Episode 33: Resilience and Facing Pain with Business Leader Gena Harper

about the episode

Gena Harper works as a Certified Investment Management Analyst, Senior Vice President and Senior Investment Management Consultant at Morgan Stanley and provides her clients with custom financial planning that delves into and simplifies even the most complex situations. Gena also happens to be blind, and has spent her entire adult life proving that limitations are simply hurdles to be cleared.

Gena made the US National Para cycling Team in 2012 and won a bronze medal in the National Disabled Ski Championships. She cycles, bikes, whitewater rafts, rock climbs, skateboards, practices yoga, and has even tried cliff diving. She has won numerous awards, including being the first recipient of The Glaucoma Foundation Award of Merit, the Women of Vision Award, and the American Foundation for the Blind Kay Gallagher Award, and was recognized by Morgan Stanley as one of the 15 outstanding women professionals in 2015.

Gena Harper’s commitment to meeting life head-on extends to everything she does. Every day, she proves that having vision for herself and for others doesn’t require being able to see.

Gena is passionate about empowering others and improving the lives of people with many kinds of disabilities, not just those who are blind. She helps employers to understand that hiring people with disabilities means they will acquire hardworking, willing employees. Every day, she proves that having vision for herself and for others doesn’t require being able to see.

Episode Transcript

Gena: People would tell me I couldn't do things, and I used to listen to them. I would believe them. I thought they knew that it was true that I couldn't do things. And then I started learning how to stand up for myself. And if somebody told me no, I could say to myself, "Well, they don't really know" and call somebody else. Find somebody else that will say yes in the effort to help me accomplish what I want to accomplish.

Erik: It's easy to talk about the successes. But what doesn't get talked about enough is the struggle. My name is Erik Weihenmayer. I've gotten the chance to ascend Mount Everest, to climb the tallest mountain in every continent, to kayak the Grand Canyon, and I happen to be blind. It's been a struggle to live what I call a no barriers life, to define it, to push the parameters of what it means. And part of the equation is diving into the learning process and trying to illuminate the universal elements that exist along the way. In that unexplored terrain between those dark places we find ourselves in and the summit exists the map. That map, that way forward is what we call No Barriers.

Dave: Today we meet Gena Harper, who works as a Senior Vice President and Senior Investment Management Consultant at Morgan Stanley. Gena also happens to be blind and she has spent her entire adult life proving that limitations are simply hurdles to be cleared. She made the US National Para-cycling team in 2012 and won a bronze medal in the national disabled Ski Championships. She cycles, bikes, whitewater rafts, rock climbs, skateboards, practices Yoga and has even tried cliff diving.

Dave: She has won numerous awards, including being the first recipient of the Glaucoma Foundation Award of Merit, the Women of Vision Award, the American Foundation for the Blind Kate Gallagher Award, and was recognized by Morgan Stanley as one of the fifteen outstanding women professionals in 2015. Enjoy the conversation.

Dave: Welcome, everybody to the No Barriers Podcast. We are excited to talk with Gena Harper today and have a great conversation. Before we get started though, Jeff, our partner in crime, Erik Weihenmayer, one of our hosts is not with us today and he accomplished something pretty extraordinary this week. You want to talk about that?

Jeff: Yeah, and he was with some other good friends on a pretty amazing journey. It kind of kicked off last year, we were all talking about going to Ama Dablam. Ama Dablam is a 22,000 foot plus mountain over in the Himalayas. It is pretty technical and it was the training grounds for our Everest team before we, before we went up Everest and the team didn't make it. It got... all kinds of things happened. So it was just kind of a junk show and it was tough. And one of the teammates Eric Alexander got really sick and had to be air evac-ed out and so this was the team's shot at going back up and doing it. I had a little FOMO. I ain't going to lie. I wish I was with them, but couldn't make it.

Jeff: But just got word yesterday that they summited, including both the Eriks, super blonde as well as Eric Alexander, who had a bit of a epic on that mountain, you know, almost 20 years ago. And so it's a really big deal. And it was very hard and it's good to know that moderately old guys can still get after it and, and... and reach their goals. So I'm really proud of all those boys.

Dave: Yeah. Because the first time they did it, they were probably in their 20s, right?

Jeff: Yeah, yeah, I'd say like 30, early 30s.

Dave: Early 30s? Okay.

Jeff: Yeah, early 30s, definitely where the cartilage was... they had a lot more cartilage back then. We'll say that, yeah.

Dave: Well, we will look forward to having Eric back soon on the show and get to hear more...

Jeff: He'll be, He'll be skinny and hairier. Yeah.

Dave: Exactly.

Jeff: Skinny and hairier when he gets back.

Dave: Great. Well, we're excited to be joined by Gena Harper today. Gena, welcome to the show.

Gena: Thank you. I'm so excited to be here.

Jeff: Hi Gena.

