Change Makers

Seven women who founded or lead their organization — from providing wellness services for cancer patients to supporting white shark research — are helping to make the Cape a better place.

By Lisa Leigh Connors|Photography by Julia Cumes


Cynthia_Wigren-007 copyIn 2010, Cynthia Wigren spent two days cage diving with white sharks in South Africa. Their power, speed and grace fascinated Wigren. A couple of years later, she learned that local scientists lacked funding to study white sharks, so she left behind the corporate world and started the nonprofit Atlantic White Shark Conservancy to support their research. By early 2013, AWSC was up and running. Wigren runs the organization from her home in Orleans.

What is the mission of Atlantic White Shark Conservancy and why is it important that it exists? Our mission is to support scientific research, improve public safety, and educate the community to inspire white shark conservation. There are so many misconceptions about white sharks. It’s important to provide the public with fact-based information to replace fear with facts.

Talk about the Gills Club a little bit. How did that come about? I met many young girls who loved sharks but were being told that sharks were ‘a boy thing.’ The Gills Club was established to create a community for these girls, to connect them to top female scientists from around the world, and to jump-start their interest in STEM subjects. The group has been successful, with a growing membership and science team.

What’s a typical day like for you? Every day is different! Earlier this year, I collected buoys and receivers (pictured at left) from towns across the Cape and the South Shore to download data for the scientists to analyze. I am also developing a new Gills Club website, planning fundraisers, collecting license plate applications and scheduling shark lectures.

What do you love most about your job? I love meeting kids who inspire me, spending time on the water, and doing something that is making a difference.

What’s ahead in 2016: To fund the white shark population and movement studies, work with officials to improve public safety, and expand our shark education programs.

For more information on events and programs, CLICK HERE

Julie_Wake-009 copyCenterville resident Julie Wake stepped into the executive director position in August 2015. To further the Arts Foundation’s mission to strengthen and promote Cape Cod’s arts and culture, Wake spends every day connecting with members and donors, reviewing marketing and business development opportunities, and finding innovative ways to share and promote the arts and culture scene on Cape Cod.

What inspired you to pursue your current career path? I’ve always been committed to working in creative environments, and marketing and business development have filled that professional need. When the executive director position at the Arts Foundation opened up, I jumped at the chance to build my own team and culture.

How has the transition from a for-profit culture to a non-profit culture prepared you for this position? My first jobs were in the high-tech industry, and they gave me the confidence to be successful in a professional setting while instilling in me the type of strong work ethic necessary to thrive in a fast-paced environment. I truly love getting up every morning and thinking about how my organization can make a positive impact on Cape Cod.

What is a typical day like for you? With two little kids, my day starts very early and my mornings tend to be quite hectic, but I find my frantic mornings give me a boost of energy to start my day.

Have you always had a passion for the arts? Yes. I grew up in a family of talented artists. One of my fondest memories is listening to my banjo-playing Norwegian uncles at family gatherings. I’ve tried to instill a similar passion for the arts in my children by taking them to museums, art galleries and theatrical performances. My daughter, Larsen, has designed artwork used in past marketing campaigns.

What’s ahead in 2016: The organization is excited about its recent move to Main Street in Hyannis and connecting with the existing art scene (HyArts) and local businesses. Pops by the Sea, our major fundraiser, will take place Aug. 14.

The Arts Foundation of Cape Cod, 232 Main St., Suite B, Hyannis. For more information on events, membership and programs, CLICK HERE.

Fiona_Jensen-002 copyFiona Jensen worked as an occupational therapist for 23 years before starting the nonprofit organization Calmer Choice, based in Yarmouth, in 2010. The Calmer Choice program, which is offered in several schools across the Cape, focuses on helping children manage anxiety and stress more effectively.

Why is there a need for Calmer Choice? In today’s world, children are facing enormous amounts of stress in their daily lives. They learn to be kinder and gentler with themselves and others, increasing their ability to negotiate difficult situations more gracefully. The Calmer Choice program also encourages positive health and lifestyle choices for young people.

Who or what inspired you to start this organization? It began in 2009 when my daughter, Lily, was a junior in high school and she and a group of her friends lost a number of their friends to tragic circumstances. It was after one of those funerals that I stood looking around my kitchen and made a decision after seeing the emotional toll that was taking on her and her friends. My daughter was in complete crisis mode—running away from home and acting out. A friend of hers was struggling with an addiction, another struggling to cope. At one point, I thought to myself, There has to be something I can do here, something is not right.

What happens when a school chooses to accept mindfulness teaching? Our program is taught in the school classroom with the classroom teacher present. During each class, a new concept is introduced in an engaging way.  For instance, in each lesson the students practice ways to pay attention on purpose, i.e., focusing on breathing, listening, kindness, gratitude and happiness.

What do you hope to accomplish in 2016?  To engage people in conversation about what we do in the most effective and responsible manner to bring this kind of education into the schools. We have received a lot of interest in the program from various sources, including parents, educators and businesses, and we would like to continue to explore the topic and share the knowledge.

Calmer Choice,  23 G2 White’s Path, Suite #2, South Yarmouth, 508-398-0808, 

Brenda_Swain-004 copyBefore Falmouth resident Brenda Swain stepped into the Executive Director position at Falmouth Service Center in 2002, she spent more than 20 years creating partnerships with Cape agencies. She started her career as an early childhood professional: a pre-school and Head Start director with Cape Cod Child Development, and a coordinator with a Community Partnership Grant Program that focused on childcare and parenting programs.

What inspired you to pursue your current career path? From the time I was a young teenager watching my parents work in the community, I found myself gravitating toward working with people whose lives were stressed by difficult, often unpredicted, challenges. Providing support in many different ways over the past 40 years to those individuals and families has brought others a bit of support while at the same time, given me a sense of purpose.

