Alison Berna: The Story Of My Life
An Interview with Alison Berna
Alison Berna is a working mom based in New York City. She is the co-founder of AppleSeeds Play, an all in one play space for families with children newborn to five. An avid runner, dedicated Yogi and newly minted adventurer, Alison recently joined a team of five other runners (and the only woman) to help guide the first blind athlete, Dan Berlin to complete the Grand Canyon Rim to Rim to Rim trail run--consisting of 46 miles, 25,000 feet of climbing over 28 hours. Their effort was to help raise money and awareness for Blind Institute of Technology and Foundation Fighting Blindness. In her interview, Alison shares the challenges of being a working mom, how she became a budding entrepreneur from her days working at NBC and UNICEF and how her passion to help others achieve their goals has given her a second wind to live a more meaning and inspiring life.
Alison, thank you for talking with us. Before we jump into your historic Rim to Rim to Rim run across the Grand Canyon leading the first blind runner to attempt, tell us a little about yourself.
I live in NYC, in Manhattan, and started my career in television at NBC news 20 years ago as a producer for Dateline NBC; I worked at the UN and UNICEF children’s fund for 5 years. In between NBC and UNICEF I was at graduate school. I left television because I was frustrated with the idea that we weren’t doing enough international stories. At the time I was producing a piece about the Taliban regime and the impact on women, and we did this incredible hour-long story that ended up getting edited down to about 8 minutes. Even though it did get national airtime I felt it did not get the credit that it deserved given the importance of the story. I remember wanting to be in the story, working with refugees and working in the field, so I went to graduate school to make a shift and I ended up working at the UN.
Yes, while I was at the UN I learned conflict resolution, which comes in handy being a mom of 3 kids.
While at UNICEF I believed I had the best job in the world. It started as a marketing position for UNICEF, USA. I was then assigned to do a story at the Salt Lake City Olympics with the UNICEF Executive Director who was doing a round table on the impact of sport on children in the developing world, and how sport could be used to address things like HIV prevention through coaches, or gender specific programs that helped recruit girls to play sport and help get them off the street. There were also self-protection programs to help educate and create more awareness and keep children at risk in safer places with sport.
While we were at this round table, I proposed UNICEF have a specific program that actually focused on these issues. This brought me over to UNICEF, and I managed their sports development program where my main projects were FIFA and the International Olympics Centers. We would [look at] specific ‘at need’ countries, say Rwanda, and align the national football association with UNICEF, and build a program specific to that country. [This would] depend on the issues it was facing, whether it was HIV or child protection. I did this for about 5 years and loved my job. I got to travel, go to the Olympics, the World Cup, and interact with children which I loved…Then I got pregnant with my now twins (suddenly you can hear the twins in background where Alison quickly intervenes and resolves the situation….)
Tell us about AppleSeeds and how that started
While I was at UNICEF I got pregnant and they had a great maternity policy so I took 8 months leave. When I went back, I thought my kids were only at stage one and I was not sure if I could get on a plane and travel. So I took a leave of absence to think about what I wanted to do. In that time I was taking this music class with my daughters on 23rd street where I met another woman [also] named Alison, [whose] kids were a similar age. We met on the freight elevator because the regular elevator did not fit our twins and their gigantic strollers; it was always a struggle getting there. This helped bond us over this challenge of how hard it was to raise kids in the city and the idea – ‘wouldn’t’t it be nice if there was a place you could go where the door opened automatically, and a ramp with an elevator, and when you got in everybody knew your kid’s name and there was a playground where they could play in between classes. So we came up with this idea organically and in my mind I was going back to my job at UNICEF because I never intended on leaving.
As we started to talk we started seeing more strollers and families. Allison’s husband had just left his job and saw there was this large space right around the corner from us, so it was a great location. It was a giant risk but I felt that I was at a crossroads. I wanted to be a present mother for my kids – I also knew I needed to work, so I was trying to figure out how to do that. Could I work and make a difference in the community? It was a giant risk but I believed the reward could be great.
Congratulations! So now we have the business, entrepreneur side—what about this adventurous side….where did that come from?
A few years ago I thought that I have spent the last 10 years focused on raising babies and being a mom and raising our business and could start just focusing on myself. I asked myself ‘what about me?’ This is where Charles Scott (who is another ZIDI Leader) was a huge influence in my life. Over a lunch with two friends he said to me, “Alison, I’m going to do this article on what happens to your body after you practice yoga 15 times in a row over the course of 5 days,” and before he could finish his sentence I said “I’m IN.” I think I was looking for something that would challenge me and something that would be inspirational. I said to him that my only worry was I would not be able to make gymnastics for my daughter or feed my son’s dinner….and he looked at me and said, “but this is only for a week – I don’t understand because it’s not the quantity of time it’s the quality of time.” Our kids want us [to be] happy but for me I struggled that week missing out on checking the boxes as a mother; there as a boss—check, there as a wife—check, there as a mother—check.
