In honor of Women’s History Month, Touchmark launched an initiative to identify and recognize exceptional female residents who defied the odds in their professional and personal lives to pursue opportunities that were historically off-limits for women. Please enjoy the story of Judy O’Higgins, a resident at Touchmark at The Ranch.
Please tell us about your professional background.
The majority of my career has been in social work and professional counseling. I got my master’s degree in Social Work from the University of Michigan. After I graduated, I worked with Vista for two years (Volunteers in Service to America), which the Lyndon Johnson administration started alongside the Peace Corps. It is now called AmeriCorps. That was an education in and of itself! You live in the neighborhood where you serve, and they sent me and my brand-new husband to inner-city Detroit. That experience was a wake-up call for me, seeing how others lived in poverty.
I grew up in Riverside, Connecticut, a bedroom community to New York City, which was very different. My dad worked for General Electric, and he wanted me to pursue a similar field to him, but I had to tell him that I’d always felt I’d be serving people. That was a defining moment for me—one of the first times I really stood up for myself.
My master’s degree in Social Work gave me access to a lot of different job opportunities. After serving in Detroit, my husband and I separated, and I moved to the West Coast. I had always wanted to live in the west—I had no clue why; it just felt like home. My dad had a business connection in San Diego, and I was able to get an office job in the city through one of his contacts. This was before the widespread use of computers, but the company I worked for had one of those big clunky ones, and my job was to put information into it by feeding it cards.
Over the years of my marriage, my husband and I had both developed a strong dependence on alcohol. After attempting to reconcile with him for a couple of years, we gave up, and I finally entered a 30-day inpatient program for alcohol recovery in 1978 and followed that up with regular Alcoholics Anonymous meetings for ongoing support.
How did your career and life focus shift after that experience?
A year later, I found out that there was a brand-new program at San Diego State University that taught how to work with people to help them recover from substance abuse. It was a one-year program, and I enrolled. When I got out, I had everything I needed to make a difference. I knew what I wanted to do with my life.
My first job was in a women’s recovery home in San Diego. I was the primary counselor there and oversaw 20 beds. I loved it. Though it was challenging, I felt I really made a difference. I was living my purpose. After a couple of years there, I took a job offer from one of the most prestigious alcohol and drug programs in the area.
Then, the most amazing thing happened: the hospital where I had once been a patient was looking for a new counselor. I applied and got the job.
My biggest achievement was walking into the hospital where I had once been a patient and accepting the job as their head counselor!
I was really invested in helping women, and this was a great spot to do it. I started a women’s outpatient program to go alongside the inpatient program that the hospital already had. I served in that job for several years until 1986, when a good friend convinced me to visit Sedona, Arizona. I found out ahead of time that there was an alcohol treatment program in Sedona, and I planned to visit it when I went. I let the program know I wanted to come by and said, “You probably don’t have any open positions, do you?” The person on the other end of the line replied, “Yes, but you have to have a master’s degree.” And, well, I did! I was ready for a change.
My second husband was in finance, like my dad. At that time, we had been married for just three years. He was doing well in San Diego, so when I got that job, I had to make the biggest sale of my life: convincing him to move to a small town in Arizona before the internet was as big as it is now. That made it harder because remote work wasn’t common. My husband lost a lot of clients, and he had to work hard to start over, but we made the move, and he became successful again in Sedona.
I had another career-defining moment in this new position. The head of the hospital came to our facility and had a fireside chat with us … he said the treatment facility was being sold to someone else but not to worry—our jobs were secure. I didn’t believe that, though, and I started exploring other options. My husband suggested I go into private practice, so that’s exactly what I did. When the pink slips came, as I had suspected they would, my new practice was all set up, and the transition was seamless. It was wonderful! We set up a home office for my private counseling practice, and then I didn’t even have to commute.
My practice ran from 1990 to 2005. Overall, I spent 25 years in the field. But year 25 is when something I never thought would happen to me happened: I experienced burnout. It wasn’t something I thought was possible, but I found I couldn’t control it. I didn’t want to hear the stories my patients had to share or even answer the phone. And that’s not good for a therapist!
I remember having this inner knowing: I needed to do something else, but I wasn’t sure what that would be. I prayed for a solution. Amazingly, a month or so after this feeling started, my phone rang. It was an old friend of mine who said, “Judy, I’ve found this little company that no one has ever heard of, but I think it’s going to be super popular. I thought of you because it aligns with helping and uplifting others.” He shared more details, and my inner voice told me to go for it.
I started my own business for around $500 and a leap of faith. I have been an independent contractor with SendOutCards since 2005 and have achieved several promotions within the company.
What obstacles did you face pursuing your career? How did you overcome those challenges?
SendOutCards made me confront the challenge of being an introvert. I remember my friend Jordan Adler saying to me that no one had heard of the card business in Phoenix and that there were a lot of companies out there that could use this service. I thought, “Oh no! I have to connect with strangers!” But I really wanted this venture to succeed, and I really loved the service SendOutCards provided. So, I joined networking groups, traveled several times a month to Phoenix, and learned how to network correctly. I was motivated by my bank balance, which told me this was something I needed to do. Very gradually, I learned new skills, and meeting and connecting with new people is now one of my favorite aspects of the business. This is my 17th anniversary with the company. I've really grown over those years:
I’ve learned that there is so much personal growth involved in being your own boss and having your own business. It’s a constant challenge, but it’s great to always be learning, growing, and stretching myself.
My husband, the wonderful man who followed me to Arizona, and I had a wonderful life for 32 years. Sadly, he ended up getting Parkinson’s disease and dementia along with it. It was really hard to watch him decline and serve as his caretaker. After he had a bad fall, he went to the VA hospital in Prescott. Both 2015 and 2016 were tough years, and he passed in 2017.
I ended up moving to Prescott two years ago after visiting Touchmark, seeing the campus and beautiful homes, and learning about all the great amenities it provides. I love the staff and how convenient everything is. I’m glad I don’t have to be alone in my home or manage maintenance anymore. Here at Touchmark, I have a little office in my apartment and work on my business from there. Life goes on, and so does SendOutCards.
Is there anything you wish you could have imparted to your younger self?
Be true to yourself. Don’t just do what society tells you to do. If you have an inner voice guiding you to your purpose, don’t listen to the people telling you no—do it anyway!
What advice would you give to women who want to honor their inner voice and pursue their goals today?
Follow your passion and your heart. Do what makes you want to get out of bed every day. Personally, I don’t think I’m ever going to retire completely. I’ve slowed down for sure, and will be 78 in July, but I still have a purpose, and I still have a passion for uplifting people and making them feel special with cards. Continuing to learn new things and challenging yourself is very important at any age.
In addition to your business, what other activities occupy your time?
I love needlepoint, though I don’t do it as much now as I used to. I also love animals and enjoy visiting the creatures at Out of Africa, a wildlife park nearby. Sometimes Touchmark will offer day trips there. In addition, I’ve always had a dog—in fact, my dog is right here at my feet now—and we go on walks four times a day. My business keeps me pretty busy, too, and I am updating a book for Baby Boomers I wrote called “License to Retire.”
Outside of your practice, what is a life accomplishment that stands out to you and of which you’re proud?
I’m proud that I went into a treatment program in 1978 and overcame alcoholism. It was really scary because over the course of many years, I had become so dependent on alcohol to communicate, overcome my shyness, just to live my life. It finally dawned on me that if I was going to keep living, I had to go to treatment. It totally changed my life, and the experience of going through recovery led me to finding my career.
I was able to help many others to a life of recovery over my 25-year counseling career—the most important thing I’ve ever done to truly make a difference.