Dave: Gena, where are you... where are you calling in from today?

Gena: I'm calling in from Davis, California, where I live.

Dave: Nice. Well, Gena, you have an amazing life history. And we are looking forward to talking to you about some of the things that you've learned in your own life and just kind of learning some morsels of wisdom about the journey that we all go through and the struggles and how we get through them. And so I thought we could just start with you just tell us a little bit about your work that you do at Morgan Stanley.

Gena: I am the Senior Vice President of Investments and I do complex financial planning. So I work with individuals, and many of them own small to medium sized businesses, and I do all aspects of the planning. I do the investment selection, I do the monitoring of the plan, and how are the investments doing and then work with them on all aspects of financial planning, such as lending, life insurance, long term care, so anything a person could need, or should be looking at, in doing financial planning and setting their goals for the short term and the long term is what I do.

Jeff: You make retirement dreams happen, Gena.

Gena: I make retirement dreams happen. Absolutely. And I hold people accountable. So that actually does make many more retirement dreams happen if people are held accountable.

Jeff: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Dave: And in case you're listening and looking for some retirement advice, this is not going to be that show. I should mention.

Gena: Exactly.

Dave: You should go ahead and turn it off at this point, Gena can certainly help you with that. But this is not going to be that show and Gena just to kind of get, get the background out of the way and we know now you work at Morgan Stanley, you also were born with congenital glaucoma. Tell us what that is.

Gena: So congenital glaucoma is an eye disease and a lot of older people have it but if you're born with it, it's, it's unusual. It's not very common. And it's really an issue with the drainage of your eye and it has to do with your optic nerve. And there's... the optic nerve is the only nerve in the body that cannot rejuvenate itself. So I know all the dreams and hopes of something changing, I still have those dreams and hopes that things will change in you know the medical industry with science and technology. But the optic nerve is very tricky. So there's not been, you know, huge improvement or discoveries in how to manage it.

Jeff: Can I ask you a question, that, you know, Erik gets asked this all the time, and and I've talked to him about it online and offline but so it's a interesting background story that being, you know, having this visual impairment has been a big part of your, of your life and who you are and who you were and who you are and who you will be. If, if I could say that, you know, you could instantly have your vision back. Would you trade that in for anything? As far as your history goes, and then, you know, going forward, do you feel like you're... you put a lot of energy into the idea of, you know, maybe you're talking about science and frontier in science and potentially being able to see again.

Gena: I've heard a lot of people speak, Jeff, about that they wouldn't trade in their blindness or their disability or their difference between because that's made them who they are. I don't actually believe that. So I... it would be great if I could see. I am who I am because of it. But there's a lot of conveniences of being able to see. So it's just super tricky and I do think that I would, I would love to have better vision and I would love if science would improve and it would really be cool if science would improve so they can fix my eyes and I know what I have, right, I know how my life already is. So if I could have all the bonuses if I could have my cake and eat it too. That would be great.

Dave: Gena, I was reading a story about you and growing up and how it was... you know, now you're you're career professional. You've got a family. You've done amazing... gone on big adventures, you know, but it wasn't as easy when you were a kid adjusting to having, you know, congenital glaucoma. Can you talk a little bit about that time in your life when you were just sort of coming to grips with what this was and how it was going to impact you.

Gena: I think that's so significant. That's the part of my life that, even though I become successful and have accomplished many things and plan to continue doing that, that for me, the growing up part and dealing with the vision loss was very, very hard. I could see better than I can see my... I could see much better. When I was five, I could read books, and I didn't use any canes or any technology or anything like that. But I really felt as though I could see too good to be blind, but I couldn't see well enough to see. And that put me in a very, very hard position.

Gena: And also being a child. You know, kids are cruel. Then you have my mom was an amazing mom, and she was a very hard worker, but she didn't have good role models. There wasn't a good system, a networking system, so she could reach out to other parents and I didn't know very many blind kids. I would say I only knew I had a teacher that was visually impaired. And he was amazing. But the rest of the people that I had access to, they weren't good role models. And they in fact, kind of made the problem worse, because it was sort of like, Oh, I don't want to be like that. And I had a lot of fear, again, though, I was five. So this whole mindset of "I could see too well to be blind, but I couldn't see well enough to see" went on.

Gena: So as, you know, through middle school and kids would get meaner and call me a three-eyed monster and really mean things. And then the adults, they didn't really know what to do with a person that could sort of see and sort of not see and still at that point, I wasn't using a cane or any anything. So there's no identifying factor. I wore glasses and my eyes did look a little different at the time. And that was very difficult. I felt super isolated and really lonely and that kids were really mean and that I didn't really... I couldn't envision a life where I could be successful.

Gena: And I also was young. So I didn't know how to do things. I didn't know to advocate for myself and the grown ups, they weren't much more help because most of them didn't know what to do either. So it was quite a conundrum.

