Adventurous Women

The North Shore can seem like a bubble: People shuttling from home to work and back again, and kids from home to school to activities. Places like Haiti seem far away until disasters bring them to our attention.

Fortunately, there are people in our midst who constantly think outside the bubble, and their passion takes them to far-off lands. Interacting with other cultures and bringing their stories home, they remind us of the world’s harsh realities, and they’re often inspired and humbled by leaders working in cultures all over the world. In short, they make us better.

So, meet the adventurers: A former securities trader helping Afghan women achieve economic independence and more, a fundraiser who trails UNICEF workers to bring their work to life, a fair trade warrior, an intuitive and shamanistic healer who has learned from spiritual gurus on other continents, and a dentist-turned-mountain-climber whose volunteer work abroad really has, well, teeth.

Connie Duckworth
Age: 55, Lake Forest
“The Liberator”

Connie Duckworth, of Lake Forest, beats the odds. That’s a great thing for women in Afghanistan, as well as many in the U.S. and elsewhere.

Duckworth was the first woman to run a desk, a division and make partner in sales and trading at Goldman Sachs. All while raising four children.

During her first pregnancy, she beat overwhelming odds of a rare, life-threatening condition. She was in a coma for days and received last rites. That son, Andrew, is now a sophomore at Vanderbilt University.

As a member of a State Department commission, Duckworth visited Afghanistan and experienced the plight of Afghan women—“who are at the bottom of the bottom of the social pyramid,” she says—and knew that she had to help them beat their awful odds, too.

She formed Arzu Studio Hope, a nonprofit that provides jobs weaving rugs and social support to women, and sells their beautiful rugs to leading oriental rug dealers, including Minasian Rug Company in Evanston, The Mustard Seed in Lake Forest and Design Within Reach in Chicago.

The company launched in 2004 with 30 women weaving on the outskirts of Kabul. It’s grown to 600 weavers in nine remote villages and offers education and health care, including midwifery. Duckworth beams as she discusses a new women’s community center in Bamyan, with flush toilets, a laundromat, classroom, tearoom and solar power, which will allow women to get an education.

Duckworth’s vision has earned a social entrepreneur award from the Skoll Foundation, celebrity design donations from leading architects, and recognition from leading interior design publications.

Her drive to make the world better may be traced to that near death pregnancy experience, which she now calls a blessing. It cemented her marriage to her husband, Tom, their commitment to their children and her passion to help women’s advocacy programs.

She started advocating for women at Goldman Sachs. “My day job was running a business. My night job was implementing family friendly policies,” she says. Among her achievements were the company’s first lactation room, adoption leave, job sharing, flex-time, Wall Street’s first back-up childcare center and high chairs in the cafeteria.

Duckworth estimates that Arzu now touches the lives of tens of thousands of Afghans.

Nonetheless, Duckworth believes that she receives more than she gives. “The Afghan women are incredibly resilient. It’s a gift to work with them,” she says. “One woman recently said, My village is praying for you.”

“I’m completely humbled.”


To learn more about Arzu Studio Hope, visit

Jodi Mulder
“The Activator”
Age: 36, Evanston

At age 13, Jodi Mulder was living on a boat. Her parents left their jobs so that the family could spend a year sailing from their hometown of Grand Haven through the Chicago River to the Mississippi, down to the Gulf of Mexico, through the Bahamas, up the East Coast and back to Michigan via the Erie Canal.

That’s when she learned about taking risks and acting intentionally, the philosophy she’s lived by ever since. Her intention has taken her around the world, and she’s continued to travel internationally with her husband, Chad, and their young sons—Levi, 4 and Judah, 2. She uses her experiences abroad to enrich her life, volunteer work and community at home.

“We try to be really intentional about how we spend our time and expose ourselves,” she says. She resolved to get out of the country once a year “to stay connected with what’s going on in the world,” she says.

Her own travel started with a month volunteering in Africa in college. In graduate school, she backpacked through Europe, and then she and Chad worked in Singapore, which allowed them to see numerous countries in Asia for a couple of years. On the way home, they bought around-the-world tickets and went to an Everest base camp in Nepal, among other places.

