If a person’s beginnings determine their station in life, then by all accounts Susan Jaye-Kaplan should not be where she is today. When Susan was eight years old her father died, tragically. Her mother suffered from mental illness and the family lived from hand-to-mouth. Then, when Susan was a teenager, her mother died, also tragically. Susan and her two siblings were orphaned, sent to live with family members they did not have a strong connection with before she’d even graduated from high school.
Many people would have curled up in a ball and given up or taken a dark path toward a difficult life. But Susan was lucky. She was stable, strong-willed and smart, that special kind of kid in the schoolyard who got along with everyone and could figure out any impossible situation. And, she had a wonderful mentor. Dr. Lippman Hart Geronimus gave her a job and made her repeat the same phrase over and over again, day after day: “I could be, should be, and would be anything in life I choose to be as long as I am hard-working, challenged, focused, and honest.” More than any of the tragedies and adversities she faced, that mentor and his philosophy helped shaped the life that Susan lives today. “I used to say to him all the time as I got older, ‘How do I thank you?’ He would say ‘Just make sure you give back to your community some way, big or small.” His words have served her well.
Susan met her husband at a Jewish community center dance when she was 14 and he was 16. Almost as soon as they started dating, she knew he was the man she would marry. “He had good values. He was caring, smart, and from a lovely family. And, the frosting on the cake was that he had a car! I knew he had all the qualities I wanted in my life.” High school sweethearts, they married when he was in his second year of college and Susan worked to put him through school. Together, Susan and her husband set out to live the right kind of life—working hard, having two beautiful children, and giving back to the world. “I’m lucky. I’m married to a guy I really like! He’s a great guy and very supportive. He likes to joke around and say, ‘I’ve been married for 40 years to six different women and they’re all named Susan Jaye-Kaplan!’”
For many years, Susan worked as a medical insurance consultant. Though she did not go to college, she was self-taught, reading book after book and working hard to build a successful business. When she was 54 years old, one of her adult children turned to her and said, “Do something that’s not just about working!” So, Susan started running. At first, she ran the length of four houses and walked home. Every other day she added a house until she could run 12 miles! But, running on her own wasn’t enough. Susan needed a network. “I used to see these women out there running and I wanted to chat with them. I put up a flyer and in 11 days I had a ton of members!” From that beginning, Susan founded the Pioneer Valley Women’s Running Club, a not-for-profit organization to promote running and other activities for women in the Pioneer Valley area of western Massachusetts.
“Intent on promoting literacy and handing out books Link to Libraries was soon giving out 100 books twice a month to various schools and organizations. Within a year, they were able to donate 450 books a month!”
As PVWRC grew, the organization began hosting special events and programs to rally women towards join in on the fun. Susan also enlisted women from the group to give running clinics to girls involved with Girls, Inc. The clinics were so successful that she founded another not-for-profit organization, Go Fit, Inc., with the purpose of providing health and fitness programs to women and youths in underprivileged communities. A tireless networker, Susan didn’t stop there. She hounded Reebok International’s CEO Paul Fireman until he finally met with her and agreed to sponsor Go Fit. “I called day in and day out and got friendly with his assistant. I left messages on his voicemail, his cell phone. Finally, his secretary said he’d give me 10 minutes. So, I went to Boston and made a 10-minute presentation and he became our major corporate sponsor! We were a four-month old non-profit in the boondocks of western Massachusetts—nobody had ever heard of us and now we had Reebok on our side!”
With the help of Reebok and other sponsors, Go Fit was able to supply inner city children with things like water bottles, running shoes, athletic gear, and mentoring literature in six different languages. The organization had 13 public speakers and an impressive group of volunteers. They won countless awards, including the Daily Point of Light Award, and were featured in Runner’s magazine in August 2006. Eventually, Susan saw that the program needed to be expanded. A big believer in getting something started and then moving on to let others take the reins, Susan and the other board members hired a consultant from Boston and interviewed other organizations willing to take Go Fit to the next level. “In 2007, Square One took over. Through their organization, 1,200 boys and girls get the Go Fit program for an hour every single day. They’ve done a remarkable job!”
Although Susan remained on the Go Fit board, it was time for her to move on. But to what? One thing she was sure about, she wanted to continue giving back. Reading an article in her local paper about public schools in need of books, in particular a local western Massachusetts school that might have to close because it had a deficit of books (among other reasons), Susan found her next venture. “I thought to myself, ‘I can help fix this!’” Host to a nontraditional book group called the Great Reads Book Club, Susan emailed 65 members on her list and said, send me a book. She gave out specific titles and in less than two weeks had 51 hardcover books sent to her house! Inspired by the success, she and her friend Janet Crimmins started a new non-profit program—Link to Libraries. Intent on promoting literacy and handing out books Link to Libraries was soon giving out 100 books twice a month to various schools and organizations. Within a year, they were able to donate 450 books a month! Their bundles always include multicultural books, early reader books for young children, books for babies, and many more. With Susan writing grants, the literacy program has caught the eye of numerous local businesses and civic organizations and has helped earn Susan several humanitarian awards, including her local National Conference for Community and Justice’s Human Relations Award, which she will receive in June.
While Susan believes wholeheartedly in the literacy program she has started, she knows that this is not the end of the line for her. In fact, she’s nowhere near done! “My plan is always to be active. Who knows, I’m always reinventing myself. There’s a possibility that when I’m 75 you’ll see me in a classroom! Or, maybe I’ll be doing the Iron Man Triathlon or starting another non-profit. My mission is being very entrepreneurial. I do everything in three to five year periods and then I move on. I try to give ownership to other people when they step in to fill a role and hopefully my efforts will survive!”
In addition to her non-profit programs, Susan also speaks at conferences, workshops, and colleges. Her message is clear. Do something. Work hard and give back. “I go all over the state talking about the projects I do. I tell the boys and girls I talk with, ‘I was you.’ The difference is that I was a white-faced, Jewish kid when they are usually a minority, but basically we’re all the same, all trying to climb the ladder to be the best that we can be. I was lucky that I didn’t get involved in drugs or the hippie movement. Are you born an entrepreneur or is it learned? Are you born to handle adversity in tough times or is it something you learn to do? I don’t have an answer but I think it’s a little bit of both. A lot of how we live our lives is how we look at ourselves, how we view ourselves. For my husband and me, giving back is extremely important.”
Looking back on her life, Susan feels proud of what she’s accomplished and wouldn’t change any of it, even her humble beginnings. “I feel like I’ve won the lottery. I have a great husband, great kids. I do what I love—give back. The paths that you cross, even if they’re difficult, make you the person that you are. The paths that I’ve crossed have been to my advantage. There’s always somebody having a worse day. I look at my cup as always being full.”
Thank you Susan, for sharing your Story with us.
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© 2009 by Tamar Burris Story of My Life®