Jeff: Was there a point where you just, where you grab the cane, and maybe you got a dog and like you just said, "This is who I am and I need to be more mobile and have more accessibility" and just, in a way, sort of embrace it? Was there that point or was it a slow, sort of slower acceptance?

Gena: No, it was very slow and painful. So I lived in denial. I didn't want to be blind. I wanted to hide that I was blind. I went to great lengths to hide that I was blind. So even job interviews, I would ask to take the application home and I wouldn't lead on that I couldn't see and I would only take jobs that I knew I could do without seeing very well. And some jobs I took that I knew I'd be alone. So in the alone time I would do the part that I'd have to like put the index cards really close to my face to read them, but I would never do that in public.

Gena: So what happened was my eyes were getting worse and I wanted to go to college. That was a big dream of mine. So I... I got out of school, I took my GED as a junior to get out of high school to go to college early. And I, at that point, my eyes were pretty, they were getting worse. They were pretty bad. So I'd have somebody show me the way to all my classes in college, you know, a big campus and I still wouldn't accept and I had been told to use a cane and I had this total mindset that if I used a cane, I was going to look ugly and look old, and I had this whole image of everything that I didn't want to be. Again, I was 17 years old.

Gena: And so what happened one day is, at college, they put up a construction site and I ran into the barricade, then I had to go around it. But it wasn't a way that I knew. So I fell down a set of stairs. And I was okay. But I thought, 'Oh, I really have to go use that cane. I have to use that cane. I don't want to do that.' And, but I went to a school in the Bay Area, a living skill center called Orientation Center for the Blind, where they teach you how to use a cane, how to read Braille, so all the blindness independent living skills. And I went there, and there I did meet a few more inspiring people. And there was a mix, again, of those that didn't inspire me and those that did.

Gena: But really what happened to the point where you asked, Jeff, like, what kind of... when did the big thing happen is, they had a lot of activities that you could sign up for. Sports, and I did not do any sports. Well, I had done gymnastics when I was younger, but generally I didn't do a lot of sports. And I was like a crazy woman, like I'd been let out of jail. I signed up for rock climbing and rafting and wind surfing and skiing, just anything I can sign up for, I did.

Gena: And that... that was a pivotal point because one of the things I signed up for was downhill skiing and I learned how to be an excellent downhill skier. I became very accomplished. And I got second place out of five countries in an international downhill ski race. And that was the first time I felt that I could do something better than sighted people. Because I had this mindset that sighted people could do everything better than me. And in this ski race... by the time, I was such an accomplished skier, it was even hard to find guides, right, that could ski at my level, and my guide, she fell at the second gate before the finish line. And I was so proud because we'd shadowed the course a number of times, I knew how to finish and I was like "yay." And I got second place and that was the pivotal point where I felt like well, there are things I can do and there's probably a lot more than I'm not aware of that... that I can do just as well as sighted people.

Jeff: I love it. So it's like that one platform, that one experience there, I mean, obviously it wasn't really one but let's just say like the fact that your guide went down and, and here you are left to navigate it on your own and you successfully did it, that was in a way like your springboard to say like you know, hey, Gena, you can... you can do it. You can, you can make this path on your own contrary to what you know, conventional stories have told you for your... for your young life and that must have been a really big moment for you.

Gena: Oh, it was so big and that also it was sort of my avenue, all sports were my avenue so rafting, I did the Grand Canyon, I did many, many things and rock climbing. I did a climb in Yosemite, the Rostrum climb, and I had a lead climber and one below me and I didn't realize that the gushing river below. I was sure I was going to fall and turn into electricity. But I remember finishing that climb and popping out my head at the top with my rock climbing helmet on and like smiling and then crying, like, "I made it, I made it."

Gena: And so I always pick really hard things. I really like challenges. So I pick really hard things to do. And then I figure out a way to do them. Because that's sort of what changed with the sports is understanding that I don't do things in a traditional way. That there, you have to be very ingenious. You have to find different ways. You also, for me, I choose often roads less traveled. Even how did I get my job? And so roads less traveled, to me, means doing it differently, different than you would... the standard way of doing things.

Gena: And so learning that those were possibilities, doing it a different way, and learning to advocate for myself and people would tell me I couldn't do things, and I used to listen to them, I would believe them, I thought they knew that it was true that I couldn't do things. And then I started learning how to stand up for myself and that, you know, advocating for myself. Plus knowing I could figure out a way and I could also, if somebody told me no, I could say to myself, "Well, they don't really know" and call somebody else. Find somebody else that will say yes in the effort to help me accomplish what I want to accomplish.

