The loss of a friend and the prediction of a psychic propelled Kate to launch the nonprofit LifeChronicles, helping families heal through videotaped interviews of their loved ones who are elderly or seriously ill.
Tell us a little about your background…
I often think of myself as just a little girl who has had remarkable experiences. I only briefly attended college, though I know I would have excelled had I continued. I came from a poor, working class family; no one had attended college. In fact, my teachers often encouraged me to go to college, but I remember my stepfather telling me, “Why would you bother to go to college? You are just going to end up married anyway.” But I have always loved to read and have an innate curiosity about many things, especially people. I am very fortunate to have had work experiences and mentors who gave me the confidence I have today.
Since I was in elementary school, I always felt that I was “destined” to do something to make the world a better place, but I certainly didn’t come from any family environment that made me think that way. I have always rooted for the underdog and wanted to make someone (anyone) feel better. When I was in my 30s, I remember the Oprah Show constantly having someone on who would talk about “follow your bliss!” I remember standing in front of the TV and shouting, “I would if I knew what it was! How do I find out what it is? I will follow it!”
I grew up first in Chicago then in the San Fernando Valley, outside LA. My first job out of high school, in 1970, was data entry at Capital Record Club, when computers were just beginning to be used in business. At 28, I moved on to a great position as the Executive Administrative Assistant to the President of a large real estate company; when I left after the birth of my third child, I started a home secretarial business, which turned into a successful medical transcription business.
I met my second (present) husband, Russ, in a bar—that’s not a place where you’d normally find me, so I know it was kismet we should meet there. We’ve lived in Santa Barbara, California for 35 years now. We each have a child from our previous marriage and then we have two together. While only three of the children were raised together, all four get along famously and we just love that! We now have a 3-year-old grandson named Odin and an 8-month-old grandson named Opal (yes, Opal). I call them the O-boys. They are just miraculous to me, but it is heartbreaking every day that they live far away in Eugene, OR.
People like to say the reason we love grandchildren so much is because we don’t have to raise them, but I have come to believe that no, it’s because these are my baby’s babies and what can be better than that? And lately I realize that these little people make my baby very happy, and that makes those little creatures even more precious to me.
When did you start to think about making a change? Did you have an “aha” moment?
When I was 40, I lost my closest friend unexpectedly. It was devastating, but I came out of that realizing that I needed to find what it was I was meant to do, because, clearly, none of us knows how long we get to be here. I also decided that the best way to honor my departed friend was to live up to the person she believed me to be…more than I had ever believed myself.
I met with a psychic (aura reader) months after my friend died and she told me I would work in television or video and that I wouldn’t have to leave Santa Barbara to get my training. Soon after, when I was lunching with my accountant, she mentioned a video production class she was taking; I told her what the psychic said and she took me straight to the local community access TV station to look for classes. The station manager walked into the lobby where we were reading the bulletin board and said, “Would anyone be interested in taking an internship? The applications are due today.” I submitted my application that same day, a Friday, was interviewed on Monday, and started my internship on Tuesday!
I remember telling my husband that this internship in TV production felt like coming home. When it was finished, my friends kept asking me what I was going to do with what I had learned and I said, “I don’t know. I am not interested in commercial television; I just want to do something meaningful.” If you’ve ever seen good television or good film, you know what a positive, profound impact it can have on people. So I decided to let the universe (a new expression for me) reveal to me what I could do with what I had learned.
Then a dear friend Tairi was diagnosed with breast cancer six weeks after her husband, David, died of ALS. She passed away 18 months later, leaving three children ages 16, 13 and 10. A few months before she died, she confided in me that she’d been told to get her affairs in order. I walked around for two days, mentally wringing my hands, thinking, “What can I do?” and then it came to me; I can do video! So I called her and said, “I want to sit you down in front of a camera and I want you to tell the children everything you want them to remember for the rest of their lives.” And because I am no genius, it was a full two months later that the proverbially light went on and I realized, “This is that thing I could do!”
What is your next act?
I am the Founder and President of LifeChronicles, which I founded 17 years ago, at the age of 46. Our mission is to help families heal and connect by videotaping the life stories of an elderly family member or a seriously ill loved one…at no charge. This has been our mission since 1998 and has never changed. We ask families to donate to the extent that they are able, but no one is ever turned away due to economic status…no one!
Our process is simple. We bring all the professional filming equipment to your scheduled, in-home taping appointment. We gently guide our clients through the interview; no preparation is necessary. After the taping, which lasts about two hours, we handle all editing and production to return a custom DVD of your LifeChronicles experience.
