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From corporate job to massage therapist—at 58: Bonnie’s Story

Published on 06/18/2018

Bonnie enjoyed chair massages offered by her company and loved giving shoulder rubs to weary coworkers. It would take a note from one of these to convince her to sign up for massage school (yes, in midlife) and leave her corporate job to start her own massage therapy business. She shows us how it’s never too late to honor a new passion!

Tell us a little about your background.
I grew up in the ‘40s and ‘50s, when moms stayed home and dads went to work. I have a twin sister, an older brother, and two younger siblings. We lived in a small home-grown town, north of Cincinnati, Ohio, before anyone had to worry about locking up a bicycle and where Dad would whistle us home for “supper” at the kitchen table. My twin and I took six years for dance lessons, seven years of art lessons, were active in clubs, and played sports. And, as teenagers, we loved dancing to rock ‘n roll. In high school, I excelled in secretarial courses and thus chose to follow the working-girl path over attending college. I worked in several law offices as a legal secretary before marrying my high school sweetheart in June 1966.

My family (1964)

Within two short years, our little family of three—son #1 was born in 1967—moved to San Mateo, CA for my husband’s opportunity to work with a national CPA firm in San Francisco. Nine months later, son #2 arrived and my husband and I immersed ourselves in the lifestyle of the budding ‘70s—the “I do my thing” and “you do yours” mentality. Our 7-year marriage gradually spiraled into two different directions and ultimately ended in a divorce.

With my boys in 1971

In the fall of 1975, I met my second husband through friends while on vacation. Within seven months, my boys and I moved back to the Midwest and, in 1977, I married again. We added two daughters to our family in 1978 and 1980. At age 35, I created my own Christian Dance Aerobics program called “Heavenly Bodies” and taught classes for 10 years in church gyms. I also took on two part-time office jobs and honed my office skills with “new technology” (computers and fax machines).

Our everyday busy lives were interrupted in January 1989, when my first-born son, Stephen, a senior in college, suffered a severe head injury in a car crash in California. He remained in a vegetative state for 22 months and, because his injuries were irreversible, we made the decision to have his feeding tube removed. He took his last earthly breath on Thanksgiving Day in 1990.

Steve skiing in Mammoth Mountain in 1988

Fast forward to 1996. My son Jeff got married, my daughter Rebecca went off to college, and my youngest Amy entered her sophomore year in high school. Then a short, but inevitable year later, more life-changes came knocking at my door: another disintegrated marriage ended in divorce, I moved from my 20-year home into a condo, and I took on a full-time corporate administrative job.


When did you start to think about making a change?
Out of adversity came opportunity. I settled into my administrative position and continued to develop new office programs and skills. Over the next five years of employment, I attended required seminars and career path lectures to determine what my future path really was within the company, beyond my administrative duties.

Ironically, it was an online Motivational Appraisal of Personal Potential Questionnaire (MAPP) I paid $20 to take at home that opened my eyes more about myself than anything I ever imagined. While I basically fit into all the top 20 occupational categories for individual success, it was something else in the report that obviously planted a more specific path in my future to come. It read, in part:

“Bonnie feels both privilege and responsibility to use communication (including persuasion) to voluntarily provide beneficial information to others. This includes strongly motivated benevolent and literary traits. Bonnie is motivated to educate, which means to share knowledge that will be useful for the persons taught. Instructing can be in many forms: teaching, training, influencing, and demonstrating. Fantasy, fiction, abstract ideas, theory, and hypothesis are not a preferred set of mental exercises for Bonnie. Bonnie is motivated on the basis of logic, reasoning, personal natural talent-based savvy or sensory/physical abilities whatever they may be. Bonnie readily adapts to change and may even be stimulated by it or motivated because of it.”

I knew I was working more to build my 401K than to climb any ladders within the company. I loved my job, my bosses and my co-workers, as well as the many amenities that the company provided. One, in particular, was chair massage, offered on site for $1 a minute. I received a 10-minute “gift” from my boss, and, quite frankly, was blown away with how great I felt in such a short time frame. I pumped the therapist with questions about where she was trained, how much it cost, and how long the program took to be certified. Then I offered her another $10 to get 10 more minutes!

