Mary cofounded Soccer Without Borders
A nonprofit leader steps away to heal and choose how (or if) she wants to return to her dream job.
“When it’s your organization, you show up regardless of what’s happening in your life. Over time, I felt like I built up these injuries—which felt small at first, but over time I found myself less able to recover from these nicks and bruises.”
Before her sabbatical at age 37, Mary’s longest break from work came when her professional soccer league went bankrupt mid-season. Growing up, work was a constant for Mary—she held jobs stretching back to a paper route when she was 9. Both of her parents were teachers whose Catholic faith framed their views of work not only as a way to survive, but also as a chance to help others.
Mary channeled this intersection of mission and work after graduate school, where she had the opportunity to volunteer organizing communities in need around soccer in Nicaragua. Mary was hooked—she helped cofound Soccer Without Borders (SWB) and spent the next 11 years of her life working hard, almost without any breaks.
“Soccer Without Borders really spoke to me, so I didn’t ever feel like I was getting up and going to a job. I just felt like I was getting up and going to do amazing things.”
At SWB’s ten-year anniversary, Mary’s cofounder brought up the idea of taking a few months off to recover and spend time away from the organization. It was the first time that she’d considered that she might need a chance to heal and reflect as well. She no longer bounced back from the day to day “injuries” that working in an emotionally charged, mission-oriented environment delivered on a day to day basis. Mary pitched eight weeks away to the board, and made preparations to leave the following year.
Mary sought to use her time off as a test: would she choose to return? If so, in what capacity? Her role—Executive Director—was vastly different as the organization had grown from two people to nearly a hundred. Mary hoped that the process of leaving would force her to delegate long overdue legacy tasks on her plate, and that her temporary absence would make the organization stronger upon her return.
“In leaving for sabbatical my hope was that I would actually choose to return again, instead of feeling like it was just happening to me. I wanted to either return and choose it again, or come back to formulate a succession plan.”
On the personal front, she wanted to recover and feel like herself again; it had been so long since she explored who she was outside of Soccer Without Borders.
The sabbatical did not get off to a great start: the first full week of her sabbatical Mary ended up working from home. She couldn’t ignore the ongoing stream of requests from the team, and it wasn’t until she got on the plane—and into a new time zone—that she felt herself finally begin to decompress. Upon leaving the US, Mary relished being offline, traveling between three continents, going to weddings, spending time with family and reuniting with friends.
Mary felt like she hit her stride on sabbatical after five weeks—her cofounder said it took him six. At that point she wrestled with the question about whether or not to start a family, and relished using her journal again and sitting with her own thoughts.
Mary’s sabbatical brought big changes, both to her personal life and work. She felt that the time and space away from her wife helped to strengthen their relationship: it reminded Mary of her own independent identity, and also advanced conversations on what they wanted the future to be like.
“It was important to get out of the routine to see what you miss or what you’re craving. For me, it was seeing more of the people who I love.”
Mary yearned for a simpler existence, and became open to moving out of the city. At work, she was able to advocate for another leadership position to be created to spread out her prior responsibilities more sustainably. Time off armed her with more confidence and a stronger vision of what the future should be, and how to lead towards it. Mary was also surprised how good her time away was for her team.
“The time off wasn’t just good for me, it was good for my team. I needed to step out of the organization to make space for others to step in.”
Mary returned refreshed and more intentional about time off in the future. Unlike in the prior decade of work, she vowed to take a real vacation from work each year going forward. Her only regret was not taking the full twelve weeks off, and not turning off as successfully from the start.