Dave: Well, Gena, I love kind of hearing that early part of your life and what sort of set you on that path to realizing a new way forward that would enable you to reach your potential. I'm curious as you moved into your adult and professional life. We work with lots of companies who are really focused on diversity and inclusion and trying to create inclusive workspaces. I'm curious how that part of your journey went. I know there's a lot of things you mentioned as a kid where people would assume things that you could or couldn't do. And I also know that happens in the workplace too. So tell us a little bit about your... the career side of that journey and where you've struggled and where you've thrived. And how you've kind of navigated that path.

Gena: That's been very challenging. So for me, that still falls sort of under the road, you know, category under road less travel than advocacy. Because of my skiing, I got to do a lot of public speaking engagements. And I was still in college and I was still skiing. And I met a random guy named Jerry. And Jerry said, "you would be a great financial advisor." So through Jerry, and through a lot of networking, literally just calling up random strangers asking for a job. And I did interview in Merrill Lynch and they said I wasn't qualified, and that was a white male, no offense, you guys, and no offense to anybody, right, who... who did not even give me the time of day, and now I wish I could send him my W-2 every year. I wish I knew who that was. [crosstalk 00:19:05]

Gena: But he was... did not give me the time of day and I was young. And even though I'm confident now, there's always a piece of you that feels a bit insecure. You know, you just... in my mind, you can't always let go of those things. But anyhow, so there were a lot of people that wouldn't give me a chance. And I did find a guy who would, and he embraced me and I could see a lot better, but I still used a dog. I could use a closed circuit television, and I had my own. So I didn't ask really anything of him. I just brought my own equipment. And he trained me, and he was great.

Gena: And I did also, you know, I was embarrassed with clients, that people would judge me. And so in the beginning, I would cold call people. I would set up accounts with them and I would not meet them until after a year, that I'd done a good job managing their money. And then when I met them, I remember meeting the first guy, that even if they were, you know, had some view or astonished or surprised that I was blind, I've done such a good job what could they say? Right I'd already proved myself.

Gena: So in the beginning I didn't need a lot and I... it was my own mindset to bring my own equipment and and not really asked much of what I needed then. As my eyes got worse, for me, I got a lot of skills, like I learned JAWS, so I went to blindness agencies and things like that to learn my skills. And and then at the Orientation Center, as I mentioned, I knew how to, you know, read Braille and things like that.

Gena: So the women thing is an issue in financial services. There's only 17% women. But what since the beginning I was pretty successful. And because I was successful in my industry, sort of success talks, they look beyond and they don't really ask questions, like how do you do the job? They don't, they don't ask much. So then the computers were inaccessible and I would ask to have ZoomText or some software put on it. All, again, not really expensive. And I just didn't ask much.

Gena: But as time has passed and my eyes have gotten worse, I've needed more. And at Morgan Stanley, they have a huge commitment to diversity and inclusion and they have gone so far above and beyond. And that's the mindset of senior management. Because it wasn't that way in the beginning, even at Morgan Stanley. It wasn't... I just struggled. I figured out a way. A lot of things are not accessible and I... I just figure out a way, but there were things that really needed to change and they have embraced that and they have the right mindset.

Gena: So unfortunately, I think it's company by company and it really is the person, you know, your supervisor or your senior management and the message needs to come from the top because diversity inclusion, you know, often cost money. It requires people changing their mindset, if they have certain judgments or preconceived ideas. And diversity inclusion requires a lot of change. And not everybody's open to change.

Dave: Yeah. And when you think about diversity inclusion and the work that... that you do, the work that we do at No Barriers, I mean, I think a big challenge is the mindset of the people around you, right. And so I'm curious as, as you've lived in this space, and then also been an advocate for inclusion, what you see as sort of the root causes that we should try to tackle in order to make some significant advances for employment for people with disabilities because the employment... unemployment rates for people with disabilities are somewhat shocking. And so I'm just curious, if you were to, like kind of target an area of work that you think really could use some change, where would you focus?

Gena: These are all very tricky questions. Complex, I should say.

Gena: I think two things need to happen. I think that there's a way in which people tell people, you know, you go to your manager and say, "I can do this", or you tell an organization, "you need to focus on diversity inclusion, and here's the groups of people that, that fall under. And here's what you're supposed to do." But that's often talking to the air, right? And you're and you don't know if you're talking to people that care or don't care, and you can't make people care. So I think one of the things is, of course, education, and I spend a lot of my time doing lots of public speaking and presenting on education at... to employers, and not just on blindness because a lot of people have something, you know. I want to say everybody has something and there's a lot of visible things that people could have it would be called an, you know, an outward disability and there's other things that you know, you could be just dyslexic or have to have other issues that are challenging in your workplace.

Gena: So I think that the people that want the job, say the disabled person, that they really have to be the role model. And unfortunately, the work falls on them. That they can't just hope that this company is open minded, they have to make connections. And they have to show people that they... how they function in their everyday life. So again, you can go tell somebody, "well, I'm amazing, I know how to do this job." And unfortunately, the proof is in the pudding. So you can, you know, show a resume, but I think what's more effective is connecting and just making a difference in people's lives.

