Kathy Bacon‘s story is one that could have gone in a very different direction than it did. She spent much of her young life in abusive relationships- both mentally and physically – but she was able to lift herself out of them, discover what she wanted to do in life and pursued them with gusto and determination. Her message is one that shows that even when we face adversity, we don’t need to see ourselves as victims. If we want to, we have the power to change the direction that our life is going. Kathy was a single mother who worked while educating herself and exploring different careers. She eventually started non-profits on her own, learning while she created. These endeavors eventually led her to being a radio host in order to spread the larger message that she wanted to share with the world. When Kathy was younger, she wanted to be an actor, but her parents told her that she needed to choose something that would make her money. I don’t think it is a coincidence that life eventually led Kathy to be the radio host of Pay It Forward and Fashion Forward in Denver. She is using her voice and personality to share other people’s stories – not that dissimilar to being an actor, is it?
I’d love to hear a little bit about that beginning of your journey. What did you start doing when you first started in your professional life?
When I was younger I had children immediately. I grew up Catholic so it was a given. I hate to say this but I really didn’t want to have that many kids. I went to school and I got married. My husband was abusive and an alcoholic. I didn’t know that because I met him when I was 17 and married him at 18. Those things started coming through, that he was an alcoholic and an abuser, afterwards. It was really a hard life. He drank and was abusive and I had a baby and we lived with his family. It was really tough. I worked and he stayed home. I didn’t come from a place where people acted like that. In those days you couldn’t call the police because if you called the police they basically said to figure it out. Domestic violence was not something that was talked about. It was really difficult, and I spent 7 years with him and had another child with him, hoping things would change and he would change.
I went to school and took early childhood education because I worked in the school district and I could do that while I was working and had kids. Of course we got divorced, and I was single for 3 years. Then I met another mental abuser and because I wasn’t getting the help I needed I married him and had another child. I realized, once again, that I was in a really bad situation. I was wondering what was wrong with me because I was marrying these people that just wasn’t what I really wanted. I couldn’t figure out why it was working out like it was. So, I got divorced after 6 years and spent 3-4 years in counseling. It was the best 4 years I ever had because I worked out a lot of stuff about me.
What was the catalyst to seek counseling?
I think the first time with my husband, who was a physical abuser, he came home one day and had been drinking and he was going to start up again. I kicked his motorcycle helmet off of the table with the intent to kill him. I actually watched myself do it from outside of my body. Women who have been abused say they don’t know what happened. I really do get that. I don’t know, that’s not me. I’m not somebody who in vindictive or out to hurt anybody or kill anybody. At that moment I had the intent to kill him. With my second husband it was the whole idea of having 3 children and being by myself. I had been married twice and it hadn’t been successful so what am I going to do? I don’t need anybody. I need to figure out what I need and what works for me and really figure this out.
I applaud you for that. I have encountered many people in life who have just ignored that voice. They just kind of keep going, whether that be in their personal life or in their career. I think it is so important to just take that time, and I really applaud people who do that. It’s not an easy process.
Gosh, no, it was not easy. I’m so glad that I listened to the voice. I struggled. I was angry for a lot of years about all that had happened. I was a little bit of a victim for a while and then I thought that was ridiculous. I am not a victim. I remember at the time thinking that I just couldn’t wait to get through this. Now I look back and think how glad I am that I went through it because it made me who I am today. That is the beauty of the journey whether it is good, bad, or ugly, it develops you into who you are.
I took a job working at an engineering firm as a receptionist. I could work there and go to school, take care of my kids, and have decent hours. I met my (now) husband there and we were just friends for 3 years. Now we have been married 22 years. It took a while but you know life is never perfect. I think if you focus on yourself first it is better. I was taught when I was younger that you never brag and you don’t make anything about you. That is not true. The truth is that you have to take care of yourself before you can really take care of anyone else.
I know that you mentioned living abroad was a life-changing experience for you. Can you tell me a bit about what it was that altered your perspective on how you wanted to live your life?
