After losing their own husbands, Michelle Dippel and Michele Neff Hernandez created a nonprofit to care for fellow widows.
by Trinady Joslin, Photo courtesy of Soaring Spirits
Sitting in the parking lot of a cemetery, Michelle Dippel and Michele Neff Hernandez began jotting ideas down on a napkin. They had just returned from visiting Dippel’s late husband’s grave site.
“We started talking about how we couldn’t imagine having walked this widowed path without each other, and what a gift it was that we had been introduced,” Dippel says.
In 2005, they were both widowed after Neff Hernandez’s husband died in a cycling accident in late August and, several months later, Dippel’s husband passed away from cancer.
After being introduced by a family member who knew both women, Neff Hernandez says she wasn’t quite sure what to say.
“I remember thinking, ‘I wonder what should I tell her,’” Neff Hernandez says. “‘This the worst thing that’s ever happened to me. Is it also the worst thing ever happened to you?’”
Three months after their initial meeting, Dippel reached out and the two women began emailing regularly about widowhood and their daily lives. Eventually, they started traveling back and forth between Neff Hernandez’s home in California, and Dippel’s in Austin.
“[We wondered] how could we recreate this for other people because we felt like we were probably in so much of a better place just because we had someone who got it,” Dippel says.
A year later, the words on the napkin became the foundation for Soaring Spirits International. Neff Hernandez runs the nonprofit full time, while Dippel works in the transportation industry as the vice president and Central and South Texas office leader for HNTB Corporation.
In hopes of providing the same “healing agent” Dippel and Neff Hernandez found in each other, Soaring Spirits International provides widows with a support system. The nonprofit initially began as a way to match widows to each other and then expanded to include a chat room for all users to connect.
In 2009, Soaring Spirits held its first Camp Widow: a week-long event with workshops covering topics like finances and dating.
“You have a very different set of needs if you’ve only been widowed for six months than if you are a return camper who has been widowed for seven years,” Dippel says. “We try and create content for all of them.”
Now, Dippel says they have three different Camp Widow sessions every year in San Diego, Tampa, Florida and Canada with people ages 19 to 84. Dippel says her favorite thing to do at camp is work registration.
“You see people walk up…and you can see them thinking ‘I am going to run; I do not want to be here,’” Dippel says. “They’re sad anyway, and then this is just hard. Then you will see that same person two days later with five new best friends, laughing and completely comfortable.”
Because they provide a peer community, rather than a mentor-mentee program, Neff Hernandez says people return to camp year after year to connect with each other and newly widowed people.
As the nonprofit approaches its 15th year, Dippel and Neff Hernandez have remained close friends and are continuing to support widows across the world throughout a pandemic.
Because of COVID-19, Camp Widow went virtual and the Soaring Spirits website now has a chat room specifically for people who were widowed due to the coronavirus. Their experience, and the experiences of people who have been widowed during the pandemic but not due to COVID-19, is something Neff Hernandez says they are trying to be mindful of, while continuing to support their existing network.
“It has been really hard on some of our people who have been newly widowed or widowed during this time. They can’t have a real funeral,” Dippel says. “They don’t get to have closure. They don’t have their usual network of people who might help them find comfort.”
Their main goal is to help people focus on the long-term plan but sometimes, they just remind people to do something as simple as drink water.
“It’s a step-by-step process of constantly reminding people the small things they can do that will have a large impact on the outcome,” Neff Hernandez says. “The experience they’re living is not short term.”
Since its founding, Dippel says Soaring Spirits has served more than one million widows. Throughout it all, Neff Hernandez kept the napkin they wrote their original ideas on.
“It’s an incredible gift that we had a chance to walk through this together,” Neff Hernandez says. “A direct result of our relationship was Soaring Spirits, because what I wanted everybody to have was a Michelle. I wanted them to have what we had.”