Learning by Doing: Coming full circle

Watchful patience helps hospice director develop dream career

I was 9 when I began making jewelry for myself and my friends. It was 1989, and my creations took off into a mini business. Encouraging my entrepreneurial spirit, my parents helped purchase the supplies, while I kept a log of my expenses and sales I made at school.

Eventually, my mom helped me get a booth at our local farmer’s market, and my best friend, Betsy, and I got up early Saturday mornings to sell jewelry.

When I discovered music, my interests changed. I learned to play piano, flute and sing and dedicated my time to practice, schoolwork and my job at local café. That’s where I was when a frequent customer announced she was opening a restaurant and invited me to work with her.

Despite only being 17, I became a manager who trained new employees, ran the front of the house when the owner was away, tallied the register and made bank deposits. When the owner decided to open a new location, she asked if I would be a part of the process.

Alison Wagner, director of Volunteer Services and Complementary Therapies at Hospice of Michigan and Arbor Hospice
Alison Wagner, director of Volunteer Services and Complementary at Therapies Hospice of Michigan and Arbor Hospice
Photo by Charlotte Bodak.

I was learning so much about music in my personal time and about business at the restaurant that I couldn’t help but envision owning my own business — a combo café for the community and a music studio that promoted young and pre-professional musicians. So, with encouragement of family and friends, I created my first business plan. For undergrad, I went to Michigan State University, on scholarship for vocal performance with a double major in business management and music.

During college, my life shifted.

On the way to a rehearsal one day in the fall of 2001, I received a call from my father saying the doctor was telling him to go to Emergency. Two days later, he collapsed never to regain consciousness, and they moved him to the ICU. Then the doctors called for a family conference.

Though grief-stricken, my mother did something amazing: She gave all the family members a chance to speak our peace and make sure we agreed before taking my father off life support.

My father died, and it was the greatest sadness I had ever known. I struggled to find a way forward and was encouraged by reminding myself that my dad was proud of me and wanted me to achieve my dreams.

Already at a crossroads, the local business owner offered me an opportunity to run the restaurant I helped build. But I still dreamed of finding a way of uniting the arts with the community.

Then, I heard about a Performing Arts Administration graduate program at New York University and applied. My personal essay was about how I brought together musicians, special sheet music and graphic artists to put together my dad’s funeral. That essay helped me really realize the healing the that the arts can bring and the power of relationships with community.

NYU’s fantastic program taught principles of nonprofit management and included coursework at the Stern School of Business where, in a social entrepreneurship class, I was able to join a business plan competition. That competition revealed that my business could have a broader community purpose than what I imagined.

About to be married to my fiancé, Jason, I moved to Michigan to start my married life with the hope of raising capital and starting my business.

To get to know the community and build my skill set, I applied and landed a position at the Detroit Athletic Club where I worked within the Catering and Special Events department. There, I learned about quality service from a talented staff and was able to build programs and events while working with members. It was a busy schedule involving working nights and weekends.

My grandmother lived on the west side of the state and, as her health began deteriorating, I drove on Friday nights across the state to visit with her. She too loved music, and it was always a part of our visits. Eventually, she went into hospice care and died. We had a beautiful service for her.

Not long after her death, the economy crashed. But I was presented with an opportunity — one I hoped would expand my knowledge and network to become a business owner.

I was chosen to be a member of a team helping host The National Summit that would bring together government officials and industry leaders to craft “America’s To-Do List,” 10 strategic initiatives for business and government to jointly pursue to revitalize our nation's economy. The project involved talented and passionate people across the country who worked endlessly to make the summit a success. Ford Motor Company was the lead sponsor along with Dow Chemical.

When the project ended, I was drained and wanted to reconnect with family and friends. I recognized it as an chance to rebuild and learn.

My new beginning led me to a career shift — assisting the Oakland University School of Nursing with fundraising and donor relations. I needed to learn new terminology and issues related to the nursing profession. In my first year, I learned from leaders in the nursing field about relationship-based care and developed a deeper appreciation for nurses and clinicians.

Life shifted again, when my husband got an opportunity in the San Francisco Bay area. I decided to focus my job search this time on the arts and discovered Montalvo Arts Center, a powerful place where music, art, nature, education and self-expression make a space for creativity and healing.

Prioritizing our family, Jason and I decided to move back to Michigan. But I missed the work I had been doing at Montalvo and remembered the business plan from my youth.

So, I met with a former client, Marcie Hillary, vice president of Community Relations and chief development officer at Hospice of Michigan. It struck me then that while I knew hospice from a personal perspective, I hadn’t thought about innovation as part of the hospice mission. I found out how HOM was striving to model the way for America intriguing.

A year later, in 2014, I began working there.

My job, director of Volunteer Services and Complementary Therapies Hospice at Michigan and Arbor Hospice, has been a tremendous learning experience. Learning about end- of- life care, learning from volunteers who are passionate and giving, learning from our staff who give so much of themselves in order to help the patients and families we serve, it is truly a gift to be surrounded by such amazing people and be supported by a dedicated and involved leadership team.

When I was young, I dreamed of building a place for musicians and community members to gather. I wanted to involve the arts in service to people’s everyday lives and involve the community. Now, the work is coming full circle with my experience and my dreams — with my recent promotion to the director of Volunteer Services and Complementary Therapies for Hospice of Michigan and its affiliate Arbor Hospice.

I am now working to build a Complementary Therapies program in all of our markets across the state of Michigan. The Complementary Therapies program, created at Arbor Hospice, consists of music therapy, massage therapy and pet therapy for hospice patients.

This powerful program, staffed by highly skilled clinicians and volunteers, touches the nearly 1,800 patients we serve at the end of life. The opportunity to make a difference in the lives of others and to bring to them love, compassion and the beauty of the human experience when they are at the end of life is a powerful and driving force.

When I was young, I wanted a building to house a feeling and a spirit of community. Here and now, I don’t have the building; but through my journey thus far, I have learned it isn’t about a brick and mortar.

People create the community, and we have an incredible community of volunteers, volunteer staff and complementary therapists who are making a difference every day.


Ann Reardon - 9:37pm • May 26, 2017

This is wonderful, Allison. Way to follow and never let go of your dreams.

Alison Wagner - 12:47pm • May 27, 2017

Thank you, Ann! :)

Pat McKenna - 7:51am • May 27, 2017

What a beautiful, poignant, summation of your dream coming true. It may be crass to say this, but, . . I hope that when I'm near death that I'm in the care of Hospice of Michigan if you're still running this program.

Alison Wagner - 12:47pm • May 27, 2017

Thank you, Pat!

Christine Kimel - 11:51am • May 28, 2017

Alison, What a wonderful vision you've been creating all these years. Your story is both poignant and inspiring. I echo Pat's comment above: if I'm in hospice, I want to be in "yours".

Alison Wagner - 10:47am • May 29, 2017

Thank you, Chris!

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