Most business owners never planned to be in business. Yes, there are those few who grow up in the family business or decide early in life that the only way to meet their goals is to strike out on their own.

But if you ask most business owners what they wanted to be when they were growing up or what they studied in college or when they decided to open a business, you will hear an interesting tale of changes and transitions that took them from the person they thought they would be when they were 18 to the person they are now.

Jodi O’Donnell-Ames certainly understands that. Her own walk from wife, mother, and teacher to founder of an organization — Hope Loves Company — to help children whose parents have died of ALS (Lou Gehrig’s Disease) was one she never expected to take.

“It’s all about the transitions in our lives,” says O’Donnell-Ames. That’s what she identified with when she first heard about BIG. It, too, was all about transitions.

First Chapter in Area. BIG is a New Jersey-based support, education, and networking organization. BIG stands for “Believe, Inspire, Grow.”

Founded in Bernardsville, BIG is a membership-based organization that conducts face-to-face community meetings and hosts an interactive website to provide women a positive and educational support network to help move their business ideas forward.

Many of the women have been out of the workforce for several years or are looking to make a change in their current career.

O’Donnell-Ames was so inspired by what she learned when she attended a group meeting that she decided to open her own chapter, or “pod,” as they are called by the founders of BIG, in the Pennington area.

Although BIG has grown to a membership of over 1,000 women in six states in just a few years, this is the first pod located in Mercer County.

The group will hold its first meeting on Tuesday, June 12, at the Hopewell Branch of the Mercer County Library, in Pennington, at 7 p.m. For more information contact O’Donnell-Ames at jodiodames@verizon.net or call 609-280-1905.

Brainstorming Your Career. The first meeting will be a “brainstorming” meeting for members to discuss where they would like to be in their careers. Additional meetings will focus on various ways to implement those plans.

“We are all in transition,” says O’Donnell-Ames. “No matter where you are in your life, whether you are hoping to start a new career, or you have a career or a business and you want to think about how it can grow, you are growing and changing or you are just stuck. Our meetings will help you to think about how to implement the changes that you would like to make.”

O’Donnell-Ames graduated from The College of New Jersey with a degree in early childhood education in 1988, and began what she thought would be a traditional path. She got married and taught for a few years until her daughter, Alina, was born.

Then, when her daughter was two years old, her life changed. Her husband, Kevin O’Donnell, was diagnosed with ALS.

The disease is a progressive neurodegenerative disease that causes progressive degeneration of the nerve cells in the brain and the spinal cord. As the motor neurons die, the ability of the brain to initiate and control muscle movement is lost. Patients eventually become totally paralyzed, and the disease is always fatal. O’Donnell-Ames’ husband died when her daughter was eight years old.

As she and her daughter both grieved, she was struck by the difference in attitude and behavior people had toward her and her daughter. “I received 450 sympathy cards. My daughter received one. It was as if no one recognized that she was grieving, too,” she says.

O’Donnell-Ames decided that she wanted to help not only her daughter, but other children whose parents had the disease as well. Within a few months, she had organized a Kids Day in Philadelphia for other children who parents’ had ALS, and the event changed her life in more ways than she expected.

She met Warren Ames, whose wife, Tina Singer Ames, had written a book on ALS before her death. Ames had two children, a boy and a girl, ages seven and nine. A short time later she and Ames were married.

“Raising three children who had all been touched by ALS was a special challenge,” she says. It was one that took up much of her time until recently, when the last of her children entered college. It was a transition she had been waiting for. “I always knew I was going to do something more for children of parents with ALS, but it had to wait for a while,” she says. Not only is O’Donnell-Ames a wife and mother, she is also a personal trainer, a massage therapist, and a volunteer EMT with the Titusville Fire Department.

In 2007 she founded Hope Loves Company, a non-profit organization currently in the process of establishing 501(c)3 status. The organization held its First Annual Hope Loves Company Kid’s Day Sunday, June 3, in Exton, Pa. The event was attended by families from throughout the tri-state area of Pennsylvania, Maryland, and New Jersey.

Who Do You Want to Be? “That’s the question that connected me to BIG,” says O’Donnell-Ames. It took her many years to get there and now wants to help other women do the same.

“We are a growing community of intelligent, creative and entrepreneurial women who want to share our business ideas and build upon our dreams.

“Those dreams require the right environment to flourish. BIG offers precisely this forum,” she says.

BIG is more than a business networking group, she says. “There are all kinds of women there with whom you can share your experiences and your expertise. It’s a place where you don’t have to have every detail of your dream planned out. It’s OK if you don’t even have the first detail planned out. BIG is about helping women get to where they want to be in business, even if they don’t know where that is at the moment.”

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