Dave: I... one thing, I just think... I was thinking, as you were talking, Gena, is like, it's not all that different than those parents when you were a kid who didn't know what to do with you, right? Like you were, you were going blind. You weren't fully blind. They just didn't know what to do. And what I find is it's kind of similar even as you get into the adult world and you get in the corporate world, like people still don't know what to do. And they don't know what questions they ask. They make assumptions that are incorrect. And I love what you're saying, which is that, you know, as much as you want to say, "Gosh, it'd be great if that didn't exist and people just understood," there's a balance between that and advocating for yourself and being, you know, out there saying what you need.

Dave: So, anyway, Jeff. I know you got a question, Jeff.

Gena: Yeah, okay, Jeff.

Jeff: Well, no, Gena I'm... I'm just fascinated by potentially the evolution of how you would approach your visual impairments. So for instance, you said, you know, when you're first starting at Merrill Lynch or... or, you know, if you did back up before that, you would meet clients, and you would show them your capacity and your talent before you introduce them to the fact that you had this visual impairment. And that would seem to be pretty effective. Like, "See what I could do? Now, you know, now I'm just going to prove to you that the fact that I, you know, I can't see 20/20 has no relevance on how I can manage your money."

Jeff: If now the more mature, shall we say seasoned, version of Gena, would you do the same thing? Or would you say to yourself, "I am who I am and I'm going to be who I'm going to be, either you like it or you don't."

Gena: I really haven't mastered that. I work on that. I do a tremendous amount of mindfulness work and that is really important to me and it's brought me a lot of peace and serenity and tied to the eye accident that I'd mentioned. I...I have a lot more confidence in my own capabilities and I think from a disabled persons perspective on the employment topic, that they have to exude confidence. And they... the onus is upon them, sadly, to prove themselves and to provide enough information in the one hour interview that they have to impress somebody, and the onus is upon them to realize what parts of the job they can't do and what parts of the job they can do and then to address what they can't do, right. I can't do this, this way, the way you, the other people that have this job do but I can do it another way.

Gena: And no matter what people say about well, you are who you are. If you want something or you want to climb you know, Mount Everest, and nobody lets you and they're in your way, you are who you are doesn't really matter. You do have to get people on your team to work with you.

Jeff: I'm guessing the fact that you had... you, you being a mom of a, of a daughter and a son. Is that right? Did I get that right?

Gena: Yes. I have amazing 20 year old daughter who goes to Reed named Serena and a wonderful 17 year old son, who's a senior in high school named Shaya. They're... they're lovely and they have...

Jeff: Yeah. Being a mom... being a mom has got to have obviously changed sort of the way you perceive yourself and your capacities. Raising them and, and showing them what a, what a, you know, a role model looks like and building your confidence as an individual too, I imagine, yeah.

Gena: Oh, absolutely. And I remember when I had them, I want... I had to consult with a lactation nurse about, "how am I going to change their diapers?" Because part of my personality is I want to be independent and I'm going to learn how to do everything by myself. And so I learned how to change diapers and I'd say, as a blind person, it's easier and you do a better job. [crosstalk 00:28:25] in changing diapers, so yeah, I had to learn a lot.

Gena: And then the funny thing, Jeff and Dave, about that is, if you ask my kids now, like say we're going to do another big interview with the kids, we think they have some insights to how it is to have a blind mother. They will tell you they know nothing different. In their mind, they think it doesn't matter, which, which makes me laugh and smile, like how can that not matter? But in their mind, like, they don't care if they put their backpack in the middle of the floor and if I'm going to fall and break my neck on it, that really, there's no extra consideration honestly, they don't go out of their way to like be helpful or be sensitive to blindness.

Gena: But I think what they do have is a kindness and capacity to help others and they're very comfortable if they saw a blind person or person in a wheelchair, they are really comfortable around people that are different and that they are very helpful.

Dave: Well Gena, I appreciate your kind of insights on the diversity inclusion piece. I suspect we could probably have a couple hour conversation about that. But I'd love to turn to a more personal kind of outlook on... on life and how you approach kind of the, the dark moments in your life. As you know, that's part of what we talk about in this podcast and I know that you had a recent accident in April of 2018, where you got to a pretty dark place. Would you mind telling us a little bit about the accident and, and to the place you were at?

Gena: I would be happy to share that and I... it's important to me that when I share it, people know I'm not telling them this to have them feel sorry for me and I definitely don't believe I'm a victim. I tell people this because I believe that many people find themselves in the same similar situation. And that we all face, you know, dark times. And that those dark times are not often spoken about, and they're very lonely.

