6 Women Who Prove You Can Change Your Life at Any Age

Photo: Coral Von Zumwalt

Became a Firefighter at...66

Andrea Peterson
Firefighter
Quechee, Vermont

Her Dream
At age 5, Andrea Peterson was rescued from a fire in her family's Los Angeles home. "I thought it was a great adventure," she recalls. "I told the big firefighters that I wanted to be a fireman, too, and they laughed and said that little girls could not do that." Still, when a car crashed on her front lawn several years later and burst into flames, Peterson trained the garden hose on the blaze. "The instinct was there, so I just did it!" she says.

Her Detour
Pressured by her parents to choose a more "gender appropriate" career, Peterson became a flight attendant. It wasn't until 2008, after her husband passed away, that she finally started volunteering at a local fire station. At 107 pounds, she spent a year lifting weights and watching her diet before being approved for fire academy coursework. And when she began training in 2010 alongside men in their teens and 20s, she was ready. "At one point the department's fitness officer asked me to pull him through the station in full gear and equipment--he weighed about 300 pounds," she says. "I did as he requested, which perhaps surprised both of us!" In May 2011 she graduated, becoming the only woman on the department's staff of 27 firefighters.

Her Passion
Peterson has now responded to more than 350 emergency calls, helping cardiac arrest patients, homeowners beating back a fire in frigid temperatures, and more. "The high point is the relief on people's faces when we arrive," she says. "I've always known that this was the job for me. It doesn't matter how hard I had to work or how long I had to wait." --Roxanna Font


Photo: Coral Von ZumwaltBecame a Mom at... 49

Traci Lucien
Nonprofit Executive
Laurel, Maryland

Her Disappointment
Traci Lucien always pictured herself finding Mr. Right and having children someday. But as she worked her way up to vice president at a large nonprofit, dating took a backseat. Then several years ago, doctors discovered fibroid tumors in her uterus. The hysterectomy that followed triggered "a long grieving process," she says.

Her Big Decision
Lucien sought advice from her mom and her pastor--and decided to try to adopt, despite still being single. "I didn't talk about it to a lot of people because I didn't want to hear from any naysayers," she says. Shocked by the cost of private adoptions, Lucien opted to pursue a foster child. She first glimpsed Talynn, a 7-year-old Midwestern girl with a wide smile and floppy braids, on adoptuskids.org. "Something in her eyes looked so familiar," Lucien says. For the next five months, while social workers studied her background, Lucien read books and blogs about child development. In April 2010, she finally sat in a foster agency conference room, her stomach filled with butterflies. When Talynn walked in dragging an old suitcase, she exclaimed, "Mommy! You are so pretty!" Lucien fought back tears. This was her daughter.

Her Adjustment
Back in Maryland, Talynn threw tantrums. "She was testing me to see if I'd give up on her," Lucien says. Her research confirmed that this was typical--and she soon found that a hug could usually defuse Talynn's behavior. Lucien officially adopted Talynn last May; mother and daughter now wear bracelets engraved with the date. "She's very much like me," Lucien says of her daughter, who asks a million questions and likes to snuggle in bed on Saturday mornings. "Everyone says we were meant to be together." --Hollace Schmidt


Photo: Coral Von ZumwaltStarted a Company at... 18&19

Keeley Tillotson and Erika Welsh
Founders, Wild Squirrel Nut Butter
Eugene, Oregon

Their Snack Attack
Last January University of Oregon athletes Keeley Tillotson (right, triathlon) and Erika Welsh (crew) were munching on ants on a log--i.e., celery topped with peanut butter and raisins--when they ran out of peanut butter. Rather than bike to the store, they whipped some up in Welsh's Cuisinart (trail mix was another favorite snack, so they had peanuts on hand). "It sounds ridiculous, but we'd never eaten peanut butter that tasted so much like peanuts," says Tillotson. "It was so fresh!" Next, they tried mixing in cinnamon, coffee, and sunflower seeds--and shared their bounty with friends. Eventually, to cover costs, they created a rudimentary Web site and started charging $4 a jar. They named their operation Wild Squirrel in honor of Welsh's childhood nickname (coined because she liked to snack).

