from high school and less than 2% have a college degree by the age of 30.

Living in poverty and having a child to care for wasn’t easy. Every day I faced challenging decisions on how to manage what few resources I had. I was determined to provide a good life for us. I worked long hours in both work and school and, at some point, realized education was the key to leveraging myself out of poverty. I worked hard and eventually graduated with my bachelor’s degree in Sociology and a few years later, went back to get my Master of Public Administration.

At my core, I am a matchmaker, matching needs in the community with resources from people with passion for the cause. Because I know the hardships that come with living in poverty and have experienced the transformative power of education, I am particularly passionate about these cause areas.  I started my business, Fordable Fundraising in 2014 and in the past three years have helped my nonprofit clients secure 27.5 million dollars for their charitable missions.

Carolyn Gross

Against the Odds is the best way to describe my speaking and publishing career. I started my company 22 years ago, training as a professional speaker in 1997. I became President of the National Speakers Association in San Diego and took my post seven days after Sept 11th.

As difficult as this was for our country and the speaking business, the timing was looking right for my work. So I published my first book Staying Calm in the Midst of Chaos and began an 18 month book tour in 2002.

Tired from touring in 2003, I wondered if I was "cut out" to do this full time and then found a lump in my breast. When the diagnosis was stage 3 Breast Cancer, I thought maybe I was strong since I'd done the book tour with cancer in my body.

Healing Cancer with Immunotherapy (targeted T cell therapy, chemo and radiation) 15 years ago, I then published a book of my approach to the cancer diagnosis titled Treatable and Beatable. This publication step took me from the realms of education into the medical/clinical world where I served as a Patient Advocate and co authored another cancer book, Breaking the Cancer Code.

Missing the conference work, and corporate team building I went back to my speaking roots and wrote a new book Rise Above the Chaos to fulfill my life-long dreams. My experience in helping people find their way during trying times and being an expert in self-care and health care is what makes me so passionate about this upcoming book tour.

It's a full circle year in my career, with a message I believe the world needs more than ever. Rise Above the Chaos: How to Keep Positive in an Unsettled World, will be released Nationwide in the US and Canada, Oct 2019.

Dr. Anna Hackenberg

The moment that changed Dr. Anna Hackenberg’s life came in 2017 during a walk with friends on the beach below Torrey Pines State Park. Without warning, rocks tumbled from the cliffs above, crushing Dr. Hackenberg, an urgent care doctor, and leaving her paralyzed from the chest down.

“Life can change in an instant,” she says. “But don’t stop if things don’t turn out the way you planned.”

Dr. Hackenberg’s resilience and positive attitude serve as an example not only for those who have suffered life-altering trauma, but also for anyone who wishes to live a full, rewarding life. Initially, losing physical abilities was devastating to Dr. Hackenberg, who had been a competitive athlete her whole life. However, she was determined to find new ways to move with help from the rehabilitation team at Sharp HealthCare.

Dr. Hackenberg has been back at work for more than a year treating urgent care patients and even completed a marathon last spring on her hand cycle. She admits to moments in which she misses the ability to throw on running shoes for a trail adventure, but values the things she can do. “I am more present than ever and, with the help of others, so many wonderful things are still possible,” she says.

Sarah Hassaine

In July 2012 I came home to my husband of six years announcing that he got a job in Saudi that he could not refuse. I had been supporting us for two years and his solution was for us to  try living in the Gulf for a few years to "make money." A great way to save, travel and meet new people. I quit my job, sold our things and moved with him across the world.

As an ex-pat woman/wife, it was illegal for me to work, in fact they had just passed a law allowing Saudi women to work for the first time. I pounded the pavement tirelessly networking to land an under the table job. In three months I landed a job as Director of a NGO that focused on the skills development training of ex-pat women. I loved my job there and was rebranding and restructuring the organization when suddenly my life took a huge hit. I ended up in the hospital for eight days with severe intestinal problems and then came back to San Diego to heal at my parents’ house. Then my husband from across the globe made a call to my father saying he wanted a divorce. I fell hard and fast, unable to speak, talk, eat - function.

I entered a state of shock unbeknownst to myself. Nine years shattered and  I was left with no identity, no home, one suitcase, no job and no money. It took me nine months, but I landed a job at Amazon in Seattle. I used those nine months to explore what healing looked like and I started to find myself worthy again. I volunteered at Hera Hub, tutored English to refugees, and joined a ton of local non-profit communities to not only do things that made me happy, but also stay true to what defined me.

Laurie Itkin

As a teacher and twice-divorced mother of two, my mother didn’t have enough money to live the kind of lifestyle she wanted.