My husband started taking jobs overseas with his company. We went from Seattle to Thailand where we were supposed to be for a year. It ended up being close to 4 years and it was fantastic. It absolutely changed my life. It changed the way that I thought, the way that I believed about certain things and what is really important. What is really important is just basic needs and family. Having people around you and love in your life is what is important, not your car, your house, or any of that. I was raised in the upper-middle class and that was the thought. You have to have a nice house, a big car, and you have to look good to everybody around you. You didn’t discuss your emotions. You didn’t talk about anything like that.
I worked all of my life and when I moved there I didn’t have to work. My husband worked his butt off, but I was able to go to work at these two temples because they spoke both English and Thai. I did that part-time just because it was fantastic. I worked with a non-profit group called Thai Craft and we would go into the villages and help them with marketing of their goods and get fair market price for their sales once a month in Bangkok. The people would come down with their beautiful silks and handicraft works, and it was just incredible.
You may not have been getting paid, but that is significant work. It sounds like that work very much influenced what you did once you came to Denver.
Yes, it did. After being in Thailand I came to Denver, and I didn’t know what to do. I felt almost displaced. I think you learn so much and you are a different person when you come back. The friends that you had don’t look the same. It is very strange. I actually went and taught at Willow Creek Elementary School as an assistant to the teacher. That was a great job working at the school for a while, but I always felt like there was something missing. I wanted to do something I could enjoy. I worked at a place where I helped with personal shopping for a while and I thought, gosh, maybe I should start my own company.
Then one day I was reading a book and in the back of the book it said if you want to give back to your community, which is always good when you run a business, your local Dress for Success would be great. I looked for one and there wasn’t one in Denver so I would drive to Colorado Springs once a month and volunteer. I did that for like 6 months and then one day I got in the car, I’ll never forget it, and I heard a voice say that this was what I was to do. I thought, “This is ridiculous!” I really struggled with that. I was like, no, I’ve never run a non-profit, and I can’t do this. I remember looking over things several times and arguing with myself over it. When I called them they told me, “Kathy, if you are passionate about living and you want to do this, and learn to support your community, then you can do it.”
I did it. I pursued it and it was really hard. It was a 6 months of back and forth. What would you do for fund raising? How would you do this and how would you do that? It was a lot of writing. I had to do a business plan. It was hard. I thought, if I don’t try this then I’ll never know if I could do it and I needed to try.
Did you have support from the people in Colorado Springs or Dress for Success’ headquarters?
I absolutely had support from them. They did not give me money but they helped me figure out ways to get money and fund raise. I took the budget from $75,000 the first year to $300,000 by year 4. Once I got this started, and it seemed like it took forever, but once I got things in place then I moved on to see what else I could do in the community. When I moved on the new leadership would not allow me to come back to volunteer. So, I had to just walk away and say, “Kathy, you did what you were supposed to do. You got this going, women are being helped now, and you just need to let go of the women with egos and let them just do what they are going to do.” But I will tell you that it just crushed me. I was so depressed for a year.
I’ve worked with a lot of non-profits, and I think there is this wrong idea about the way non-profits exist. How often does it happen at for-profits where a CEO comes in and tries to run a company or they start it and then they move on to the next one? That happens in start-ups all the time, yet there is this idea that with a non-profit you are supposed to give you life over to it and do it until you retire.
Yeah, there is something about being a Founder that makes you so passionate about it. It is something in my journey that I learned from, and I think I’m not so trusting of people. I think I had the impression that the people who want to get involved in non-profits are good people. That is not always true. I’m learning a lot.
A beautiful thing is that I had the opportunity to mentor the Founder of Dress for Success in Phoenix. Her Dress for Success is doing amazing. She has won awards for Dress for Success in New York, and I mentored her for the first 2 years and it is doing amazing. I get such joy out of that whole experience more than anything else – and that I helped so many women who came through the door that just needed another chance. If I look at that, it was such an accomplishment for me, personally. After I left I helped other non-profits get started and then I took on the Pay It Forward movement here in Denver.
Now, is that something that you created yourself?
