Toledo ‘social networker’ confronts incurable diseaseWritten by Jordan Finney | | firstname.lastname@example.org
The barely 5-foot-tall woman glanced up at the glaring sun from the seat of a small kayak. It was a hot February day on a crystal-clear Costa Rica river as she sat there alone, slowly swirling in an eddy.
Another kayaker, who had already paddled through the current, was now shouting back at her friend from the safety of shore.
“Jenn! Get out of the water — right now! You can make it. Stop telling yourself that you can’t,” Debby Peters said.
That’s when Jenn Wenzke, one of the 50 to 60 individuals in the greater Toledo area who lives with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), said she remembers realizing that she wanted to die — and it was time to turn her life around.
ALS is a progressive neurodegenerative disease that affects nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord. The muscles in the spinal cord of a person with ALS have little nourishment and slowly waste away, becoming increasingly smaller and weak.
“ALS doesn’t discriminate. It knows no racial, religious or gender boundaries,” said Mary Wilson Wheelock, executive director of the ALS Association Northern Ohio Chapter. “There’s no Magic 8 ball to predict how long an individual may live. We don’t have answers. But whatever causes this disease also causes these people to be the life of the party. They’re always so happy.”
The life expectancy of the 5,600 Americans diagnosed with ALS every year averages from two to five years from the time of diagnosis, according to the ALS Association. ALS has no known cure.
“Who said I would get three more years anyway? I have today,” Wenzke said. “There’s this whole beautiful world that I had stopped loving. I quit dreaming because I kept waiting to get more answers about my illness before moving forward. When we do that, our inner light gets lower intensity until it extinguishes in the body. Then, when you leave this amazing Earth, your dream dies in your heart.”
Wenzke’s dream largely focuses on helping women achieve their goals through professional networking and life coaching.
She spent 20 years working as a sales director for Mary Kay. But a few years ago she gave back the keys to her Cadillac and became trained as an NLP (neuro-linguistic programming) master practitioner who specializes in personality assessments, business coaching and life coaching.
“I went to Mary Kay and told them I needed them to take my Cadillac back. I didn’t want to drive it and have a woman not be confident that I’m 100 percent here for her,” Wenzke said. “My passion is to be a life coach. When someone sits across from me, I want to be sure that I have all the tools to help them.”
In October 2011, Wenzke took her dreams to the next level when she founded So Now, a women’s networking organization.
So Now launched as a monthly networking dinner for professional women. When women walk into a So Now event, they sign into the “networking board” by posting a handwritten sticky note with their name, how So Now can help them, phone number and ideal client. At the end of the event, women go up to the board and pull off people’s names that they want to contact afterwards.
Wenzke opens So Now events with a story about a recent milestone in her life and what she learned from it. Afterwards, three women have an opportunity to feature their respective businesses for two minutes each.
“Standing in front of a group has truly been God’s way of throwing me into the woman I’m supposed to become,” Wenzke said. “I always felt like I wasn’t good enough or didn’t measure up. I didn’t want anyone to find out who I really am inside and worried that they may not like me. Then I realized: ‘Jenn, this isn’t about you. It’s about helping others.’ When you do that, your life will blow up big time — in the best possible way.”
So Now attracts about 100 attendees to its dinner events and about 70 attendees to its new luncheon events. In addition to Wenzke, about 20 women volunteer to help manage all the responsibilities that go along with running a grassroots organization.
“Jenn has very smartly drawn a huge group of women to surround her,” said Peters, a member of So Now’s Board of Inspiration. “She totally flies by the seat of her pants and always hoping to help others succeed. We never know what we’re going to be doing because Jenn’s all over the map in conversation. She helps my brain engage and get creative.”
In addition to So Now’s success, Wenzke’s newest initiative, Define Your Own Destiny (DYOD), has skyrocketed since its launch six months ago.
DYOD is a speakers workshop program, led by Wenzke and friend Kathy Pigott, that encourages women to develop their talents and follow the “five steps toward the promise of a happy future.” DYOD aims to reach out to 10,000 women.
“We tell the story of our struggles. The real story is that every woman is the same,” Wenzke said. “We all want to leave a mark on the world, be appreciated and feel loved. Women hear our stories and think, ‘Oh my gosh, I’m not alone.’ It’s true. They’re really not alone.”
DYOD’s goal is to host one talk every month, which is free and open to the public.
“I know that she will set the world on fire every day of her life no matter how long it is. For all I know, she’ll outlive me,” Peters said. “Jenn has this unique talent for helping women by identifying what’s really important to them. Plus, she’s so positive and always smiling. There’s a lot of energy and fun from one woman.”
Wenzke touts her strong family support system and her 15-year marriage to the “most amazing man” as the source of her positive attitude. She also said she draws immense strength from her faith in God and continual dedication to reading scripture.
“I’ve always had a strong faith but I didn’t realize how weak it was until I became ill,” Wenzke said. “Knowing that you have eternal life and knowing God’s there gives me strength. Plus the way my family has lived through this and come out on the other side supporting me is amazing. Just amazing. And my huge support system starts with my husband — the most amazing, strongest, loving man I could ever have in my life.”
Wenzke lights up the room with her entrepreneur’s personality and smiling eyes. Her extroverted demeanor and dedication to expanding opportunities for women goals is evident in the success of So Now and DYOD. And on a personal level, Wenzke refuses to let the fear of an incurable, crippling disease define who she is.
“Dying is scary. I think about what that’s going to be like. I picture God waiting for me and it takes the edge off, but it’s not an easy topic to think about or talk about,” Wenzke said. “What keeps me going is my faith, family, and watching the face of a woman light up when she reaches her goals. I know that I’m doing what I’ve been set in this world to do — and I’m so thankful for the chance to do it.”
Tags: ALS, ALS Association Northern Ohio Chapter, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, Costa Rica, Debby Peters, Define Your Own Destiny (DYOD), Jenn Wenzke, Kathy Pigott, kayak, Magic 8 ball, Mary kay, Mary Wilson Wheelock, neuro-linguistic programming, NLP