For the first time in so long I was actually doing something that I just wanted to do for me. So on the Friday night I got home that week, I will never forget, my daughters they ran right up to me and gave me a giant hug and said, “mommy, mommy, you did it you did it! It was so awesome, when are you going to do it again?” So here I am thinking that I have sacrificed all this time but what your kids really want from you is your happiness. And your happiness is your own responsibility. It’s something we can decide on when we wake up every day. This yoga experience shifted me to this idea that I could figure out a way to do the things I have always wanted to do and not wait for them. The ‘bucket’ list’ started to form. I have always been a goal setter and I had this list of goals I wanted to do in my life.
So did this bucket list form becuase of this yoga experience or was that always there?
Yes, it was previously there. I alays kept journals with these various aspirations to challenge my limits – to see if I can do these things that might seem impossible. For me, it was athletics because I always liked sports, and activities like yoga. Things like half ironman or full ironman, or climb Mt Rainer or Kilimanjaro – things that really could push me and were exciting.
The Grand Canyon was not on this list. How did that come up?
The Grand Canyon came about when I did my first half Ironman triathlon [a half Ironman distance is 1.2 mile swim, 56 mile bike ride and 13.1 mile run] in September 2013 with Charles Scott, and Dan Berlin who is blind. Charles had guided Dan in the triathlon and told me all about Dan who is this incredible guy. When I was talking with Charles after the triathlon, he proposed the idea of running the Grand Canyon Rim-to-Rim-to-Rim (R2R2R) as another bucket list adventure we could check off together. We then proposed this idea to Dan who said, “yeah, I think I would be into that.”
“Your happiness is your own responsibility.”
That is Great and such a bold answer to a big challenge.
Yes, our bucket list idea quickly morphed into more than just doing another physically and mentally challenging adventure to actually helping somebody else achieve their goals. It gave us a different kind of motivation.
Your idea went from doing an individual bucket list challenge to being responsible for helping guide the first blind athlete across the Grand Canyon Rim to Rim to Rim? Not your everyday decision.
[Laughs] Yes, and I loved idea of guiding which always appealed to me. In all my events, I never really care about my personal record and I don’t think about the time at the end of a race. For me, it’s whether I can do it or not and that is enough for me. So I really liked the idea of guiding because you could actually do something challenging and give back to someone else. We found out there had never been a blind runner who attempted this Rim to Rim to Rim which consisted of the South Rim to the North Rim, and back to the South Rim, all in one day. This was 46 miles and over 25,000 feet of elevation change.
That is quote the challenge not to mention very cool you did it for someone else’s dream. How did you start training for this?
One of the hardest things to train for this event was preparing for the terrain with a blind runner. The terrain on the south rim is somewhat groomed but the north rim is not groomed; with a lot of rocks and sheer cliff drop offs. And when you do an endurance challenge like this, training is not just about your body but so much of it is about your mind. What I learned was that anything trying or that requires some level of discomfort, shifts to a mental ability. So a big part of the training was being ready and being able to handle that. It required us knowing our nutrition and our bodies really well. For me, yoga really helped with the art of breathing and staying calm. I also think there is a resilience that people either innately have or don’t have. There was a book I read called Survivors Club, and I learned that everyone has something that gets him or her through a survival situation or a challenging time. For some people it’s faith and prayer, for others it’s hope beyond hope.
At the end of the book there is a quiz readers can take to determine what their survival technique is, and what makes you more resilient. For me, it was love and empathy, which are the driving forces. And on my run in the Grand Canyon, anytime I felt down and out I’d look over at Dan and think, ”he can’t see – he can not see… what do I have to complain about?” So it put my own pain and discomfort in perspective. Being a guide became a trust thing, and required me to give up what I wanted in order to help Dan. In doing that, I was able to see how lucky and privileged I was to be in the Grand Canyon, and to experience it with my family. My time did not matter because it was a celebration of this ability, with gratitude that I could do it. I think Dan helped me see that.
Gratitude- we love that word, what an amazing lesson you had. Did you have a particular fear or low point in the challenge?
My biggest fear going in was getting Dan safely across. My personal fear was the North rim that had such jagged and rough terrain. And when we got there, the sun had started to set and it got really cold. Dan got a chill and started shaking so we gave him a space blanket and gave him some food. I felt all the guys I was with started this low point, and I found myself elated. I realized that my high point and low point were the exact opposite of his. I don’t know what it is about human nature that in a group dynamic we create the space to find your own strength and help somebody else. My fear of the North rim itself and the unknown was big for me, so once I got to the top and realized all I had to do was turn around and go back, I felt happy because I knew I could do it and what to expect. I knew it would be a long night, cold and hard, but in my mind it removed a lot of the fear.
That’s a great testimony to facing fears and how we get through them.
Yes, it is amazing what you learn. After we came down from the North rim there was a lunar eclipse that helped pull us through to Phantom Ranch. I was so tired and just wanted it to be over and my daughters had written me letters and hidden them in my backpack. I started reading them, and hearing their words of encouragement and support got me crying and gave me that boost to keep going and finish.
How did it feel finishing?
It was an incredible, transformational feeling, and almost life changing. When we started seeing our families and friends it was a truly a joyful experience, with tears and hugs and a lot of people smiling.