Gena: So in 2018, in April, on Easter, I was doing an Easter egg hunt with my children and I hidden a lot of eggs. And there was a section of our backyard that the kids hadn't found the eggs. So I was all excited because I love this sort of thing. I was like, "Hey, there's more eggs over in that direction." And I motion with my arms and my arms were open.

Gena: And so I wasn't in good blind person technique walking around my backyard with my hands kind of in front of me to protect me. And there was a wrought iron gate aimed right at my face. So the part that's the closure, like this straight bar with the little ball at the end that you close it with, just burst my eye. Literally, in an instant and it ran down my face. It was awful. It was so horrifying. And I screamed, and then I, in Gena Harper fashion, I was like, I gotta keep this together. Like I have to keep this together. So I said, "Okay, you need to take me to this hospital and not that hospital because they won't know what to do."

Gena: And so I went to the hospital, and they said it was the largest gaping hole in a person's eye they'd ever seen. And they did surgery and they closed up my eye. And then the next day, I was like, I got this. I know how to be blind. This is not a problem. And I do, I'm very blessed, I get to work at home somewhat and also in Oakland. And so I worked at home that day thinking, "Oh, I know how to do this. I know how to be blind." And I really didn't give it much thought and I wasn't really in a lot of pain at that time. And then I continue to do everything... everything.

Gena: I had a rock climbing trip to Yosemite planned two weeks later and I went rock climbing and even though I couldn't see, I said, like "I... you know how to do this, you know, you know you have these skills." So I knew, I just knew that I had to move forward. That I couldn't just sit and do nothing, that that wasn't me and no matter how hard it was, that I was going to push through, and I did and then in June, my retina detached. And by June I could... I just have a hint of light, like a hint of light and that but I couldn't see anything else. Then in June, I, when the retina detached I had a surgery in July and the surgery was to reattach my retina. And they, when they did that, in reattaching my retina, they put my iris back in place and they did a little repair work, which was a blessing in disguise.

Gena: So then, I was in unmanageable pain. And this is, I think, where a couple things that were significant that no oxycodone, no fentanyl, no morphine, like it wasn't a pain medicine that would take the pain away. And I really couldn't even work at that point. And it's not me, it's not really in my personality to not work. I just couldn't even at home work, I was in such horrific pain.

Gena: And it got to be that there were times I thought, like, I'd just rather die like if this is not going to go away. And I kept thinking like, you know what to do. You know, you know what to do, you know, if you feel that way like to call somebody and get help or go to a counselor and there's a lot of things you can do. And I did some of those but again, I was feeling so miserable that some of the things were, like, I didn't feel like doing those things. But the significant thing to me was that I just you know, didn't... don't find myself in that place often. I mean, I've been... not... I have never been that bad before. I've been in you know, having a hard time like we all do and then is it, you know, what are you going to do about it?

Gena: And so, the pain I... I just went to urgent care and I met... saw this amazing woman who could see that I was quite distraught. And she just said "oh, is there a thing ever that's worked for you?" And there was a medicine, and again, you probably don't need all that, you know, I did come up with a medicine that... I took the medicine and I had planned the next day a girlfriend was bringing her granddaughter to my house. Again, I was not in any shape for my friend to bring her granddaughter my house. But between taking the pain medicine, which worked instantaneously, I was still in bad shape. I'd lost like 20 pounds, I was not in good shape. And so I took the pain medicine, it totally worked. And I was sort of back in business.

Gena: The other thing was, is that I did reach out to a counselor in April when this accident happened. And he said, "Gena, even though you're resilient and you're Miss Buck Up Girl and you work really hard, and you're a woman of action, and you're all these things. There's the thing called trauma that you don't know about and that, that it is important to address trauma."

Gena: And so he talked with me about that, you guys, and it was amazing. He made me make a list. It was a long list of what things were harder. And again, I don't want to... I'm not going to say things are harder. I'm going to say, I got this, I will not say things are harder. And he's like, you have to. You have to think about even if it's a little harder. Okay, so I went with the, well, it's a little harder to find my clothes, it's a little harder... You know, I had a list it was a little harder to do. And that was helpful because it did come into my mind that there is such a thing as trauma and you do have to grieve and there's a process and even though that really hasn't always been my way, that was very important information. And that if sometimes I wanted to be sad and cry, that that screaming that wasn't being weak, that wasn't... like I mean, I would want to cry and I'd say there's no point in crying, like, this is stupid. You need to just do the next thing.

Gena: And he was like, no. Grieving is important, like sitting there and crying for 10 minutes. Because this is a loss. I mean, it took a lot to, you know, take all that in and to sort of embrace it. And I have worked a lot on that now with meditation and mindfulness and I have a number of things that I think are beautiful that I read or listen to. And, and that, that was a big piece that was added, that, I liked all the mindfulness and I cared about that before and but I really had to, you know, dig deep and dive in since the eye accident.