Since starting a family, the former clinical social worker has traveled to Dubai, Belize—where the family stayed in a jungle hut in the rainforest—and Greece. On the way home from Greece, Mulder shared a plane ride with a group of Ethiopian refugees. Seeing their reality made her want to help, and since then she and Chad have been tutoring an Iranian family in Skokie.

“Travel is an experience that will grow us as people and as a family”—not a vacation, she explains. “We walk away humbled every time.” She loves experiencing other cultures with young kids because it means more interaction with locals.

Right now, Mulder and her family are on a 12-week trip through Kenya, Uganda and Rwanda, volunteering for Trade as One, an organization that sells the work of fair trade farmers and producers.

When she’s not planning trips, Mulder has led a group of North Shore moms in raising raising $10,000 for Northfield-based Rise International, a nonprofit that builds schools in Angola. She also started her own business, SitterCONNECT, which allows parents to network with babysitters at events and keep in touch with them on the web.

Another of Mulder’s passions is competing in marathons and triathlons—she finished 25th for the women in the Chicago Triathlon last year. And that’s just when she’s not trotting across the globe.


To learn more about Trade as One, visit, and to find a sitter for your next adventure, check out For information on Rise International, see

Blue McLeary
Age: 62, Northfield

“I just love my Northfield Country Gardeners,” Blue McLeary says.

But of course she does, McLeary finds love and adventure everywhere she goes in the world, including her own backyard. More surprising is that an intuitive, artist, shaman, spiritual healer and landscape designer calls the North Shore home.

She graduated from New Trier in 1966, and earned degrees from the Art Institute and the University of Chicago. She met her husband, James, in Glencoe when they were in high school and they raised their three sons in Northfield.

McLeary’s spiritual journey has taken her on fascinating adventures, including living deep within the rainforest; being initiated as a practitioner of the healing arts of the Birdpeople Yachaks, an indigenous group high in the Ecuadorian Andes; and traveling to remote South Africa to become a follower of Credo Mutwa, often referred to as “the African Dalai Lama.”

Dreams often tell McLeary where to go. “My mother and grandmother were also dreamers,” McLeary says. “My grandmother, raised on a reservation, knew about World War II before the rest of the country.”

McLeary lives life by looking for ways to be of service. “What changes I can do to make it better? I’m in,” she says.

This often means embracing challenges and bringing nature and balance to the physical world. That’s why she works to help the Ecuadorian rain forest and Credo Mutwa, who runs an orphanage in South Africa.

It also means organizing local house walks, donating her time and talent to improve public spaces through the Northfield Country Gardeners and, most recently, agreeing to create a garden near two struggling schools in Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood.

“That area is like a war zone. It needs the balance of nature and the elements,” she says.

McLeary believes that all women are intuitive. “It’s how we just know when our child is sick,” she says. She also believes “everyone has something special that no one else has.”

Her special gifts include spiritual readings and healings. “I leave the physical world and do the unseen,” she says. Her client roster includes successful entrepreneurs and foreign consuls.

When asked about her future plans, McLeary laughs: “Future? Hah! You are in a shaman’s house. Time runs back and forth.”

But after a thoughtful pause, she adds, “Wouldn’t it be great if I could get some North Shore gardeners involved with Pilsen?”


To reach Blue McLeary, see our Better List at

Miriam Levitan Dani
“Dentist Without Borders”
Age: 44, Wilmette

Four years ago, Miriam Dani wrote in her journal, “Climb Mt. Kilimanjaro,” as an example of something extreme, something totally outside her realm.

But just a year later, at 41, Dani found herself mountain climbing for the first time and summiting that very mountain, the highest peak in Africa, at just under 20,000 feet. And she did it again in 2009, and also conquered Mt. Meru, a smaller peak nearby, on that second trip.

For Dani, travel hits three birds with one stone: It allows her to challenge herself physically, use her professional dentistry to give back and cope with major crises in her life. After Dani went through some painful experiences, her climbs in Africa renewed her strength to move forward.

“There are so many life lessons on the mountain,” Dani says. “You have to be in the moment.”