A few years later, our department moved to a new building location. My responsibilities kept me up and down and walking around the office where I often offered “my hands” for neck massages to the phone reps and other staff personnel—just because I liked doing it, and they seemed to appreciate it. One particular employee suffered regular migraine headaches and would actually seek me out for short massage “treatments” because what I did gave her relief. Then, one day in early 2002, I came into work and found a beautiful Follow Your Dream card on my desk with a $50 check and a note from this woman saying: “If you don’t sign up for Massage Therapy School, you are missing your calling.” Well, that certainly was my “aha” moment.

Offering fundraising chair massages for an injured musician friend (2015)


What is your next act?
I am a Licensed Massage Therapist since 2003, when I was 58 years old. I am an independent contractor working for myself as well as being on staff at a local fitness center.

I love what I do. First, because of the joy I have in bringing relief and relaxation to my clients. Second, because of the social interaction I have with my clients. Third, because now, fully retired from my “day job,” I can supplement my retirement income by working as much (or as little) as I want to.

I no longer take on event chair jobs because, quite frankly, the long hours take too much of a toll on my body. I maintain about 40 hours of massage work every month. This includes a few in-home clients and 10 hours of chair massages in nearby offices, including 2 hours a month at a local hospital where parents in the Child Life Department come in for obvious stress release and my healing touch. And I’m also on staff/on call at Sky Fitness (about 6 hours each week) giving full body massage treatments. I couldn’t be more grateful having access to this beautiful gym for maintaining my own health and wellness with a variety of machines, as well as aqua or fitness classes available to me. Win-Win-Win!

In massage room at Sky Fitness


How hard was it to take the plunge?
Who knew? How was I, single again and almost 57 years old, going to ever afford or even find adequate time to study, practice, and overcome this obstacle? Well, by the grace of God and being a woman motivated by “sayings,” I heard in my inner being my 7th grade art teacher telling us students, “there’s no such word as can’t.” And, more recently, “Just Do It.” Isn’t “age” just a number anyway?

I attended an information night at the Chicago School of Massage Therapy (now Cortiva) at one of their classroom locations along Lincoln Avenue in Chicago. I liked the idea of their 16-month program: four 12-week semesters that included a full day a week and a 3-hour evening short course for two semesters. Once I cleared this opportunity with my boss, I wrote my first check and enrolled in their program to become a Massage Therapist. Classes would begin on April 30, 2002.

To be more specific, I scheduled Tuesday as vacation days for two semesters and the other two I worked four ten-hour days each week. My Tuesday classes were from 9 to 6pm: three hours of science in the morning, a one-hour lunch break, then five hours of massage therapy in the afternoon. For the last two Thursday night semesters, I did my community outreach (30) hours at Cancer Wellness Center in Northbrook, just a mere seven miles from my home in Wheeling. The remaining 20 hours were giving chair massages at various weekend events. My 60 hours of Student Clinics were scheduled on Saturday afternoons.

Timing is everything, and for me, the real estate market worked in my favor for my taking out a second mortgage on my condo to pay for the required tuition fees, massage table, and supplies. Everything came together and before I knew it, graduation day came on August 12, 2003. After three years of stepping into the water and working weekend events for other massage companies, as well as having a few weekly home clients, I took the plunge and, as previously mentioned, accepted a part-time position at Sky Fitness, formerly, Highland Park Hospital Health and Fitness Center in Buffalo Grove.

Since that time, my Illinois license must be renewed every two years. There is a cost and 24 hours of CEUs (online and live classes of our own choosing) each renewal period to maintain this license. I also pay an annual insurance premium along with my American Massage Therapy Association (AMTA) dues.

Taking a break from massage school with 5 classmates


What challenges did you encounter?
Learning to navigate 6-corner intersections in the city was as challenging as some of the anatomy and physiology courses I had to take. I brought study note cards everywhere I went, including my condo pool in the summers, and studied while driving into Chicago on the Edens Expressway (in slow traffic, of course).

Testing was always my fear, but I managed to ace my scores week by week, even though I frequently was the last person to hand in my paper. I often told my young classmates that accessing the information in my brain was more like driving on the backroads versus a highway. It just took me longer to get there!

I loved the afternoon technique hands-on portion of my studies the best. It just came naturally. Body-part-by-body-part, we would partner up to practice what we were learning, plus enjoying the benefit of receiving a massage every week. Of course, I had plenty of family members and friends who were more than willing to be my practice clients during school. (They eventually became my paying clients.)


