By Tina Irgang
On October 14, 2013, Susan Hahn was hit by a car traveling more than 50 miles an hour. She had to be flown to the University of Maryland Medical Center’s Shock Trauma Center to be resuscitated, and underwent multiple surgeries to bones, muscles and tendons. She had also suffered a traumatic brain injury.
As Hahn began the long, slow road to recovery, she started to ask herself some questions: “Why am I here? Why didn’t I stay dead? What am I supposed to be doing?”
Hahn eventually found the answer to those questions by launching a nonprofit, the HobbleJog Foundation, and embarking on a comprehensive, yearlong collaboration with Good Shepherd Services, a Halethorpe-based residential treatment center for adolescents suffering from severe emotional and behavioral problems. That collaboration, while still in its early stages, is already beginning to change lives.
The early days
At the time of Hahn’s accident, it had been a little over a decade since she founded Swan Consulting Group, Inc., an executive coaching firm. Hahn had always been fascinated by the workings of the human brain, and has been a licensed psychotherapist for about 35 years (although she no longer practices that profession). She also had experience in business, having been an executive at Sheppard Pratt Health System for 17 years prior to founding her own company.
“I knew for sure that it was time for me to have me as my boss. I wanted to run what I did through my design, my philosophy, my values,” says Hahn. She tried a few different things, but coaching felt the most natural, and so Swan Consulting was born on June 1, 2001.
Hahn’s first official CEO coaching client was Sister Mary Rosario, who was then heading up Good Shepherd Services. Once Sister Mary left the organization, Hahn continued working with her successor, and eventually with the current president and CEO, Michele Wyman.
Wyman had just stepped into the CEO role in an acting capacity when an email from Hahn popped up in her inbox. Hahn had been trying to email Wyman’s predecessor, hoping to get his contact information so she could get in touch once he had left Good Shepherd.
“He had already left and his emails were forwarded to me,” says Wyman. “We started talking, and I explained that I was in an acting capacity. … Before I knew it, we were engaged in a coaching relationship.”
Hobble-jogging to an aha moment
When that email appeared in Wyman’s inbox, the memory of the accident was still fresh for Hahn. In fact, Wyman was Hahn’s first coaching client following the accident, Hahn says, and she insisted on providing coaching services pro bono, in part because she was still regaining confidence in her ability to function as she had before.
That process of regaining confidence also entailed a profound examination of priorities. Hahn began asking herself why she had survived, and what she was meant to do with her life. “Finally, people started saying, ‘Susan, if you don’t stop making all that noise and being upset about what you’re supposed to be doing, it may never come to you,’” says Hahn.
Eventually, Hahn realized that what she really wanted was to go back to the early roots of her career — helping troubled adolescents through psychotherapy. “What I realized was, this passion had been within me for 40 years … and it was kind of laying dormant,” she says. Even while running Swan Consulting, Hahn had occasionally done pro-bono coaching and mentoring work with young people, but “it wasn’t until after this accident that I realized I could be doing so much more for kids and young adults,” she says.
Hahn decided to start the HobbleJog Foundation, a nonprofit whose mission would be to bring inspiration, strength and courage to
teens and young adults experiencing physical or emotional challenges. (Hahn is still running Swan Consulting as well, though she is delegating more of the actual consulting work, she says.)
The foundation’s name is a tribute both to that mission and to Hahn’s own recovery. As Hahn told friends and family that she was starting to work out again after her accident, “they’d say, ‘It’s so great that you’re running again,’” she says. “I’d say, ‘I wouldn’t exactly call it running. I still have a limp in my leg, so I call it my hobble jog.’ When you think about it, how many of us in our lives have to hobble jog at some point? … You might have to do it, but you can still cross that finish line.”
That idea turned out to be a perfect fit for Good Shepherd’s mission, says Wyman: “Part of our task here is to help kids find the strengths within them that help them be resilient.”
Spirit of the bear
The HobbleJog Foundation launched earlier this year. Hahn’s plan is that the organization will choose a deserving nonprofit annually to support with fundraising initiatives and special projects. For HobbleJog’s first nonprofit partner, she settled on Good Shepherd.
One of HobbleJog’s fundraising tools is a stuffed bear wearing a HobbleJog T-shirt. Hahn contacted Wyman and proposed giving one of the bears to each of Good Shepherd’s young residents.
“My concern was that [the bears] would just get tossed aside, so I said, ‘We have to give them context,’” says Wyman. “So we came up with this notion of building a larger project around it, where the kids would come to understand what the HobbleJog bear represents.”
In discussing the idea of the bear further, one of Good Shepherd’s executives hit on the concept of the Native American bear spirit. “She was looking up and reading about bears … and she emailed this team of executives and me and said, ‘Look at this, would you not say these are the things that might be part of what helped Susan heal and get to where she is?’” says Hahn.
Hahn loved the idea, adopting several of the characteristics traditionally associated with the bear spirit and adding a few that were personally relevant to her. She ended up with a list of key concepts: courage, strength, confidence, determination, persistence and optimism. Soon after, Hahn started meeting with kids at the treatment center and telling them how the characteristics embodied by the bear spirit helped her make it through her own recovery.
“Some of the kids would come in … looking at the floor. They had no interest. At the end of the hour, 95 percent were glued to me, listening to me and raising their hands,” says Hahn. The kids began discussing the characteristics, recalling times they had to draw on each of them, Hahn recalls. In the end, the kids agreed to band together in groups that would each “adopt” one of the characteristics and use it as the inspiration for projects including songs, poems and raps. They will also be working on painting a mural and a set of steppingstones “where every stone is one of the bear spirit characteristics,” says Hahn.
But that’s not all. HobbleJog is also engaging in fundraising on behalf of Good Shepherd. A relay team put together by the foundation raised $7,700 for Good Shepherd at the Iron Girl Triathlon in Columbia this summer, and the foundation has committed to raising at least $12,000 altogether. The next major fundraising event is a gala Nov. 3, says Hahn.
Early fundraising success notwithstanding, the prospect of running a nonprofit still is daunting for Hahn: “I’m starting a brand-new journey for me. I’ve never run a nonprofit, and I’m learning more than I ever expected to be learning at 60 years of age.”
However, Wyman is optimistic about the project’s success, and its impact on the kids at Good Shepherd: “Susan has encouraged them to give hope to others as well. So even though she is saying, this is about finding your inner spirit and where your strength comes from, it’s also giving strength and hope to others. So in leaving these steppingstones and this mural behind, this is [the kids’] contribution to others who will come behind them and hopefully will look to those things for inspiration and hope.”
About Human Element:
Human Element is a regular, web-exclusive column that aims to get to know the leaders behind great companies. Rather than talking about business models and growth strategies, CEOs open up about what motivates and guides them in their professional and personal lives. To be considered for The Human Element, email email@example.com.