Of all my mother’s boyfriends, I remember Robert the most. He was older and wealthier than any other man she had dated. He was a handsome marketing executive who drank dry martinis, wore Italian sports coats, and drove a Datsun 280zx. He was separated from his wife so I assumed he would eventually get a divorce and move in with us.

When Robert was diagnosed with cancer, he returned to his wife and children. My mother told me after his death that he had “abandoned” her. I was only 14 and felt confused by the word she chose to describe her pain. I looked it up in the dictionary and it meant that Robert had “ceased to support” her.
I learned to support myself.

When I was 24, I received a $1,600 inheritance. Although I wanted to spend that windfall on clothes, I knew I must begin investing for my future. I had already been laid off twice and concluded that I couldn’t count on a job (or a man) to provide financial stability.

The decision I made to invest that $1,600 in the stock market (not merely save it in the bank) was the most important wealth-building decision I made in my life. It is the reason I became a millionaire before I turned 40.

In my book, Every Woman Should Know Her Options: Invest Your Way to Financial Empowerment, which has educated and inspired thousands of women around the country, I share the decisions I made regarding spending, earning, and investing. The path to financial empowerment can be long and scary, but if I could achieve it despite the odds, so can you.

Mary Kis

My name is Mary Kis and I work for Oracle. I am a single mother with 10-year old twins. I grew up in Northeastern Ohio and was physically and mentally abused by my parents during this time. At the age of 18, I enrolled in a technical school 90 miles away in Pittsburgh, PA. I asked my father for money to attend the school. My father replied “No, you will never make it.”

My father was wrong.

I made positive, life-long friends and graduated with high honors. As I overcame my low self-esteem, I learned to rely on my intelligence and trust my intuition. I have worked at several exciting corporations and have been mentored by seasoned professionals and counselors. My journey led me to several great career choices and my own practice for 16 years.

Eventually, I was motivated to seek a career that did not require much travel. And soon, a friend who also happened to be an Oracle employee notified me of a virtual proposal manager position at Oracle. I am happy to report that after 8 years, I continue to enjoy success in this position.

My most recent challenged involved my trip to Ohio to attend my father’s funeral. I ended up in a disturbing altercation with immediate family who were upset with me for refusing to bear the entire cost of my father’s funeral. I suffered head and back trauma when they caught me alone with my children and assaulted me.

I am now able to look back on these moments and know for certain that life presented me big challenges and against all odds, I was able to beat them.

Dr. Silvia Mah

A Carmel Valley resident, Dr. Silvia Mah earned her Ph.D. in marine biology, inspired to enter the field because of its dearth of women. After earning her MBA, she added to her list of titles, becoming an angel investor that invests in women-led businesses. Last year, she tacked on the title of “host” and now exercises her vocal cords as host of She Invests! podcast.

Originally from Venezuela, the UCSD alumna has helped launch over 132 startups, boosted 203 businesses to the next level and helped create 122 local jobs. While most take interest in tech startups, Mah supports all industries through her work leading local business accelerators, Hera Labs and Ad Astra. She has 25 startups in her angel investment portfolio and has supported business micro-loans for two domestic violence survivors.

Often the only women in a room of scientists, investors or founders, Dr. Mah has overcome the odds time and time again. Her experiences have motivated her to champion equal representation of women and minorities starting companies, having a seat at the table, and getting funded. Mah also works to tackle gender bias, something she's faced in business for years.

Whether they know it or not, Mah explains, founders are often evaluated based on their gender. This implicit bias is an assumption or judgment someone makes about a person without having any awareness of it. Often the bias is so subtle that the receiving party doesn’t realize it’s happening to them. That’s why Mah, along with her Ad Astra co-founders, is working to make female founders aware of gender bias and giving them the tools to neutralize it.

Dr. Mah is a true champion of women in San Diego!

Ryan Matthews

He was dealing drugs at the age of 16. At the age of 18 he was involved in a stabbing with a friend who robbed him. At 19 he enlisted in the Army to runaway from his problems and to avoid jail time.

Meet Ryan Matthews. He grew up in, Huntington Beach, CA in a dysfunctional family surrounded by violence.

After serving 4 years in the Army as a Military Dog Handler, Ryan entered civilian life. He built a million dollar business as a franchise owner of a Dog Training Company. He was living the high life and thought he had it all figured out. Then the PTSD began to show up and Ryan experienced trouble at work and soon found himself entangled in a lawsuit accused of animal cruelty.

Ryan’s lawyer assured him he would not be found guilty. The lawyer was wrong. Ryan was sentenced to 1 month in jail and 2 years of probation. He lost everything, his business, his dog and his self-worth. And then it got worse.