Briefly explain the services your organization provides: Pantry food distribution, home delivery of meals, on-site organic community garden, SNAP (formerly called food stamps) application assistance, fuel assistance, holiday programs (Thanksgiving baskets and toy distribution), workshops and health insurance access.

What do you love most about your job? The opportunity to be the middle man between those who need help and those who are able to give support. Finding a path for goodness to reach those who feel isolated and without hope is truly a gift given on a daily basis at FSC.

What is your proudest achievement? Fourteen years ago, we were just concerned about getting food to put on the shelves. I would say my proudest achievement is our movement toward the provision of more healthy, nutritious foods, including fresh fruits and veggies all the time. Good health is tied directly to healthy eating and all people should be able to access and afford fresh food. It’s about food justice, and that is a basic right.

Falmouth Service Center, 611 Gifford St., Falmouth, 508-548-2794.

Kate_Shaffer-001 copyKate Shaffer started as animal care and facilities coordinator at the National Marine Life Center in November 2010. She then worked her way up to director of marine animal rehabilitation. Shaffer says every day is different at the center. Whether it is admitting 20 turtles, tube feeding and giving treatments to 10 seal pups, restraining a 100-pound grey seal or training the next batch of interns, there is never a dull moment.

What led you to a career in marine science? I have always loved the ocean and grew up coming to Cape Cod to visit my grandparents every summer. I loved visiting the beach, going quahogging, and taking a whale watch every year. These visits inspired a love and respect for the marine environment.

Explain the focus of your work: To return healthy animals to the ocean environment; learn from those that come into our care; and to inspire ocean conservation in others.

Compared to when you first started with NMLC, which species needs the most help today? The number of sea turtles stranding on Cape Cod beaches has been increasing over the last several years, with the 2014-2015 season being an extremely high season. Our intake numbers have gone up three-fold from when we opened our doors to turtles in the new hospital building in 2012. The biggest problems faced by our seal patients are human-interaction cases—animals entangled in fishing gear or plastic debris, and dependent pup cases where mom doesn’t return because of human interference. With the closure of the seal rehabilitation program at the University of New England in 2014, NMLC is now the only rehabilitation center for these animals in Northern New England.

What do you love most about your job? There are two things. The first is watching an animal make an extraordinary recovery and being able to return them back to the ocean. Secondly, I really value being able to mentor future students who want to work in this field.

For more information on volunteer opportunities, tips for marine animal strandings, and summer internships, CLICK HERE.


Sarah_Swain-012 copyHarwich resident Sarah Swain started Cape Wellness Collaborative in the fall of 2014, after losing her mother to ovarian cancer. Swain says the organization began actively serving clients in July 2015.

What is the mission of Cape Wellness Collaborative?

Our mission is to provide free-of-charge integrative/complementary therapies to people facing cancer on the Cape & Islands. Approved clients receive a $500 gift card, which they can use to redeem wellness services from any of the practitioners in the CWC directory.

Was it fairly easy to launch since you’re well known across the Cape as a musician?

I think as musicians, we have the unique opportunity to connect with people from all walks of life. This definitely helped me pull together a diverse organization of some absolutely incredible people.

What therapies are provided and how does it help?

At this point, we provide nutritional counseling, acupuncture, massage, yoga, meditation, chiropractic and Reiki/energy work. These therapies can comfort, relieve anxiety, decrease nausea and neuropathy, increase energy and improve general well-being.

About how many people has the organization served since its inception?

By the end of 2015, we will have served over 25 clients and currently have many more in the process. The feedback we have had from our first group of clients and practitioners has been so positive and touching.

Upcoming fundraiser events: Cape Cod Women’s Music Festival on Saturday, May 21, at the Cape Playhouse in Dennis. This event always sells out, so purchase your tickets early. Art on the Block—local artists paint 8×8-inch wood blocks. Silent auction, elegant cocktail reception and a meet-and-greet with the artists. Check CWC’s website for further details.

To request services, join our practitioner team, sign up for our newsletter or volunteer, CLICK HERE.

Anne_Colwell-004 copySandwich resident Anne Colwell, who took over as CEO one year ago, says the position at Cape Cod Child Development, which helps more than 3,000 children annually, is the perfect fit: It combines her love of child and family advocacy and her leadership skills at one of the largest Cape-based nonprofit organizations.

What attracted you to Cape Cod Child Development? I love children and helping families. I have two amazing teenage daughters that inspire me every day and give me great motivation to help other parents, caregivers and children. I love the opportunity to work within an organization that produces positive outcomes for children and families.

You worked many years as the vice president of human resources for Southcoast Health System. How did that position prepare you for your current role? As VP of Human Resources, I helped oversee an almost $1 billion healthcare system and more than 7,000 employees. The operational, procedural, and accountability responsibilities are quite similar to my current role.

From CCCD’s perspective, what are the Cape’s greatest needs? We are facing serious increases in childhood poverty, overall poverty levels, lack of affordable housing, substance abuse, infants born to addicted moms, food instability, lack of access to behavioral health services, and outmigration of our young working families. In addition, our region has unique challenges, such as high seasonal unemployment and a very high level of substance abuse addiction. I’m seeing some great work in many of these areas, so growing those efforts in a collaborative and connected way seems to be a critical need.

Events planned for 2016: Every spring, Embargo restaurant in Hyannis sponsors a benefit called The Bloody Mary Mix-Off for its early intervention program. Botello Lumber and Shepley Wood Products host golf tournaments in the fall that benefit the agency.

Cape Cod Child Development, 83 Pearl St., Hyannis, 508-775-6250.

Comments are closed.