Jeff: I can open up a whole, another conversational topic right now for you because it sounds like you're, you're, you're right there on the edge of it. But I've been really fascinated recently in past few weeks in my own research about how the ego insulates us and keeps us from being able to sort of shed that trauma, that pain you speak of, it holds it in because it becomes part of us, right and...

Gena: Yeah.

Jeff: And you're talking about mindfulness and, and your... your recent practices through meditation and being mindful. And a part of that, I think, if maybe you tell me is, is to sort of acknowledge that what that ego is doing for you and being a protective mechanism, but still, by...by understanding and acknowledging its presence, you're able to then sort of manage it, I think a little bit better. Would you... Would you care to talk about that a little bit? Or is that even on your scope? I'm sure... sure it probably is.

Gena: Oh no, it is totally on my scope. I have learned through so many things that I would call slogans and they sound so cheesy, you guys, and they are... they are superficial on the surface, and they're so important.

Jeff: Really.

Gena: I mean, they're significant and things like fake it till you make it. I mean, I don't like slogans like that, because they're not moving. But they're not, I mean, just what you're saying, Jeff, I've learned a ton about neuroscience, right. And of course, I have always been in gratitude. I am a person of tremendous gratitude. Always. That is not a new concept to me. And, and so a lot of the basic sort of like, Okay, got that, I'm grateful.

Gena: But I mean, I guess what I'm learning is that instead of saying I'm not going to think about that, I'm not going to think about that, I now have to say, I have to think about that a little. Like, I have to think about that enough. Because thinking about it opens up something new, it opens up an opportunity to shift it and so it'll somehow shift and then it won't like pop in my mind and I'll have to shove it in the closet again that... but again, it doesn't mean you, you sit and you know, on your couch and do nothing and... I mean there's... that's not good either. So it's, it's a balance and I have really had to do a lot of hard work on that, Jeff, and I think it's really important and things like, another slogan I use all the time is called "HALT". So say I'm having a, like a hard day or a hard time or a hard moment. HALT means, Are you hungry? Are you angry? Are you lonely? Are you tired?

Gena: Because sometimes you're like, why is this happening or you have some judgment of yourself, that's not really true, that you are just simply hungry, you have just worked too long, or you're just simply tired and you need to go to bed, you need to not do anything else, but go to bed. So I have acquired many of these slogans that have a lot of meaning to me that I review them and go over them in my mind. So they, they pop to the forefront when I need them.

Dave: Well, you know, I think it's, as you were telling the story of your, you know, more recent trauma and the dark place that you went, I was thinking about at No Barriers, we project a very positive message about what you can learn through adversity and how do you break through your challenges and how do you take the energy and the challenge and use it into something positive. And I think what... I think that's a wonderful message. It's a great part of what we do, but what I love that you're talking about is that even for someone like you who has that No Barriers spirit deep inside of you and has been living it and breathing it, that it's also important to sit with the pain and the negative and to let it flow through you, right. To not just pretend like everything's gonna be fine and I'm the barrier breaker every moment of my life.

Gena: Exactly. I used to say oh, like I'm Buck Up Girl, okay. Really, I've thought about this a lot, what I would say I am now, or better words instead of buck up, because again, that's a little over-simplified and I am Buck Up Girl, but I am resilient. To me, resilient has a much deeper meaning. And... and discerning. I'm a lot more discerning and analytical in viewing things and realizing the seriousness or the severity or the importance of the process. That I think is kind of where the meat of the matter is or where the juice is, in... in realizing that, that I'm never going to not work hard and be a woman of action. I mean, I am a woman of action.

Gena: But I also was doing a big disservice to myself by not really looking at a lot of those things, because I think those have sort of pushed me to the edge that you were talking about, Jeff, sort of, do you get to the "I Am, who I am", you know, "take it or leave it, like it or not." That comes from within, right?

Gena: Because at this point, I have enough skills, I have enough money, I have enough connections. I don't really need a lot of people per se, and I could just have that attitude. But I want to have that attitude for the right reason, right? Not just like, oh, screw them, I don't need them. I want to have it because I know I bring a lot to the table and my goal is to inspire and motivate people and that does make a huge difference in people's lives. And it does affect change in diversity and inclusion and in employers and people as I go through the world. I do think it makes a big difference. And that's more how I want to be about the "I am who I am" type of attitude.

Dave: Well, I'm glad we got to the juice at the end there. [crosstalk 00:42:13] That's important.

Dave: Gena, it's been a delight to have you on our show. I know we could talk for a lot longer about any of those individual topics. We really appreciate your time and your, your energy and your willingness to share your story with us.

Jeff: Yeah, you're a beam of light, Gena, and thank you for being a part of our community. And I'm sure a lot of people see you and hear you and listen to you and, and gain a lot of traction as a result of, of what you share. So thanks for being you.

