Rachel Stevenson, Author, Speaker, President & Founder of LGBTea Dances, President of Reshaping You, a consulting practice focused on helping clients “reshape themselves mentally, emotionally and physically”, and the leader of Chester County’s LGBT community, speaks with VISTA Today about her memories growing up Jewish in Rockville, Maryland, how her Christian father led her family’s Passover Seder every year, why she abandoned her hope of becoming an engineer in college in favor of a passion for art and animation, her competitive spirit that drove her, moving to Philly with her husband, divorcing and coming to grips with her weight, meeting her wife, and her challenges, observations and aspirations for Chester County’s LGBT community.
Where did you grow up Rachel?
I was born at Holy Cross Hospital in Rockville, Maryland in 1980 and grew up there the middle child in a blended family, although to my mother, I was her oldest.
My mother, who is well educated and book smart, worked for several government agencies in DC including NASA and taught interpersonal communications at night. On weekends she taught Hebrew School classes. My father, on the other hand, is more worldly, having served in the military before launching a career as a technician, fixing fax and copy machines.
I lived in the same townhouse in Rockville that my parents still live in and went to schools in the same school district from Kindergarten through high school.
What memories do you have of growing up in Rockville?
We were a middle-class family who attended services at the local Jewish Temple. I did the whole Bat Mitzvah thing. I’m not a very religious person, but I did what a Jewish girl does. My favorite memories growing up were Jewish holiday meals with family. We would celebrate at my house, or my aunt’s house. Although Christian, my father always led the Passover Seder.
Did you play sports growing up?
I wasn’t interested in sports. I was overweight my entire life, so I did what the chubby kids did; played piano, sold fundraising ads for the school newspaper, designed artwork for the school yearbook, and managed for the softball team as opposed to playing softball.
I got along great with my sister, who is fifteen months younger than me until she turned seven. After then we butted heads for many years. But we always had each other’s backs. I remember one night, after she slammed her bedroom door three times in a yelling match with my father, my dad removed her door from the hinges. I came to her rescue by hanging bed sheets up in its place.
Did you have any jobs growing up?
Not really. My parents were all about education and told me my first job was school. I was a Counselor in Training for a Rockville City summer camp for a couple of years and did the normal babysitting stuff. I’m not a big fan of lots of kids, so neither one of those jobs held my interest.
What were you doing socially?
I was defiantly not a popular kid in the social world and was insecure about my weight. I always had a few close friends. Toward the end of high school, I gained more confidence as I started to eat healthier, find new friends and date.
Where did you go to college?
I loved math and thought I wanted to be an engineer. I got early acceptance to the University of Maryland’s engineering program but hated the program and Maryland’s big campus once I got there. My sister was doing art, and I figured if she could do art, so could I. I went to the local community college, majoring in advertising art, for a couple of years. I discovered when I put my mind to something, in this case, art, I could get good at it.
I had a bit of a crush on one of my professors and ended up following her to the University of Maryland Baltimore County, eventually getting my degree in Animation Art.
What did you do after college?
I worked at Best Buy for a couple of years and then went into corporate sales. I was very competitive. When it came to something I was good at, I wanted to the best at it. Best Buy initially put me in their desk phone department even though I longed to be over with the guys in the computer department. Over time I worked my way up, eventually becoming the first female supervisor of that store’s computer department.
I got married along the way and after three years at Best Buy and a couple of years selling at a furniture store, my husband got a job here in Philly, so I moved here with him. He was a general manager for Marriott, and I took a job selling for Marriott.
Once we split, it wasn’t healthy for us to be at the same company, so I jumped to Staples’ business division. It was around this time that I met my wife, Fay. While my personal life improved, I was miserable at work. Although I won a couple of President’s Awards selling for Staples, I was frustrated I wasn’t using more of my creative side and I was frustrated that my weight had spiraled out-of-control.
What did you do about your frustration?