Their Big Break
On a whim, the pair sent a sample to food blogger Kath Younger, whose glowing review ("SO blew my socks off") spurred hundreds of orders. They bought two more Cuisinarts and started listening to NPR's From Scratch business podcasts. Eventually they raised $50,000 from family and friends to hire a "co-packer" to produce enough jars to sell to stores. Now their concoctions, from Curious Cocoa-Nut (coconut and chocolate) to Pretzel Pizazz (honey and pretzels) are available throughout the Pacific Northwest.

Their Secret
The co-CEOs--currently taking online courses, living with their parents, and pouring profits back into their business--believe their youth has made all the difference. "We never assume we can't do something," Tillotson says. "We just try it." --Courtney Rubin


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Photo: Coral Von ZumwaltLearned Mandarin at... 37

Stephanie Hunt
Etiquette Expert
New York City

Her Idea
When Stephanie Hunt first visited Beijing with a friend in 2007, she'd recently launched an etiquette business, Swan Noir, so the city's customs--which include slurping one's soup--were startling. Aware that American executives were streaming into China, Hunt sensed an opportunity. But back in New York, she was too busy with local clients to pursue a Chinese expansion. It wasn't until 2011 that she finally found time to enroll in Mandarin classes. Her goal: Offer international business etiquette consulting to American and Chinese executives.

Her Immersion
Hunt spent hours memorizing complicated characters and taped flashcards all over her apartment. "Sometimes it felt like my head was going to explode," she admits. She also frequented shops and restaurants in Chinatown. Eventually she booked a trip to Shanghai, arranging through a local language school to stay with a host family. Hunt's stylish Chinese hostess taught her to pay the cook a compliment by belching properly. "You just go for it and never cover your mouth," Hunt explains. By day she asked for directions when she didn't understand a sign. "There aren't many black women in Shanghai," she says. "But when I opened my mouth and Mandarin came out, the stares turned to wow."

Her Dedication
Hunt now studies with a tutor and attends Chinese cultural events to keep up her skills. Later this year, she'll return to Shanghai to build guanxi--i.e., the trusting relationships necessary to conduct business in China. "At a certain point, I accepted that it was going to take me years to master this language," she says. "But I love a challenge. Sometimes I think,'This is so much fun--what else is possible?'" --Yvonne Durant


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Photo: Carol Von ZumwaltLearned to Surf at... 55

Mary Wagstaff
Artist
Larkspur, California

Her Aha Moment
Mary Wagstaff has always been captivated by the ocean. As a child, she spent idyllic summer vacations in Ocean City, Maryland, where foamy waves crashed on rocky jetties--and where she rode her first small swell at 17. Still, she'd mostly avoided the chilly waters near her Northern California home until 2004, when friends pestered her to join them for a day of surfing. "I was 55 and very resistant," recalls Wagstaff, who hadn't attempted to catch a wave in 35 years. "I figured I was too old, too stiff, and would embarrass myself." But she agreed to tag along, and after watching her pals fool around on their rented boards, Wagstaff slipped into a wetsuit and paddled out to join them. A wave rolled in, and before she knew it, she was riding it toward the beach. After that, "I was totally hooked," she says.

Her Learning Curve
Wagstaff and her friends started surfing weekly; since the youngest was 50, they called themselves OBOB, or Old Broads on Boards. Though she never took formal lessons, Wagstaff picked up pointers from more experienced riders and watched surf movies for inspiration. Eventually she invested in a stable longboard at a shop run by a veteran surfer. "He was my age, and he understood where I was coming from," says Wagstaff with a laugh.

Her Payoff
In addition to giving her increased strength and flexibility, surfing has inspired her painting. A former advertising art director, Wagstaff--whose two children are grown--now spends long hours in her studio creating evocative, almost electrically photorealistic canvases depicting the glassy ocean and rolling waves. The sport has "connected me with a new daily contentedness," Wagstaff says. "Surfing makes it so easy to truly be in the present moment. The ocean is unpredictable, so the challenge is to be as alert and aware as I can be." --Bonnie Tsui


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