Changing Careers to Create Life Balance
| 2017 Q4 | story by Emily Mulligan, photos by Steven Hertzog
Although they were very different life events that precipitated their career changes, both Dawn Buehler and Kassie Nieters left what they were good at for what they cared about.
Buehler went from accounting to become the Kansas Riverkeeper for Friends of the Kaw. Nieters went from human resources and recruiting to independent massage therapy. Both say their career change improved all aspects of their lives, not just their workdays.
Accountant to Riverkeeper: Dawn Buehler
Buehler grew up working on her family’s 2,000-acre crop farm, Riverview Farms, in DeSoto. It was a vegetable farm in the Kansas River bottoms that grew things such as sweet corn, potatoes, watermelon, tomatoes, pumpkins and cantaloupe. She spent every summer working with her extended family on the farm.
“It was an absolutely wonderful way to grow up. It instilled a work ethic in me, and I am a doer not a sitter now, which stems from always being working and moving as a kid,” Buehler explains.
Buehler’s generation was the first in her family to go to college. She ended up at Baker University, where she worked and paid her own way. She says she fell back on her math skills to pursue a degree in accounting, which she also knew was practical.
“I knew that every business had accounting people, so I knew I would always have a job to provide for my family. My parents raised me to take care of myself, and accounting provided me with that,” she says.
Her first job out of college was working as the business manager for an environmental consulting firm. Buehler had worked there for seven or eight years when that company merged with a larger corporation. She then became the controller and chief financial officer of the board for a $7- to $9-million environmental firm, a job she held for nearly nine years.
“All the time I was doing accounting, I was volunteering with Friends of the Kaw, helping in the Baker Wetlands, participating in the annual butterfly count and other things that were the polar opposite of accounting,” she says. “As controller, I felt like I had come to a place with my accounting work where there wasn’t much more to learn. It was no longer a challenge to me.”
Her first marriage ended in divorce, and she supported her son on her accountant salary. Now, her son was older, and she was in her late 30s and on her second marriage.
The turning point for her career came when she was chatting with her mother-in-law, who had gone to college for the first time at age 45.
“Talking to her, I said, ‘I should have gotten a science degree, but I’m too old.’ She said, ‘Don’t tell me you’re too old,’ ” Buehler says.
That admonishment was enough to make Buehler look into her options. It turned out that because she already had a bachelor’s degree, it would only take her two years to get a Bachelor of Science. She enrolled in classes from Oregon State University online for a degree in Natural Resources, Fish & Wildlife Conservation. She completed all of the coursework, without leaving Kansas, online and through local schools, and graduated in 2012—the same year her son graduated from high school.
But, the degree was only part of the challenge. She had no professional experience in her career path, so she had to start with entry-level jobs.
“I knew I was competing with young people. I was looking for a place I was going to spend the rest of my career, and they were just getting started. I had to learn from people who were younger than me but had more experience,” she says.
Having volunteered with Friends of the Kaw, Buehler loved the idea of being Riverkeeper, a term coined in a book by Robert F. Kennedy Jr. about his efforts to clear pollution from the Hudson River. However, Laura Calwell, the then-Riverkeeper, had no plans to leave as far as Buehler knew. She’d told her husband for years she wanted to be the Riverkeeper, but it was not meant to be. Not yet, anyway.
Buehler had to call on her accounting experience to help her get a foot in the door at her first job with her new degree, where she was the finance manager for the Kansas State Extension office in Johnson County. Luckily, her new boss understood her career ambition and had her help on a natural resource program he was overseeing. Her first professional experience in the new career had arrived.
From there, she took a job with the Douglas County Conservation District, working with landowners to install conservation practices. One day in 2014 when she was at work, her husband called her and told her the Riverkeeper job was posted, and he thought she should apply.
The Riverkeeper job has many aspects: environmentalism, law, politics and promoting enjoyment of the great outdoors. Buehler, a self-proclaimed “lifelong learner,” embraces all of these disciplines.
She and the 15-member Friends of the Kaw board are continually advocating for the Kansas River, monitoring pollution and other hazards, and staying politically active. Recently, Friends of the Kaw was a big component of the pushback against the Tyson chicken plant, which Tyson was looking at locating in Tonganoxie.
“I will always be grateful for my job as an accountant, because otherwise, I wouldn’t have been able to give my son what he needed,” Buehler says. “I plan to be Riverkeeper until I am not physically able, or I retire. I am challenged every day, and it has absolutely become the best thing I’ve ever done.”