I can only imagine. What about Dan’s experience?
Dan made history and that was the best part. Dan calls his blindness ‘an inconvenience, not a disability’. He looks at life and what he CAN do, not what he can’t do. That philosophy or mind-set is how Charles lives his life and how I live mine. But sometimes we need to be reminded of that.
That is such a great message people need to hear and be reminded of. Very encouraging and could help other people afflicted with blindness.
Exactly. Sharing his story is exciting to me. To see how many people he could influence and how it might help others. What if a blind child hears his story or maybe even more important, a parent of a blind child sees his story on television or reads it in a magazine? And that makes them think they could have more for their child – which life is not as limiting as they thought it was. Beyond blindness, it’s the whole idea of overcoming obstacles. Everyone has some form of adversity, and not [always] a disability. For me as a working mother, my biggest obstacle was time. I could not find the time do all the things I wanted to do with work, my family, and my kids. So I needed to look at the obstacle and what was really holding me back from overcoming it. Once you throw it out to the world what you really want to do, you can do it. You have to stay focused and put your mind on it. The idea of inspiring people in the process will keep you going because then you know you’re helping other people, which is all the more reason to do it.
“Everyone has some form of adversity.”
What is your next challenge?
In our next adventure, and hopefully it will be with Dan again, the whole purpose will be to inspire and help other people. Yes, it’s for me too and I want to live a more meaningful life and not just dive into my job. I think what happens with mothers and specifically with working mothers today – you forget who you are. At the end of the day, when your kids grows up you wonder ‘what did I just do for the last twenty years?’ We often lose a sense of what interests us, like what our hobbies are, or what makes us happy. And then you wake up everyday and it’s hard to find happiness because there is no guidepost. I think that’s the first thing that gets lost when you start raising a family.
So it requires a daily discipline and focus?
That’s the key. I love that you said daily discipline because it changes everyday. When you hear people say work/life balance, by no means is that an easy thing to achieve. It’s elusive and I don’t think anyone achieves a perfect balance. The question I ask myself is “what is the story of my life and how am I going to tell it?” That is my daily mantra and helps me live each day.
“what is the story of my life and how am I going to tell it?”
That so cool Alison and embraces much of the theme and mission behind ZIDILIFE. To help inspire people to find their passion, overcome adversity and search for something more. There will never be an app or technology that replaces the visceral power of first hand experience.
I agree and what I found is that the more I started to run, do yoga, be outdoors, and do the things I really love, I started to be more productive in the rest of my life because I was happier. And the happier you are, the more you can fit in a day. It reminds me of what Charles was saying about kids is that ‘it’s not the quantity of time, it’s the quality of time and how you are spending it.’ By forgetting myself, I was resenting the time I was spending at work and would get frustrated. It feels like the last thing you are going to do [is something inspiring] because of [lack of] time, but when you actually do it, it feeds the soul. It gives you more space to do more.
Is there anything people can do to help Dan’s causes and support him?
Yes, people can donate to two causes we want to raise awareness for. People can visit our donation page here http://www.youcaring.com/nonprofits/the-blind-team-challenge-running-the-grand-canyon/234468 . The two causes important to Dan are Blind Institute of Technology, a small organization based in Colorado whose goal is to help employees and employers invest in technology and help hire a blind person using technologies. The other one is Foundation Fighting Blindness, focused on scientific research to help the 20 million Americans who are blind.
Over the last ten years I have raised money for a lot of different causes and this was my first time using Youcaring.com. I have been really pleased with how easy the site is to use to navigate. Both from the front end perspective of giving but also from the backend perspective of managing the website and figuring out how to edit our page so we could add press links and updates. So it was super easy to navigate. Most importantly, 100% of the money we raise goes to the cause and that is unheard of. I have worked with other site before where you just feel sick that only $.95 is going to the cause and not $1.00. So I feel good when I’m sharing Youcaring.com because it achieves what I want and intend. Because when you are asking people to open their wallets and give money to a cause, you are hoping all that money goes to the cause you care about and that’s what I like about Youcaring.com.
I can hear the excitement and spark in your voice about this experience and what is has done for you personally, to inspire others and raise awareness for importante causes.
Thank you Christian, it was great to talk with you. I leave you with one thought about one of my biggest inspirations, this little four-year old boy named Lance. He was my daughter’s best friend in pre-school and this little boy was the coolest kid ever. He would high five me and always had a smile. He ended up getting pediatric cancer and died. I bring this up because I wear a bracelet with his name on it and I think about him on a daily basis. I think he made me a different mother and person. When you see life pass before you in a child who had so much ahead of him, it literally puts everything in perspective and suddenly the small things really are small things.
That is never easy to experience. It is great you were able to honor him, and pull strength from him in your own life.
Yes, I know he’s watching us and that helps keep me going.
We will stay in touch and excited to hear what is next.
Thanks Christian, very nice to talk with you and look forward to what lies ahead.
Sidenote: Alison and the team used Youcaring.com which is a new crowdsourcing platform to support important causes and events