No, Catherine Hyde wrote the book, Pay It Forward, and it was made into a movie. The Board Chair of the Pay it Forward Foundation decided that one way to get the Foundation off and out into the world was to create these bracelets that said “Pay It Forward” on them. There was a message in each package of the bracelets, which says you put the bracelet on, do something nice for someone and then you hand them your bracelet and ask them to pay it forward, doing the same thing for someone else. Reading about this, I wondered how to open a chapter here in Denver as a place of kindness. I hooked up with Charley Johnson, who was the Board Chair of Pay It Forward, and I was able to raise enough money to order 5,000 bracelets.
Paying something forward is a personal thing for everyone. I have the Denver Pay It Forward movement and just did 30 days of paying it forward on the Denver Pay It Forward Movement Facebook page. I try to inspire people to pay it forward. I carry bracelets in my purse. I will leave them at tables. I am constantly putting the Play It Forward out there and trying to raise money for more.
When I started, I thought there has to be another way to really get the message out about paying it forward and being kind to others – because in our world it is important to hear those kinds of stories. I started going to radio stations and went to Mile Hi Radio here in Denver, which is Internet radio. I started doing a regular Pay It Forward Radio show, and it has been fantastic. I have people coming out of the woodwork doing amazing things, and people don’t even know about them.
Yes – there are so many good stories out there, and I feel like our news does not focus on that and we are not hearing those. If that was the consistent messaging that was heard rather than the constant fear and negative stories that our media focuses on, then there really could be a huge shift in our culture and the way people view the world. I really love this idea that you are putting positive messaging out there and showing that there are good people doing good things.
There are amazing people in the world. We don’t get to hear about them unless it makes it to ABC or something like that. I am dedicated to doing this. This is so important to me. I get so much out of hearing what people are doing. Just seeing that they have one idea and then they make it work. Yesterday I interviewed a company that works to employ refugees and seeing that there is crowd funding for women’s businesses and to help funding them. What they do to empower women is incredible. Next week there is somebody talking about a family of Brazilians who were burned in a fire. How his wife came back to life through all of it. Every story is different. It’s not about non-profits because very rarely do I even have a non-profit on my show. It’s really about for-profit businesses and changing the way we do business.
One person told me, “Good stories don’t sell. Good news never sells.” I told them, I’m not trying to sell it. I’m just trying to make people aware that there are people out there who have an idea where they look at their community and say, “Maybe I’ll just pick up trash today. I could just walk around the park and do that.” The feeling that everyone gets from doing good is amazing. It is beyond belief and a high beyond anything else. I just want people to be aware. Go talk to you neighbor because you never know what is going on with them. When I was young my parents knew everybody on the street. Now we don’t know anyone. There were barbeques where all of the neighbors would come. People don’t do that any more.
I recently heard Tina Roth Eisenberg of SwissMiss speak, and she was talking about how we need to start creating small community clusters again and that just really resonated with me. It’s especially true in urban areas. When we are in cities, how are we creating these small clusters of community? To your point, it can be just one person who decides to create this cluster and it gets others to do the same.
Don’t be afraid to have an idea that might work for your community or your neighbor. It’s really just so easy to open a door for someone and it’s free. It doesn’t cost you anything. People are in such a hurry. People are depressed and sad and all of those things and I think it’s because they no longer look at all of the good that is happening. The media sucks us dry and makes us feel like it’s all doom and gloom and it’s just not true.
We have become an insulated society. People have these ideas, but they don’t even know how to go about doing it or sharing it. I think a lot of what you are doing is being a connector, so that people may be over here saying something and someone over here sees it and says that they want to fund that idea (or whatever it might be). I think the fact that you are creating a space for where that can happen is a positive thing for the world and your community.
My big issue is money. My husband says he wishes I would quit doing everything for free, but I just can’t imagine working for anyone else. I have the absolutely best job in the world. I get to talk to people every single week who are doing amazing things and that actually care about other people and put their life on the line for someone else and live by the golden rule, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Those are the people I am a part of and I want to continue to be a part of those people. That is my tribe of people.
Someone said to me recently, if you go into this wondering how you will make money off of it, you are never going to make money off of it. The idea is it has to come from a genuine, organic place and then that money will come. Yes, you have to be smart about it but I’m interested in hearing if you have taken any steps to figure out how to do that?