Through these videos, we preserve the memories and wisdom of special people in your life—from their most trivial mannerisms to their deepest essence. To do this effectively requires more than knowledge of how to work a video camera. As facilitators, we set the stage to make all involved in a taping session relaxed and comfortable. We create an environment that allows for spontaneity and emotional richness. Through our experience and our empathy, we are able to make an empowering and rewarding experience for all involved. We respect and honor confidentiality of all parties involved as well as each client’s beliefs, wishes, and unique circumstances.
Our services are available to seniors and individuals of any age who are nearing the end of life, many of whom are affected by serious illness such as cancer, ALS, Alzheimer’s, etc. We collaborate with experts and agencies serving our clients to connect with those most in need of our services.
Finished videos average 60-90 minutes in length and include a photo montage set to the music of your choice. We have completed over 1200 videos to date in 39 states and 250 cities (including four cities in Canada and two in London). We have done a number of videos that were emergencies that did not allow enough time for me to travel to them, so I have facilitated via Skype or Gotomeeting in those instances.
In some situations, we can also help clients create a video using their own videocamera or arrange for a camera crew on their end and then facilitate via videoconferencing. Sometimes people think they can just do it completely on their own and, while I would never say that it can’t be done, we have had many people tell us that they tried to do it themselves and just couldn’t do it. Remember, these are typically families in stress due to their medical situation and facing end of life. They have told us they just didn’t know where to start, what to say, how to gather equipment, etc. And now that our tapings have become therapeutic in nature, there is much more involved in this endeavor. Our job is to walk into their lives at a highly charged moment and provide them with what they need in as effortlessly a manner as we can and leave them within a couple of hours to get back to the business at hand.
How hard was it to take the plunge?
Taking the plunge was crazy hard. When I first realized what I was going to do, I had a month of racing heartbeats and sleepless nights. I was terrified. I just knew this was a good idea and that it was going to change my life. Most of all, I had now been given the chance to fail, big time, in front of lots of people. But I remember a moment when I thought, “I am going to step off the cliff and just believe that I will not hit bottom.”
How did you get started?
I first called two important people in the end of life arena in Santa Barbara to basically announce what I planned to do. A week later, I asked five of my closest friends, with a variety of skills and experience, to meet in my dining room and I said to them, “This is what I want to do…will you help me?” That night, we started to put in writing what our goals were and our planned intentions. We formed a board of directors and recruited a few more people.
From the very beginning, we knew we would be a nonprofit. Having had major medical experiences myself (I’ve had my colon removed as a result of ulcerative colitis), I understood more than most the incredible challenges facing families going through medical crisis. We knew if we charged for our services, we would be leaving out many people and we felt strongly that no one should be turned away. Luckily, I met a person who was closing down a 501(c)(3) California nonprofit and, after letters back and forth with the state, that 501(c)(3) designation was turned over to LifeChronicles. This saved us quite a bit of money and months of time. I just asked!
One of my close friends advanced $10k and my husband gave the same from a small inheritance he had received. This was just enough to buy our first equipment and to hire a professional to create a promotional video. For help, we reached out to friends who had experience with accounting, law, boards of directors, working in the nonprofit world, etc.
We went through several names for our nonprofit. The first one was Time in a Bottle; it sounds silly, but if you know the Jim Croce song, it seemed like a nice connection to what we were doing—the problem was that people often thought we had something to do with alcohol! Then we were called Acts of Kindness, you know, that connection to performance or your last act, but that didn’t last long. Then we picked From the Heart because everyone would say, “Wow, these people really speak from the heart!” but one day we got a call from another agency that had a fit that we were using the same name as their newsletter, and while our attorney said that was nonsense, I immediately called each board member and said, “Look, we are going to take three days to figure out our name, then we will have it trademarked and never go through this again!”
We went back to the original list of names we had come up with at our very first meeting in my dining room and there was LifeChronicles. Though some didn’t think it was warm and fuzzy enough, I realized that not everyone wants to hear warm and fuzzy; they want to know what you do. I also know that once people work with us and have a LifeChronicles experience, they will get warm and fuzzy!
How supportive were your family and friends?
My friends and family were crucial to our success from the very beginning. My husband has been incredibly supportive and understanding throughout these 17 years. I am amazed that he has hung in as long as he has, because it has not been an easy road. We have sacrificed a great deal financially over the years, but he has never asked me to stop. My daughter worked part time as our receptionist for a while before she was married. One of my sons has been on tapings with me, also before he married. Our other two children lend emotional support from where they live and always encourage and value what I do. They believe in the work, too.
I must say, though, you do find out who your friends are. I should qualify that because sometimes it’s not a person’s fault that they can’t be supportive and it has nothing to do with you. They have their own fears to deal with, God bless them. I know I have mine!