At the age of 30 Ryan was diagnosed with colon cancer. 2 months later he experienced a heart attack. This sent Ryan spiraling into a deep depression. It took a second heart attack for Ryan to wake-up to the reality of what he was doing with his life.

Meet Ryan today. He owns a successful online dog-training business and he has authored 2 books, The Canine Connection and The Art of Dog Training. Through shear perseverance and self-discovery, he now finds himself on a quest. One where he’s not only the student humbly accepting who he is and where he came from, but he’s also the teacher. The teacher who shows others, through storytelling and his soon to air Tedx Talk, how to overcome life’s challenges and thrive.

Susan Munsey

As a teen, Susan was lured into a life of prostitution in Southern California, where she learned about the abuse of young women firsthand. Eventually she was able to escape that world to become a clinical social worker and a psychotherapist. In 2009, Munsey founded GenerateHope, a nonprofit that offers a safe place for survivors of sex trafficking to heal and build new lives. The group provides long-term housing, therapy, education and medical care.

To date, Munsey says GenerateHope has been a refuge for more than 100 victims -- some as young as 18. Participants attend classes to get caught up on their high school education and prepare for college. They receive therapy focused on their traumatic experiences. Women can stay at GenerateHope's safe house for up to two years and benefit from a variety of volunteer-led support services, such as equine and art therapy, dance and yoga.

"I always knew that God would use that time that I was trafficked in some way. It wasn't just going to be wasted time."

Amy Scruggs

Amy's life journey is both compelling and inspiring. Amy’s story really begins when she was a young high school girl sitting in a Planned Parenthood facility. That first life changing decision to keep her baby against the wishes of her well -meaning parents and persevere “against all odds” gave her a beautiful baby boy, Ryan, who not only became her closest companion but would also eventually share her lifelong passion for music.

In 2004, Amy’s powerful vocals and passion for supporting our troops caught the attention of the music industry in Nashville leading to a musical career which included the opportunity to open for country music greats. Since 2008 Amy’s oldest son and lead guitar, Ryan, has shared the stage and her dream writing much of her new music.

Now battling an incurable disease that has shut down her digestive system, Amy lives on IV treatments for her nutrients but has not let the disease define her life or spirit. Amy’s voice is a gift to many. She uses it not only for music but to inspire and encourage others to not give up and live a life with passion and purpose. Through her music, speaking and coaching Amy’s contagious spirit resonates to all who hear her. Amy also continues to be dedicated to her support of the military, veteran and nonprofit community and her own 501c3 organization “Voice for Heroes”.

Linda Shaffer-Vanaria

Linda was one of the U.S. Navy’s first women Test Pilot’s and Squadron Commanders. At the time she entered the Navy, the U.S. Code Title 10 did not allow for women in combat so she was constantly architecting a career path to be positioned to achieve her career milestones including painstakingly going through the entire Junior Officer billet guide line by line to identify possible assignments, a volume the size of a phone book, something near unimaginable today in the realm of the internet.

Early in her career, Linda was going down in a high performance jet and had to eject. After pulling the ejection handle, instead of rocketing out of the airplane, she remained trapped inside. She literally had only a few seconds to live. She focused on what might be possible and tried firing the seat a second time by gripping and actuating the ejection handle differently. As she was plastered against the canopy, out of her seat in inverted flight with violent gyrations, this took extreme focus and was difficult to execute. This focus saved her life. She was a rookie in a situation which would challenge an expert. She has devoted her thought leadership to this place of edge performance, specifically facing volatility and uncertainty with imminent decisive action to survive and thrive against all odds.

Lisa White

Cox Communications’ Vice President of Construction Lisa White is a leader in a male-dominated role and industry. Lisa oversees the construction teams that build and upgrade Cox’s network for homes and businesses throughout Southern California, which includes San Diego, Orange County, Palos Verdes and Santa Barbara.

Lisa grew up in a military family that moved around a lot since her father was in the Navy. Her mother was an immigrant from England and Lisa experienced many cultures growing up around the U.S. and even Spain, which gave her insight to diversity and helped her understand the importance of creating an inclusive work environment where people of all genders and backgrounds could thrive.

Lisa started with Cox Communications more than 20 years ago in Rhode Island as a data tech in field service to install internet when it was a new product and the public was just starting to use it at home. She then worked as a data trainer then engineering supervisor and plant maintenance manager for a larger team. She worked her way up to Vice President and eventually came to San Diego in an interim VP role, which turned into a permanent position. Lisa provides leadership to a large, mostly male team that builds the Cox network year-round.

She is an avid golfer, and in college, played on the men’s golf team. They didn’t have a women’s team at the time, so she tried out for the men’s team and made it. Being a women has never stopped Lisa from accomplishing her goals.

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