I really have. Last year I interviewed a man named Robert Stack and he is a coach and speaker. He was my guest on my show and he was Bob Hope’s publicist when he got out of college. He was very young when he first started and he said to me, “Kathy, you have a gift of speaking, talking, and listening and you need to do something with that.” So, after that I really said, okay, I’m going to pursue this.
My husband would like to retire soon and I feel like I’m just on the brink of actually working. It’s a weird thing. He is saying he thinks he will be ready to retire in 5 years and I think in 5 years I will finally be working my butt off. I will be out there in the world. I wonder how that is going to work? But it is what it is.
If someone is sitting at a desk job or just somewhere that they don’t love what they are doing and they know that they want to do something else, what would your advice to them be?
It would be to do what you love, what you really feel passionate about. There is a quote that says “Make the leap and the net will be there.” You never know if you can do it if you don’t try and you have to try. To me, if you are not happy about what you are doing then find out what you are happy about because I really believe the universe wants us to be happy. I just believe that. I don’t believe anything else. I never look at failure as failure. I always look at it as a learning experience. Even if it doesn’t work out like you think, you are going to learn a lot from it and you are totally going to be able to further carry out the next venture, and the next venture after that. I believe that life is too short to be doing something you are not happy doing. You spend most of your time at work so please find what you love and then do it. Your being happy carries over to other people.
If someone isn’t sure what they are happy about, do you have any advice on how you go about figuring that out?
For me, I always go into nature and take a hike when I’m torn between something. I may sit quietly in my room, I have a little Buddha table that I got from Thailand, and think in silence. I think that if you sit in silence and really listen, you will get the answers. If you don’t feel comfortable at that you can go to your local community college and take an aptitude test where they find out what you are really good at. It might be something you have never thought of.
I think we listen so much to other people or what our parents say we should be. I wanted to go into acting and theater when I was growing up. My parents told me I couldn’t do that because I wouldn’t make any money. It really swayed what I wanted to do. I think that you have to really listen to yourself and be truthful as to what you want to do. Don’t listen to other people about what you “should” do, or even that you should go to college. I told my kids don’t got to college and waste my money. If you don’t know what you want to do then take a year off to figure that out and then go to college. Try something for a year and see if you like it and then decide. Don’t just jump into something if you don’t know what you want to do. Take some time to figure it out. It seems like when we leave our last place it is to move us to our next best place in our journey to our best self. Sometimes it’s not fun to not know what we are doing but we always move past that.
I have met so many people who have their eyes on the prize. They get out of the MBA program and think, “I don’t want to do this. There is nothing in this that I want to do.”
That is the beauty, too, of the generation to come. My parents said, “You need to find somewhere to work and stay there for 30 years.” I never believed in that, but now there is such a variety of different professions throughout a life. It is endless. Don’t listen to these other messages throughout life that you have to do it this way…you don’t. You don’t have to.
Notes of Reflection:
- We don’t have to let the past dictate what our future will be. Humans can have a tendency to think that when something is the way it is that it will never be any different. How do we possibly start a-new and change the path in which our life is headed? Kathy is an amazing and living example of someone that wasn’t willing to accept the life she didn’t want as being her only life. Through a lot of hard work and help, she was able to leave that life behind her and create a life that she wanted. Things can change. We just have to be open to letting them.
- Sometimes the thing that we want to do from the very beginning is the thing that we are meant to do – it just isn’t a direct path to getting there. How do we tap into the interests that we had as a young person, but see new and creative ways of exploring and doing that original want. Kathy wanted to be an actor when she was a kid. While she isn’t an actor, she is an online personality that does a lot of the same things that actors do – tell other people’s stories. Her route in getting there was an indirect one, but she eventually got there.
- How are we using the horrible experiences in life to build and move forward? If you go out on your own, put yourself out there and try to create something from scratch, there are going to be negative experiences, people with egos who try to stop you and things that divert you from moving forward. How do you make sure that these things do not undo you? How do you learn that sometimes you have to let go of something that you have worked really hard at creating, in order to move on to the next thing, chapter and experience? Accept, let go and move forward.