There were a number of times I thought of giving up…sometimes I kind of long for fewer challenges. What kept me going was the encouragement of friends and family. I remember my teenage son saying to me one day, “You know, Mom, there’s no turning back now!” And I remember that often. The calls for our services are not ever going to stop, so I raised my hand to take on this assignment, and I’m no quitter.
Can you share a story of a family or two you taped through Life Chronicles?
Having done over 1200 videos, it is a very hard choice to make, but one that always stands out for me is a 28-year-old with ALS who was the mother of a two year old. The mother could move her eyes and her lips and while she cried and the social worker mopped up her tears, in my mind I was frantically thinking of what I could offer this young woman to say to her child that would be something she could feel good about and that would make her child feel good every time she watched the video. And I found myself saying, “You know, Raven, I would never ask you to say that there is anything good about ALS, because you and I both know there is nothing good about ALS, but at this time in your life, what is it that brings you joy?” And she replied, “My daughter brings me joy.” And she talked about her daughter for the next 10 minutes. I felt such relief that this video would be how her daughter would know how much her mother loved her when she watched it years later. Her mother died a week after we taped her.
In another taping, I asked each of a dying man’s grown children, in their own one-on-one session with their father, if they would turn to him and tell him the words they would like him to remember when he closes his eyes for the last time. After each of his children had their turn, he turned to me with tears streaming down his face and said, “I have longed to hear my children tell me how they feel…”
Each taping is special in its own right, but tapings of babies are probably the most memorable. You are not only taping a child with a short time to live, but you are also taping them with their young parents who are going through every parent’s worst nightmare. It is gratifying to hear later, “I can’t touch him or smell him, but I can see him and hear him and it means everything to me.” And to see the healing that often takes place between family members when they realize, as we sit with the cameras and start to share, that this is their last chance to say things that will be forever remembered, well, it’s just a wonderful experience.
I find it incredibly rewarding to work with these families. As I write this, I realize part of what is so wonderful about it is that they are so welcoming and also very vulnerable. I feel honored that they put their trust in me and that I am able to show love and compassion to them…it enriches MY life to have that opportunity! The realization that came to me years ago after starting to do this work is that we should laugh every day. For me, that is what we are meant to do in this life…laugh and love!
What challenges have you encountered?
The biggest challenge along the way has always been money. I quit my modestly lucrative vocation, my medical transcription business that had allowed me to be able to work from home while my children were in school and had helped pay the mortgage. Starting a nonprofit, money is always a challenge. And it has been a tremendous challenge to keep doing the mission of LifeChronicles without charge to the families. But it is the heart of what we do and I hope that never has to change.
Learning how to convey the mission in a way that was meaningful to people who weren’t experiencing end of life (though everyone does, eventually, right?) has actually gotten easier as our culture has shifted in its ability to accept end of life. More and more, largely because of hospice and palliative care, we are becoming better at helping people work through the end of life experience. But much of our culture is still afraid of this aspect of life, for many reasons. We have largely hidden the environment of death and dying as if it were something that only happens to other people.
Today, what are your largest sources of funds? How are you able to provide all your tapings for free?
Most of our funds, believe it or not, come from individual donations. We do fundraisers, including a major event, once a year; we write a grant or two; but most of our funding comes from individuals. We have been able to provide all our tapings over the years purely by will. We have had scary financial times, but we have never been left with nothing, so we just keep going.
Believe me, there are still people to this day who think we should be a for-profit, but from the very beginning I knew that many of the people we would serve would never be able to afford our services. The video we give, especially to families of a dying young parent leaving very small children—the bulk of our work today—is going to have a major impact and be a tremendous benefit to the development of the children left behind. That is not something you can put a price on and should never be denied to anyone because they don’t have the cash. And everyone wants to be remembered…
How do you promote your work?
We don’t have a marketing budget, but we do have a nice website and a Facebook page with a few hundred friends. Most people hear about us after searching for “video for end of life,” or something similar, on the Internet. Others hear about us from online support groups. More and more of our referrals are coming from palliative care doctors, social workers, and providers, as well as cancer centers such as Dana-Farber Cancer Center at Harvard, Kimmel Cancer Center at Johns Hopkins, Stanford Cancer Center, and others.
Who are the people who help with the work? How do you recruit them?
We have a terrific small staff of four and a great board of directors. Our board has become more proactive than ever. With all the new developments and the exciting future we are working on, they have a new sense of mission and have become more involved. They have formed committees focusing on fund development, public relations, board governance, and more. Each is required to donate to LifeChronicles annually and to attend at least one videotaping. Many of our board members have been served personally by LifeChronicles.
