Heather Zoccali

@hlzoccali | contributor
Originally from Kentucky, Heather visited family in Colorado and Wyoming and knew that was where she wanted to be. She moved to Laramie, WY in 1995 and has never looked back. She studied Dance and Theatre at the University of Wyoming. After relocating to Fort Collins in 2002 Heather taught dance in dance studios and brain compatible dance education in public schools. Heather founded The Arch Foundation (TAF) in 2017, after becoming a caregiver to her eldest son, Connor. Connor was injured in a vehicle-pedestrian accident while walking to school on March 10th, 2015, resulting in a catastrophic spinal cord injury. Heather quickly recognized the gap that exists for caregivers from this personal experience, experiencing extreme mental and physical exhaustion and a loss of self. After much research and conversation with other caregivers, Heather found a common theme: Caregivers are an often forgotten part of the rehabilitation and recovery process and there was a need to provide opportunities for caregivers to learn to practice self-care. Heather has built strategic partnerships, engaged volunteers, and community outreach efforts within the caregiver community. Heather took her firsthand, human experience with caregiving, and translated a background in brain-compatible dance education, her high emotional intelligence, and strong community partnerships to begin building a network of support for family caregivers and become an agent of change. You can also find Heather in her role as Disability Integration Lead for the American Red Cross as well on deployment when disaster strikes. Heather is married to Matt and mom to Connor and Max. Heather loves being outside in the Colorado hills, reading and writing, cooking, dancing, and a good lemon drop.
Heather Zoccali

Dear 'Invisible Army' of Caregivers

This is a love letter to all the 53 million family caregivers out there.XOXO HZ Dear “Invisible Army,” As we enter National Family Caregiver Month, I want you to know I am here for you. I am your advocate, defender and non-judgmental friend you may lean on. I hear your secret cries in the shower, cars and bathroom stalls alone. I understand the frustration and sadness of what was and what is. I see you when you are in the shadows and behind the scenes making sure your loved ones have the spotlight as you find your light fading. All 53 million of you. I feel your isolation, pain, guilt, shame and loss of self. I share in your triumph of having 15 minutes alone. I grant you grace when you are barely treading water. I will emphasize self-compassion for you are only human. I will breathe with you when the doctor brushes you off, because how could you who are on the clock 24/7 and deal with crisis after crisis on a daily basis possibly know what is going on with your loved one when you didn’t choose to go into this field. I will advocate for you when work questions “Again? Didn’t something just happen?” Yes, I will say with you, and say yes it did just happen and it will happen again and again and thank you for the support and shared understanding. I will not apologize anymore with you for the chaos that is ours and embrace it. I hand you my voice to advocate for yourself. I give permission to you to start putting boundaries so you may find your joy again. I empower you to dig into your trauma and acknowledge your grief. I will hold this safe space for you to begin your forgiveness journey of self and others. I gift you light and love to fill the cracks of your broken heart and spirit so you may begin to rebuild both to become stronger and greater. I laugh with you at the healing power of dark humor. I will challenge you to find the beauty in this difficult life we lead. I will gladly conduct this hot mess express and advance us into the light. I want you to know I am here for you. I am your advocate, defender and non-judgmental friend you may lean on. Love, One of 53 million.

Heather Zoccali

Becoming a Caregiver After My Son's Spinal Cord Injury

My childhood was very challenging. I felt plagued by darkness, as deep-seated family issues dominated what was meant to be a carefree childhood. So as a child, faeries were my best friends; I owned Jupiter and I was Queen of Mars. These fantasies I created on Mars became my escape; it was an imagined solace, and my beacon. It helped me survive and mend both my broken spirit and heart. Now, in adulthood, I am fully aware that I do not own Jupiter, and that I am not the Queen of Mars. Though, I still hold on to that same childhood magic and passion for life because the challenging and difficult personal experiences never ended, I just happened to grow up. I believe magic is what binds the fabric of everyday life, and if you know how and where to look for it you can feel it, sense it, hear it and see it all around you. March 10, 2015. One day, one moment would forever alter our lives in ways we could not possibly imagine. Connor, my eldest son was 16 years old and a sophomore in high school. As we finished up breakfast, we lost ourselves in the typical teenager / parent argument of expectations. I felt he was not meeting our expectations and he could set and achieve so much more. A disagreement that usually ended in “make good choices and I love you no matter what” ended in slammed doors and unkind words. As he walked away, I instantly felt parental guilt and failure to help my teen thrive and grow. Five minutes later and roughly 1000 yards from our house Connor was struck by a driver, thrown 25 feet in the air, and left alone in a ditch, unable to move from the waist down on that cold spring morning. Connor was permanently paralyzed, instantly becoming a T-12 paraplegic. I summoned that magic and the strength I relied so much on as a child. As an adult, I found magic in the kindness of others, the strength in our family and community, and our ability as human beings to find blessings even amongst tragedy. At its heart, magical tendency is found in the most unexpected places. I experienced this during a restorative justice mediation program, whereby I met the man that struck Connor with his car and drove away. Face to face, two years later across from the man who blew up our lives, I sought to understand where we were both are at in our lives and our current journey and figure out what had led us to this point. Arriving at the point of forgiveness and understanding was what I needed to release and move forward. As I sat across and look in the face of the man who altered our lives forever, I felt forgiveness, release and acceptance. It was one of the most beautiful moments of my life when I asked him to be better, to be better than the day he left Connor on the side of the road, alone. I told him that our family was trying to heal and figure out our new normal. I told him we were trying to make our small corner of the world better. As he sat across from me, I tried to understand him. He looked at me and started to softly cry. He looked up and said, “I don’t understand how or why you are doing this? I fully expected you to yell and cuss me out.” In response I said, “Why would I do that? Let’s both be better than that.” Today, we are doing just that. He talks to parolees about the restorative justice process and counsels them to grasp the opportunity to meet the person they harmed and make amends. To realize the impact crime has on the person you injured. When Connor was first injured, our family started sharing our story on a public blog called Caring Bridge. It was on this blog that I wrote about my hope of bettering the lives of both Connor and the man that irrevocably changed his life. I knew in my heart that this would be the best outcome. I am proud to be able to say that so far, we have achieved this outcome. Magic. I have always believed that when our hearts and spirits break, it is so that more love and light may enter. This in turn mends the heart so it is able to grow bigger and stronger. It is then that we can share our strength and love with others, while also strengthening ourselves in the process. After the restorative justice meeting and emotional release that came with it, I was able to move forward with my own life, as well as pursue my own hopes and dreams. I started to focus on a simple yet powerful idea — to provide support for family caregivers. In 2017, I started the Arch Foundation, a non-profit organization dedicated to this mission. I have been a family caregiver in some capacity my entire life: whether for my father, grandmother, and Connor, or being on the other side of caregiving when I was personally chronically ill. These experiences instilled my fierce passion and unwavering dedication to this often-overlooked cause. I managed to harness the magic life offers and used it to make my dreams come true. I am not the Queen of Mars, but I found a new passion and appreciation for the brutally beautiful moments life has to offer us. And to me, that is just as magical.