Human Resources to Massage Therapist: Kassie Nieters
Kassie Nieters is a Lawrence native and received the “I Dare You” Leadership Award from the William H. Danforth American Youth Foundation when she graduated from Lawrence High School in 1983. The award encouraged recipients to influence others by leading balanced lives that promote leadership and service.
“I had no idea what I was going to do,” Nieters says.
She left Lawrence to become a nanny in Massachusetts, but when that did not work out, she visited friends in Iowa and ended up joining the Walter Mondale political campaign in 1984.
She enrolled in college at Emporia State University (ESU) in 1985 and, after connecting with a speech professor, became a speech communication major with a minor in business. She was active at ESU in leadership roles and made the most of her time there, but she knew there was a bigger world than Kansas; so after graduation, she and a friend moved in with the friend’s parents in Washington, D.C., to look for jobs.
Her first job was with a government defense contractor as what they called “administrator.” She oversaw the office operations, including the receptionist, cleaning person and facilities, and kept the personnel files. When the company grew from 42 employees to 100 employees, the “personnel files” aspect of her job became the brunt of it: She was what would now be called human resources (HR).
Meanwhile, she settled into Washington, D.C., made friends, bought a condo and a car. After several years with the contractor, she took a job doing technical recruiting for a different government contractor, where she worked for a couple of years, then became a human resources generalist for a health-care company.
Then, in March of 1997, Nieters’ older brother committed suicide, and Nieters saw her own unhappiness reflected in her brother’s depression.
“At the time, I thought, ‘What is it that I want?’ I had no idea, but I was unhappy. I made good money, owned a condo, taught Sunday School, owned a Saab convertible—I was checking off all of these things that were ‘success,’ ” she explains.
She knew something needed to change in her life, but she did not know what or how.
“I decided to take a year off work. I gave away a lot of stuff, put things in storage, rented out my condo and began traveling to visit friends and family, and work temp work,” Nieters says. “For so many people, it takes a life crisis to see things differently. We don’t want to leave our jobs, but when we do, it’s a relief.”
Her travels took her to places she had always wanted to visit, including Glacier National Park, the Rocky Mountains and Grand Tetons. She rented a room in Berkeley, California, for a few months, where she says she worked temporary HR jobs, took yoga classes and “watched sunsets.” In the summer, she returned to the church camp of her youth in Michigan, where she worked and lived. She also spent time in Arkansas and Boston.
All the while she traveled and explored, she was thinking of potential career opportunities.
“I was thinking, ‘How do I want to spend my time?’ I wanted a job where I could use my business skills, and I wanted something that, when I was done with my day, I was done—the actual completion of the job was done,” she says.
Massage therapy answered those objectives and allowed her to connect with people, which was her favorite aspect of her HR career. Because massage therapy was a career she could locate anywhere, the question became where to go. She met a man who lived in Kansas City, so back to Kansas she came. (Spoiler alert: He is not the man she married.)
“Staying in Kansas was a draw because of my family. I could drive to the mountains and fly to the ocean. But really, it was the pace of life here; I wanted the Midwestern slower pace,” Nieters says.
She attended massage school part-time while she worked full-time for an insurance company. She knew about networking from her HR experience, so she set that into motion while she was still in school, contacting massage practitioners and requesting informational interviews. In addition to learning best business practices, she exchanged massages with many practitioners so she could hone her technique and approach to her clients.
Beginning in 2002, Nieters became a full-time massage therapist, and she bought a house in Lawrence. She rented a massage therapy room at an existing practice and received referrals. She also worked hard to build her own client base.
“Who did I know? I had just bought my house, and I knew a realtor and a loan officer, so I asked them to let me bring my massage chair to their businesses. I used chair massage as marketing—my hands on people was how I was going to get people to come see me,” she says.
After about a year, Nieters started providing massage in her own space and under her own umbrella, now called Lawrence Massage. Over time, she has built a loyal client base and specializes in relaxing Swedish massage, deep-tissue massage, pregnancy massage and Reiki healing.
“I provide a safe, comfortable environment to assist clients in their healing process—it happens to take the form of a one-hour massage,” she quips. “I like being that place where people can share what’s going on in their lives.”
She enjoys performing the work on her own terms and with her own touches and specialties, referring clients who need additional work or when her schedule is full.
“It’s more important to me that people receive work, not who does the work,” Nieters says.
With her change in career, Nieters explains she has learned that life is full of shades of gray, and not as much black and white.
“It’s OK not to know what you want to do—that was eye-opening for me. I had to choose the ‘right thing’ [she air quotes] because there is right and wrong,” she says. “Now, I know that the things I think are going to be so hard really aren’t as difficult as I think they’re going to be.”