Our volunteers usually come to us. We used to recruit volunteers but, after the 2008 economic downturn, we had to let go of our volunteer coordinator and a couple of other staff positions, and we just couldn’t go out and recruit in the same way. We used to attend volunteer fairs at colleges and high schools, but we just don’t have the time for that or for coordinating large numbers of volunteers. It is amazing, though, how many people hear about us and become volunteers. The work really moves most people…
We do seek out young people to man the cameras, not only because they are usually familiar with camera technology, but more importantly because working with LifeChronicles offers them the opportunity for a life-changing experience.
While I have been the facilitator in probably 95% of the tapings to date, the others who have facilitated over the years have been mature adults who I have coached in the process. We are just starting a more structured training program for facilitators. It is very challenging work and involves several full days of initial training and ongoing education along the way.
What have your learned about yourself through this process?
I have learned so many things through this process—not all good. I have learned my shortcomings, which is not easy; I learn them every day! But I have also learned the depth of my feelings for people in general; I have learned that belief and persistence are greater than any formal education you can have; I have learned to be inspired by people, even when they are not at their best. And, perhaps best of all, I have learned that laughter is mandatory for a happy life and is a choice. We can choose to laugh through most anything and it’s what we are here for. At least it is what I am here for!
What advice do you have for women seeking reinvention in midlife?
We chose from the beginning to involve young people in our work. Our tapings help us realize that life is fragile and can be shorter than we had hoped. People facing end of life don’t talk about—excuse my French—bullshit. We knew we wanted young people to witness, firsthand, what truly matters in life. Sometimes we learn that best when faced with the possibility of losing our life.
I often say to our young volunteers what I would say to women seeking to reinvent themselves, that “there is no real timeline.” You know, time is a human construct, and so is the idea that you follow a particular path and timeline to where you want to go. My experience is that if you want to have an experience, don’t let anyone tell you that you are too old or too anything to go for it. That’s why I am diligently looking for a hip-hop class right now!
Seriously, just believe that you can do whatever you dream to do. Be open to what the universe has to offer. Reach out to your friends who love you and believe in you. And once you feel sure you have found the path that resonates for you, NEVER give up.
How can readers get involved with LifeChronicles?
We have a number of volunteers across the US who help crew for tapings, offer me housing when I travel, spread the word about LifeChronicles, and connect us to agencies who could benefit from a relationship with LifeChronicles. We are also launching our first training program for interview facilitators in late October so people can learn to provide the kind of meaningful, profound, compassionate assistance that we have learned to do so well over the past 17 years. Please call us if you are interested in helping!
And if you can’t volunteer, we also very much appreciate donations.
What resources do you recommend?
Books that were life changing and life affirming for me include:
Awakening the Buddha Within: Tibetan Wisdom for the Western World by Lama Surya Das
City of One: A Memoir by Francine Cournos
The Power of Now: A Guide to Spiritual Enlightenment by Eckart Tolle
Loving What Is: Four Questions That Can Change Your Life by Byron Katie and Stephen Mitchell
And most recently, the book that has made a tremendous difference for me working with people facing end of life is The Afterlife of Billy Fingers: How My Bad-Boy Brother Proved to Me There’s Life After Death by Annie Kagan.
What’s next for you?
We have so much happening at LifeChronicles. We have been asked to be trained to do what we do by Dana-Farber Cancer Center (Harvard), Hospice of Santa Cruz, and others. These agencies for whom we have provided services to their patients/clients over the years have asked to be trained because they want to be able to provide LifeChronicles services to their patients on a regular basis. We will be training them how to facilitate not only the taping sessions but also how to interact with and accommodate the families from initial contact through the final edited video. Over the past 17 years, we can honestly say that we have become expert at how to create these videos in a way that is professional yet kind and compassionate.
We will have our beta training session with the three local hospices (Hospice of Santa Barbara was the second hospice in the United States) and then launch our training outside of SB in January. Meanwhile, a local oncologist is conducting a study to quantify the therapeutic value of what we do and a Ph.D. at USC is writing a white paper on us.
Finally, a former NBC producer (of 30 years) is filming a documentary on our work, which is expected to come out soon. That is probably just the tip of the iceberg, but it is all exciting! So much progress!
My dream is that LifeChronicles eventually can hire an executive director so that I may focus all my time and energy (except for my family, especially my grandchildren) on working with seniors and seriously ill people to create a lasting video legacy that will empower the person who is leaving and enrich those they leave behind.
Contact Kate Carter at email@example.com
Please visit www.lifechronicles.org to learn more about our mission and feel free to contact our office toll-free at 866-998-5433.
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