By this time my weight was up to 280 pounds! I went on a popular weight-loss program and started losing weight. This time around, however, was different. I shared my story on social media and started a blog called “Reshaping Rachel” where I wrote about my weight loss journey every week. Not only did I gain a following on Facebook and the blog, but the followers held me accountable.
As I got closer to my goal weight, I realized I wasn’t happy. I was successful, but I didn’t find it fulfilling. I decided to enroll in West Chester and earned a degree in nutrition.
After trying to make it in the world of hospital nutrition, I discovered that world wasn’t for me. In 2014, I decided to start my company, Reshaping Nutrition, helping people develop a better relationship with food, looking at food in a different way, and helping them make healthier foods that were delicious and enjoyable. I started doing cooking demonstrations for the Food Bank and TOPPs.
I networked and developed a key relationship with Allyson Lindauer, who worked for the American Heart Association. Whenever Allyson made a presentation or attended a health expo at a big company, she would take me with her and have me tell about my weight loss journey and healthy eating. It was during this phase I started to find myself.
Not until much later. My weight went up and down over the years, which kept me too insecure to notice or develop my natural leadership ability. In 2009, as I took control of my weight and started to eat healthier, I realized the people around me were latching on to my hope and looking for a success story.
What challenges and opportunities are you focused on right now, Rachel?
Juggling my business, motivational speaking, and my nonprofit work and figuring out which business or community initiative is going to get my time is a constant struggle for me. On the business side, I reorganized the business, renamed it to Reshaping YOU, and I now focus on the two activities I enjoy most: speaking and workshops. I speak on reshaping labels to reshape ones life.
I also just published a book, Reshaping Rachel, documenting my weight loss and my personal journey finding myself.
In my nonprofit world, I founded an organization called LGBTea Dances, which fosters a safe and supportive environment for the Chester County LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) community. The term “tea dances” holds significant meaning in the LGBT community, as it refers to a fun, safe, and social place to get together, although we do much more than dance.
Going back twelve or thirteen years ago, we had a very active LGBT community. People like Jeff Ruud and Frank Viera, who had a bar in Phoenixville, were the pioneers for us. As they got involved in the community, they showed everyone LGBT people were just like everyone else. After Jeff died of an embolism at 36. Frank kept the business going a couple of more years but eventually moved to Florida. Sadly, he passed away last year from cancer.
In an effort to remember the people who came before us, we’ll be recognizing Jeff and Frank on June 4th at Chester County PrideFest in Phoenixville’s Reeves Park. Jeff and Frank, and people like them, laid the groundwork for our current work. The younger generation in the LGBT community take the inclusive culture for granted and forgets about the work others did to make life easier for them. Our organization helps to make sure they don’t forget.
We want to create more programs for the LGBT community that support social, health and education. We would also like to do more scholarships for high school students. There’s so much to do and not enough time to do them.
In the future, I would love to have a suburban or Chester County gay newspaper. Philadelphia Gay News (PGN) touches on events and activities in the suburbs every now and then, but they don’t do reoccurring stories about our suburban LGBT community and businesses. I would love to make that happen.
We struggle to find volunteers who are consistently active, like most non-profit groups. We get volunteers who will step up to support one event, but then remain inactive the rest of the year. This generation is different than those that fought for our freedoms decades ago. The younger generation jumps on one initiative and then when they are pulled to something new, they move on.
On the other hand, I’ve had members from our older generation say that they worked so hard for so many years and deserve a break. I hear about people who protested years ago and wonder where that never-ending passion is today. Everyone took a break after gay marriage was passed and our community is waking up to the fact that there’s still a lot of work to do, especially when it comes to housing and employment discrimination protections and the transgender community
Finally Rachel, What was the best piece of advice you ever received?
Maxx, who runs Your Earth Angel in Kimberton said, ‘what other people think of you is none of your business.’ So many times I did things because I was concerned about what other people thought. Now I do what I know is right in my heart.
The other piece of wisdom that guides my life is something my wife Fay said about people coming into our life for a reason, season, or a lifetime, and the challenge is to figure out who comes in for what purpose.