Gena: Oh, I love that. And if I could just share one last thing. Something that I do tell myself all the time but when people call me, you know, as a mentor, is, you know, I tell them that if they put themselves out and they believe that there's always a way, and they work really hard, they take the road less traveled, if they're ingenious by using tools and technology, that they will have an amazing life and that they will always find a way.

Jeff: Very cool.

Dave: Thank you Gena.

Jeff: I'm going to get that tattooed, Gena.

Gena: Yeah. Me too, let's do it together, Jeff. I'll get that tattooed. I love it.

Jeff: Right on.

Dave: Well, Jeff, another great conversation. What resonated with you from our conversation with Gena?

Jeff: Well, it's what we, we wrapped with, which is really... and something I've been thinking a lot about, which is the... the first thing that has to be done in any, I don't want to say crisis, but any real challenging objective is to acknowledge it. And I think we, as humans, sometimes at least all of us, at some point, have a tendency to sort of push things away a little bit and sort of maybe say, "Oh, there's, there's, you know, there's nothing, nothing to see here, nothing to see here." And Gena said that that, that was part of her path early on. Nothing to see... just, you know, metaphorically, nothing to see here, you know, and... but she at some point came to this conclusion through her own discovery that it's, it's really important to acknowledge and say this is what it is.

Jeff: I think we've heard a lot of our guests say that, it is what it is. And now I have... what I have complete control over is how I manifest it. And Gena did that. And she shared that with us. And I find that an empowering position to acknowledge so I think that was the part that stuck with me the most. What about you?

Dave: For me, I just spent last week in New Jersey in a New Jersey public schools for a project we're launching with a series of schools that works with kids who are on the autism spectrum and who have behavior disorders. And one of the things that stood out from my visits with all these schools was how much they talked about their desire to bring these kids into mainstream public schools. But the biggest barrier to that was other kids in those schools and parents in those schools and even teachers in those schools, who didn't know what to do with these kids and didn't know how to interact with them.

Dave: And it was this thing that I've been, like, thinking a lot about, is like how, how much it takes from kind of the other side of the equation, not the world that Gena was growing up in and how she was learning to deal with it on her own and how she probably had a team around her who got it. How much work needs to be done on those other people who don't get it. Whether it's people who don't get the issues that veterans are going through, or kids with disabilities or adults with disabilities that are trying to get employment, that, that there's so much work to be done on kind of making other folks aware of how they can interact and the questions they should ask and the kinds of conversations they should have. I think that that's a really interesting space that I wrestle with too is how do you do that? And how do you do it well and thoughtfully?

Jeff: Yeah, that's a societal awakening. Right? That has to take place over, over time, I guess.

Dave: Yeah. Well, thank you all for listening to today's podcast. If you enjoyed the conversation, we encourage you to share it with someone else. Like our podcasts, you can get our podcasts anywhere you listen to podcasts. Please share this with others. That's the single best thing you can do to help us out.

Jeff: Okay. See you next time.

Dave: See you next time.

Dave: Thanks to all of you for listening to our podcast. We know that you have a lot of choices about how you can spend your time and so we appreciate you spending it with us. If you enjoy this podcast, we encourage you to subscribe to it, share it, and give us a review. Show Notes can be found at nobarrierspodcast.com. Special thanks to the Dan Ryan Band for our intro song which is called "Guidance." The production team behind this podcast includes producers Dirik Johnck and Pauline Schafer. Sound design editing and mixing by Tyler Cottman. Graphics by Sam Davis and marketing support by Laura Baldwin and Jamie Donnelly. Thanks to all you amazing people for the great work you do.

do you like this episode?
share it!


it's up to you

Whichever podcast platform you enjoy, we’re already there.

Be sure to subscribe so you don’t miss a single episode of this free, educational and uplifting podcast.  

don't miss an episode

Stay up-to-date on new opportunities & community stories.


Program Manager


Moriah (Mo) Leuthauser grew up in a small town in Western Colorado. There she spent time outside with her family- skiing, backpacking, climbing and camping. She was introduced to adaptive recreation through an internship with a nonprofit organization that offered recumbent cycling tours from Telluride to Moab for disabled veterans. She was inspired to get involved with adaptive recreation after seeing the joy and healing that she had witnessed it bringing.  She attended Grand Canyon University, where she worked as a guide in the outdoor recreation program and received her Wilderness First Responder certification. Then, she worked at the National Ability Center as an adaptive ski instructor and as an adaptive raft guide for multi day rafting trips. During this time, she earned her PSIA Adaptive Level 1 cert and her Swift Water Rescue Level 4 cert. She now works for No Barriers as the Warriors Program Coordinator, but most enjoys opportunities to be in the field. In her free time, she enjoys mountain biking, rock climbing, skiing, board games and gardening. She hopes for a future where outdoor recreation is more accessible for all people and she plans to devote her career to this cause.