Changing careers can be intimidating no matter where you are in life. But leaving a job without the safety net of another can be utterly terrifying.
After a successful career as a lawyer, Holly Barbera Freed, 41, did just that, quitting her job in October 2013 to take time off to figure out where her true passions lie. The answer: yoga and Meghan’s Foundation, a non-profit dedicated to helping war veterans who may have symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) as a result of their service.
When Freed left the law field, she was working as a legal advisor for the New Jersey Supreme Court. Prior to that, she worked as a corporate attorney for a large law firm, where she felt disconnected from the work and endured grueling hours. “It was always go-go-go without ever assessing if that made me happy,” she says. “I have been a perfectionist my whole life. I feel like it was a way to control a chaotic life. If I could be the smartest kid and get a career at a law firm, I would have control over this life, and it would mitigate against bad things happening.”
With much encouragement from her husband, Freed decided to give herself a break, with no next steps in sight. “He said because I was working so much, I didn’t give myself time to explore,” Freed recalls. “So I jumped ship without having a place to land. It was a little scary. He said, ‘go for it,’ so I did.”
Yoga had been a part of Freed’s life since her early 30s, and with more free time on her hands, she began to immerse herself more into her practice. When one of her teachers hosted a fundraiser for Meghan’s Foundation, Freed attended and immediately felt a connection to the organization, which includes in its mission teaching free, trauma-sensitive yoga and meditation classes to vets. “I had heard about how yoga impacted people who had experienced trauma and how it had a positive effect on them,” she explains. “It hit me to the core. Even though I’m not a vet, I had my own stuff, and I knew yoga helped me.”
Through the yoga instructor, Freed reached out to the foundation’s founders, Thom and Maureen Shortt. The couple founded the non-profit in honor of their daughter Meghan, who died unexpectedly of a heart condition at 29. Both Thom and Meghan’s husband, Tom, are war veterans, and Meghan was passionate about supporting the community. “There were similarities between the Shortts and myself,” Freed explains. “I was a child when my mom died suddenly of an undiagnosed heart condition. I knew what that shock to the system can be like.”
Freed’s father was also a veteran. “He never spoke about his service; I don’t know what it looked like,” she says. “He was loving and passionate, but he had problems with anger. I knew what yoga had done for me, and if my dad was still around, I knew that it could have helped him.”
In October 2004, Freed’s father passed away, followed by her brother, unexpectedly, in March 2005. Between 2004 and 2006, her home also flooded three times, devastating it each time. Yoga eventually became a way for Freed to deal with the resulting depression and anxiety caused by her losses and childhood traumas.
A month prior to quitting her job at the New Jersey State Supreme Court, she began a yoga teacher-training program. “I felt physically, emotionally, and spiritually better than ever, largely due to yoga practice,” she says, adding that she credits yoga with helping her to remain a non-smoker, go off her anti-depression and anti-anxiety medications, maintain a healthier weight, and get her in shape enough to train for a half-marathon.
Because of her personal experience with yoga and trauma, Freed was drawn to the foundation’s mission and asked the Shortts how she could help. Because the organization was still in its infancy, they gave her the freedom to do what she wanted, so she began fundraising. Her first major effort was a 10K race in Washington Crossing on July 4, 2014. Freed put together a team, solicited donations for the organization, and used her efforts as a platform to raise awareness for the foundation. In the end, she raised $10,000 for the organization—$8,000 in donations and a $2,000 grant.
Her fundraising eventually evolved into writing newsletters and creating marketing materials. In January, she became a board member, and in May, she was named vice president of the organization. In her new role, she’ll be working directly with Thom, who serves as president, overseeing and implementing the overall vision of the foundation, from program operations and expansions to marketing and fundraising. “I am very excited about my new role with the foundation,” Freed says. “I’m honored that the board has placed its trust and confidence in me, and I’m glad I am fortunate to be in a situation where I was able to accept the role without a salary. It’s important to me that the organization can keep devoting its resources directly to program expenses: running existing classes and targeting new areas to set up new programs.”
The organization itself remains small, running five classes a week in Bucks and Northampton counties. Class locations, like the American Legion Post or yoga studios, are donated or rented, and classes are designed for people of all levels, including veterans with physical disabilities and limitations. While they serve 40 to 50 veterans a week in classes, the organization still deals with the challenge of convincing vets to give yoga a try. “Part of it is breaking down barriers and misconceptions about what yoga is and isn’t,” Freed says. “The best people to help share this mission are the vets themselves, explaining to their friends that this does help.”
Speaking for herself, Freed says yoga gave her the courage to embark on a new course in life. “If it wasn’t for yoga, I wouldn’t have made these transitions in my life,” she says. “I wouldn’t have even thought to engage in deep self-reflection. I am happy about what I’m doing, and what I can do for the world.”
These days, Freed is trying to keep her sights focused on the present instead of the future. “My plan—you have to have plans, let’s be realistic—is now focused on Meghan’s Foundation. They’re a really caring, energetic, and intelligent group of people, and I’m along for the ride.”
Her journey has also taught her that it’s perfectly fine—preferable even—to not have everything figured out.
“Being present in the moment is the point of us being here. It’s a constant lesson to be learned,” Freed says. “It’s OK that everything is not perfect. Once you can let go of that, everything is much more fun.”