Alumnae Spotlight showcases amazing Laurel women and the paths they have charted since graduation. Whether they are doctors, designers, artists, authors, scientists, lawyers, teachers, entrepreneurs, engineers, pharmacists, or civic activists or volunteers, Laurel women inhabit nearly all careers and corners of the world helping to make it a better place. Our alumnae and the journeys that they have taken speak to the essence of a Laurel education and what makes this School and the community of women who call it their own distinctive. This space highlights their fascinating lives and the mountains they continue to move.
If you would like to be featured in our Alumnae Spotlight, or know of an alumna who might, please email Megan Findling.
May 2018 Alumnae Spotlight
Kathy Chilcote Pender ’55
At the recommendation of the Distinguished Alumna Committee, the Laurel School Alumnae Association has created a new award to recognize alumnae achievement. Given at the discretion of the Distinguished Alumna Committee to any current Distinguished Alumna nominee who already has celebrated her 50th reunion, the Lifetime Achievement Award honors an alumna for her lifetime's body of work, volunteer and/or professional. For her courage and commitment in the face of adversity, for her lifelong passion for helping children live healthier lives and for providing safe harbor for families in need, the Laurel School Alumnae Association is honored to present its inaugural Lifetime Achievement Award to Kathy Chilcote Pender ’55. You can read her full bio here. We hope you enjoy learning more about her remarkable journey in her own words through our interview below and celebrate with us at the Distinguished Alumnae Dinner on Thursday, May 17.
Can you tell us about your fondest memories from your time at Laurel?
I arrived at Laurel in Fifth Grade having attended a “country” school— a brick schoolhouse with one teacher for every two grades (grades 1-6) — in what was then the village of Beachwood, which was rural community in the late 1940s. I was very shy when I arrived at Laurel, so my fondest early memories were of teachers who were very warm and welcoming. I learned how to make friends at Laurel and loved spending time with them. To this day, I really enjoy staying in touch with all of my classmates in Cleveland and those out of town. One of my fondest memories is when our French group would meet with Miss Gerfen at her apartment to have tea and then visit the Art Museum to see French artwork.
What do you feel are the biggest changes to Laurel since you were a student?
There are vast differences today. A good example would be the entire area of college admissions. We did not have college advisors. Miss Edna Lake, our Headmistress, announced to me where I would go to college—Smith or Vassar. I went to Smith. Today, with Laurel’s Center for Research on Girls and the work on resiliency, there has been a lot of important information gathered to help Laurel leadership guide young women in their social, intellectual, emotional and physical development. In the 50s, teachers and professionals did the best they could with the limited information they had. I felt that my teachers at Laurel had my best interests in mind. They were caring and patient and many were role models for me and became one of the reasons I initially began my career as a teacher before entering the field of psychology.
How do you think your time at Laurel influenced the years since graduation?
It was at Laurel that I gained a love of reading and writing. Had I remained in my little “country” school after Fourth Grade I don’t think at an early age I would have learned to love books the way I do. Mrs. Jordan became a wonderful role model for me. I was shy and timid and had no confidence. She encouraged me, especially with writing, even suggesting I enter poetry into contests. To this day, I think of her when I write and read. Mrs. Jordan also was one of those teachers who inspired me to become a teacher. I wanted to be a teacher like her and she has been an important part of my life.
After graduating from Laurel and Smith College, you earned two master’s degrees—one in special education with a concentration on emotionally disturbed children and the other in counseling and psychology. It seems like your love of learning and helping children has been life-long! You’ve now maintained a psychotherapy practice for over 30 years. What aspects of the field of psychotherapy do you most enjoy?
One thing just led to another! When I was teaching children, I realized that not only were children having problems but parents and families were struggling emotionally and needed help. I went back to graduate school to get a degree in psychology hoping that, somehow, I could help the entire family unit. To this day, the continuous cycle of addiction and abuse compels me to do whatever I can to help others cope with these issues. In my earlier years of work, I worked at New Directions with chemically dependent adolescents and their families. I have had my private practice for over 40 years. I have worked with post-traumatic stress and abuse, and bereavement. I have enjoyed my work in bereavement because I am personally familiar with it having lost my own son through the tragedy that our family faced. I know grief and understand it. Most of my work in later years has been in the area of trauma. This has been challenging but I find it rewarding in that people are willing to face such painful memories and events in their lives. It is a privilege to be allowed into someone’s life when they are so wounded. I certainly do not have the answers for people, but people have the courage to share their stories and I can listen and sometimes help guide them out of the darkness.
Your passion for civic service is inspirational. What drives you to give so much back to the community?
It seems like I always have volunteered, since I was 14 or so. I remember feeling very committed and never wanting to miss my scheduled time. One of my volunteer jobs was at “Fresh Air Camp” (later Health Hill Hospital) for chronically ill children. I fed the children and read stories to them. Another was at Highland View Hospital (for the elderly and chronically ill), where I visited and fed patients, and then at Rainbow Babies and Children’s Hospital, where I played with children in the playroom. I remember all of them so vividly. In retrospect it just seemed like the natural or instinctive thing to do. Now much of what my husband, Jim, and I sponsor and what I volunteer for has some connection with my late son Michael, who died when he was 19. The main focus is to sustain and honor his memory. He is my inspiration! In spite of being injured at age 8 and living with disabilities, often using oxygen, Michael lived his life with courage, hope and love for others. He loved little children and every Sunday spent time in the church preschool telling stories to the 3- and 4-year-olds. He wanted to start a camp for disabled children. Half of his senior class at Gilmour wrote their senior college essays about Michael and the impact he had on their lives. His spirit keeps me inspired.