How supportive were your family and friends?
I don’t think I really surprised anyone who knows me, having always been labeled “energetic Bonnie”! When I told my youngest daughter in college, I was looking into becoming a massage therapist, she readily encouraged me and then informed me that her roommate was also interested in attending massage school and recommended CSMT. My girls gave me an iPod and then taught me how to download music to use during the massage sessions. I never ran out of “clients” to work on, especially when I attended my annual family reunions. I often bartered my massages for household work, and especially my twin sister for her expert seamstress repairs. Coming to visit me in Chicago always seemed to have an “added bonus” for my guests. When my son visits on business trips, he appreciates working out at the fitness center where his mom works. Actually, all my children are thankful I found a passion that keeps me active and relatively healthy.

With my kids and grandson in 2005


What did you learn about yourself through this process?
I realized how competitive I was with myself to meet the challenge of reentering the education side of life that I was so eager to leave after high school. That while I had my own way of learning, I still could learn, late in life. I also learned in conversations how my motivation and love for massage would pique more interest than discussing my full-time administrative position! It was sort of a celebrity status feeling—had I arrived?

Looking back, is there anything you’d have done differently?

Going back to my MAPP Assessment results, it is so clear now how my love for health, teaching, and learning truly has become my passion in life now, as a Massage Therapist. I am no stranger to the pains of aging. I deal with arthritic knees (from too much jitterbug dancing the past 19 years), occasional achy hands, and some overuse injuries, just like many of my clients. I can identify with them because I’m there.

Sharing my pain relief self-treatment books, healing products, and lifestyle choices are often welcome tools for others to use in managing their pain as well. I am inspired by my 50-year-old jocks as much as my 80-year old-faithfuls who bless my table by trusting and believing in the benefits of massage therapy and me! I truly embrace Maya Angelou’s Quote: “People will forget what you said. People will forget what you did. But people will never forget how you made them feel.”

Massaging my daughter Rebecca’s feet on a Canadian train


What advice do you have for women seeking reinvention?
The doors of opportunity are out there for all of us. As I previous said, out of adversity came opportunity. I played the hand I was dealt and because of that, I found my next act. I do what I love and I continue to learn. Don’t choose a job for the money, but more importantly, for the passion and joy it will bring! There’s no timetable in retirement for me. I won’t rust out, just perhaps wear out. But, in the meantime, I will be all that I can be and thankful for the life God has blessed me to live.


What advice do you have for those interested in pursuing massage therapy?
After your massage schooling, expect it to take time before you are regarded as a “must go to” massage therapist. Pace your workload too. Be willing to do volunteer massages just for the practice and to build up your confidence. (I was fortunate to have my day job seven years before my retirement and that paid the bills. With my massage work, I had money to attend a few dance conventions, visit my out-of-town family or took memorable vacations.) Most definitely, seek other therapists to “trade with” because you WILL LEARN from others. You can only give away what you love receiving for yourself.

I’m in the middle of the top row


What resources do you recommend?
While my 612 hours of instruction at CSMT were enough to get me out and into the massage working profession, many CEU courses after graduation were extremely beneficial in my further training. One in particular was Michael Young’s Repetitive Use Injury Therapy weekend course. I learned additional techniques in releasing soft tissue and, as Michael says, I learned to work smarter—not harder!

The self-treatment guide for pain relief I discovered to manage my own pain over the years is an extremely practical, step-by-step format workbook entitled The Trigger Point Therapy Workbook: Your Self-Treatment Guide for Pain Relief (A New Harbinger Self-Help Workbook) by Clair and Amber Davies.


What’s next for you?
There was a time before my full-time retirement when I told my boss that my “day job was getting in the way of my massage opportunities.” I know myself and even at age 73, it would be hard for me to stop giving massages. I do know that I love traveling and I will continue seeing more of the world along with whatever it takes to keep myself healthy and living my life to the fullest.


Connect with Bonnie Stoelinga
Email: bonsto@yhaoo.com
Website: Sky Fitness

HeleneTStelian Musing
I’m Hélène Stelian, the Midlife Mentor with a passion for facilitating personal development in women 40+. Through my THRIVE Courses, I help introspective, curious, action-oriented women 40+ deepen their journeys of self-discovery and growth—and create their next chapter with courage and intention.



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1 Comment

  1. Corrine Rupar

    I enjoyed your story. I never would have known you as I do now by reading your story. Thank you so much for sharing I enjoyed every word


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