She climbs for “the pace, the rhythm, the outdoors. The difficulty in testing your body, pushing yourself. The summit is exhilirating, but the entire time is much more rewarding.” On her Meru climb, Dani hiked through the night along a narrow path beside a sheer cliff. On one of her 12-day Kilimanjaro climbs, she woke up gasping for air and fearing that she would die as a result of the altitude.

Before she became a climber, Dani had practiced dentistry for almost 20 years and started traveling globally to donate her dental services when she was still in school. “It’s woven in my fabric,” she says of giving back.

Her first trip to Kilimanjaro was with a group of climbers, including Jim Lumberg of Winnetka and John Kelly, formerly of Kenilworth, who were starting Kilimanjaro Children’s School to teach English to children, many of whom were orphaned by AIDS.

“They are so poor, they’re so needy—they just cling to you,” Dani says of those children.

In 2008, Dani hiked the Inca trail to Machu Picchu in Peru and spent time providing dental care and education at a school in the shantytowns outside of Lima—one of the world’s most dangerous slums.

“There’s no love, you can feel it,” Dani says of the area, where it’s common for parents to sell their children as prostitutes.

She’s returning to Peru this year to start the dental portion of a completely green medical and dental clinic in Moyobamba. She’s already collected and shipped more than $25,000 worth of dental supplies.

And Dani’s own life isn’t without devastation. Last year her boyfriend of three years was diagnosed with ALS (better known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease), a rapidly debilitating and deadly neurodegenerative condition. When she returned from her Africa trip shortly after the diagnosis, she and her boyfriend threw a benefit for 200 friends at Wilmette’s Michigan Shores Club that raised $25,000 for research on the disease.

“Travel is such a great way to put perspective into life. It’s continually grounding. There are moments where climbing is so difficult—well, so is life! You just keep moving forward.”


To learn more about ALS, visit the Les Turner Foundation’s website, For the Kilimanjaro Children’s School, contact Miriam at, and for the Moyobamba clinic, visit

Wendy Serrino
Age: 49, Glencoe
“The Witness”

While many of us have only seen images of extreme poverty and starvation on TV, Wendy Serrino has witnessed these things with her own eyes in Africa, Asia and Central America. In Africa, she watched a child die a painful death from tetanus while another developed rheumatic fever from a case of strep throat, and a man stripped a bush to eat it because he was so hungry.

“Those visions, they never go away,” she says.

Acting as a witness to UNICEF operations in Madagascar and Laos gave Serrino experience that served as a powerful fundraising tool upon her return. She serves on UNICEF’s Midwest Board and she has raised roughly $400,000—including her own family’s donations—for the $6 million Accelerated Child Survival Campaign, which focuses on the poorest countries.

“I wanted to understand better how the rest of the world lives,” she says. “It’s hard to understand, truly, the need, unless you see it.”

The mother of four—a former marketing director at Kraft—got more interested in humanitarian work abroad after traveling to Uganda as a volunteer with Glencoe Union Church in 2003.

Along with heartbreak, Serrino has also seen amazing feats, particularly UNICEF workers’ ability to collaborate. Multi-national, multi-cultural teams come together with governments and other organizations to facilitate large-scale food supply and vaccine programs,.

And the teams manage to get to villages without the help of modern roads, or any roads at all. Serrino was once in a car with UNICEF workers in Madagascar, where the roads haven’t been updated for decades, and the car’s axle broke. She has slept alone under a mosquito net, isolated in areas with no connection to the outside world and no hospital nearby.

Serrino has also traveled to Guatemala to do volunteer work in orphanages and other places with Glencoe Union, and her children have accompanied her.

Of all the places she’s been, Africa made the biggest impression. “It blows you away and pulls on your heart strings in a way no other place can,” she says. “The most devastating thing is seeing hungry kids, they’re so skinny … their mom is 13 or 14 … ”

And Serrino hasn’t forgotten about the children who need help here at home. She’s been a leader in the Glencoe Partnership, a group of families who have pooled their funds to start a charter school in Chicago, providing a high-quality alternative within the urban public education system.

While she’s passionate about helping children around the world, she’s not holier-than-thou with her friends. “Some people can take it more than others,” she says. “Rather than talking about it all the time, I try to show by example.”


To learn more about UNICEF’s recent initiatives or donate, visit

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