Can you tell us a little about the Michael J. Pender Fund at the Cleveland Foundation and how you honor your son’s legacy? Do you have any advice for others hoping to channel personal sorrow into action?
Jim and I established The Michael Pender Fund at the Cleveland Foundation in Michael’s memory. Its mission is to serve children and families with special needs. If you look at the organizations that it has funded you would see a wide range of services from medical to the arts, including Rainbow Babies and Children’s Hospital, Ho Mita Koda Camp, Hospice of the Western Reserve, Playhouse Square, Gilmour, Chautauqua, Beech Brook, Magnolia Clubhouse and other mental health agencies. There are so many examples of the Fund honoring Michael’s life and legacy: At Gilmour Academy, we sponsor The Michael Pender Lecture Series, which is for students, parents and faculty and covers a variety of topics of importance that would be helpful whether it be on drugs, bullying, etc. Another example would be our funding of Playhouse Square education programs—specifically the sensory-friendly programs for autistic children so that families are able to bring their children to programs that are adapted to their needs. Michael would love this.
At Hospice of the Western Reserve, we funded a pediatric handbook for parents who have children who are dying. This is a book to help parents when dealing with a dying child to know what kinds of things to look for, what kinds of things to do during this time, what kinds of support there might be, etc. We did not have this kind of support at the time when we were coping with these issues. Hospice started their pediatric program after Michael died. I took the training and then volunteered in the new hospice pediatric program. For me, fulfilling the mission of helping others—families and children with special needs—and knowing that Michael also would want to be doing this makes sense. It reminds me over and over again of Michael’s love for others and what his spirit was and is all about. I think taking a tragedy and the sadness of losing a child—a nightmare that no parent dares to believe can happen to him or her—and turning it into a positive for someone else or something else just helps me move forward. Somehow, I believe this is what Michael would want and he is smiling down and cheering Jim and myself on. One never gets over the death of a child, but you learn to live with it in the best way possible—and this seems like the best way possible. To help others in remembrance of our son is the path we have chosen.
For the past 50 years Beech Brook, an agency dedicated to enhancing the emotional well-being and self-sufficiency of youth, has benefitted from your generous involvement. Since volunteering as a reading tutor at age 20 to chairing the Board of Trustees and everything in between, your devotion is evident. What in particular about the work of Beech Brook attracts you?
In answering this, I realize that it has been the last 60 years that I have been involved with Beech Brook—I did volunteer at the age of 20 as a reading tutor before they had the school on campus! It was not until I was doing my psychology internship at Beech Brook that I realized what Beech Brook had in store for me. I was assigned to a small group of individual children to work with. When I met one of the first children I worked with, he was six years old and threw a chair at me. This was not in my graduate school books. This child, orphaned at a very young age, already had been in ten foster homes and was up for adoption. My reaction was, “Danny, I am not leaving. I am here to be with you.” How did I know that? I don’t know, but this was the beginning of my long commitment to Beech Brook. I realized that these children are some of the most damaged and wounded children in the community and that something needed to be done to help them. Beech Brook receives some of the most traumatized and troubled children and families in the area and does not give up on them. I believe that these children and families not only deserve the help but can be helped. I think the attraction about the work at Beech Brook is the same as it is in my own professional work with trauma. I refuse to give up on people who have been innocent victims of trauma.
You’ve also been active with University Hospitals, the Diabetes Association of Greater Cleveland, Playhouse Square, Magnolia Clubhouse and the Hospice of the Western Reserve, just to name a few of the myriad of organizations that have benefited from your volunteer leadership. Are there any projects you’ve been involved with that you’re most proud of?
I am so grateful that we have been a partner of so many meaningful projects. Certainly, helping to put together the pediatric handbook for parents who have dying children at Hospice of the Western Reserve was and is an important project. The ongoing lecture series at Gilmour Academy has been very rewarding. I have been part of the selection process every year, so I feel as if it is truly still something that can be in memory of Michael but also is relevant for students and parents in today’s world. It has been very gratifying to see how much people appreciate this series. One project early on that I was involved in was at Rainbow Babies and Children’s Hospital. I was asked to meet with leadership and staff to help them understand better what the needs might be for the families of the children who were in the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit (PICU). I met with and surveyed families about what would help them, and out of those discussions, the hospital modeled new facilitates to meet a more family-centered approach to care. I felt very honored to be included me in this. At the same time, Jim and I created a “Quiet Room” in Michael’s memory. We had found that we could never find a place of respite during all the times of crisis when Michael was in PICU. We wanted a place where a family might be able to go just to be alone during those fragile times. We think carefully about our choices of a project. I always make a site visit or talk personally with the people involved. When we support a project, it is something we have selected with Michael in mind.
Outside of work and volunteer commitments, how would you spend your ideal vacation day?
I like quiet, so I would probably be somewhere quietly reading or writing with my two King Charles Cavalier dogs, Sophie and Zoe, next to me or walking with them in the park or the side streets of Gates Mills. Or, I would like to spend time In Chautauqua with Jim on an “off-season day” when there are no crowds of people. I also enjoy spending time with my Stephen Ministry Group at St. Christopher’s Church (a trained group of lay ministers). It is such a loving, supportive, spiritual group.
What is the next item you are hoping to cross off your bucket list?
I would like to take Michael’s writings and my writings, which are now in boxes, and put them together in a book.