Meet Life Coaches Cindy Hank Stark and Sue Casey

After earning her undergraduate degree at Notre Dame and her MBA at Northwestern, Cindy Hank Stark ran her own business. But she soon realized how many financial, mental health, and relationship challenges people face, and even though she was well-educated, she wanted to enhance her skills in order to help her staff and clients tackle some of these issues.

“Even though I had an MBA, I wanted to add some tools to my skill set to help empower others,” says Cindy, who alongside her husband, Paul, has been a Holt adoptive parent for the past 25 years. For 24 years, Cindy and Paul volunteered as temporary caregivers, providing short-term care and full-time love to newborns waiting to be placed into their adoptive homes by Holt.

Sue Casey, a mother of three and grandmother to three, is Cindy’s longtime friend. She has been a teacher for 25 years and currently teaches special education at an elementary school in the Chicago Public School system.

“Sue and I decided together to get a life-coaching certification where we learned how to help others identify their strengths and weaknesses, and create a plan for their life,” says Cindy.

As trained life coaches, Sue and Cindy now lead monthly workshops for the women in Holt’s Empowering Women, Strengthening Families (EWSF) program, where they work alongside program supervisor Beth Ilnyckyi and social worker Loann Tan.

The comprehensive EWSF program provides case management support for eligible pregnant and parenting parents who seek to strengthen their family and are willing to work towards the goal of self-sufficiency.

The idea for the life-coaching workshop series came about a couple years ago during a brainstorming session between Holt Domestic Adoption & Birth Parent Services director Nancy Crouch, Loann, and Cindy.

“It was Nancy’s vision that got this going,” says Cindy.

In-person workshop prior to COVID

As they talked about what types of skills they wanted women to learn — such as self-esteem, budgeting, and healthy relationships — Cindy soon realized their ideas aligned with what she and Sue do as life coaches.

Sue recognized a skills-based workshop program would utilize both her life coaching and teaching strengths, and she came on board as the second facilitator alongside Cindy.

“We started working on this project and it became a passion,” says Cindy. “Even though we’re the facilitators, every time we do this, we learn something new.”

Tools to Create A Purposeful Life

Together, the EWSF team organized the life skills into eight modules and developed educational content such as worksheets and group exercises—all built around a tool called a “life wheel” that Cindy and Sue use as life coaches.

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A life wheel is a tool that allows a person to rate key areas of their life, such as family, spiritual, and career, with 1 being the lowest score and 10 the highest.

In the first of eight modules, a woman in the program creates her initial life wheel, which sets the foundation for the remaining workshops. Seeing these areas mapped out gives EWSF clients a clearer, visual snapshot of the areas of their life, so they can focus on specific areas of improvement.

”Hopefully we can help others through asking open-ended questions, finding their passion and purpose in their life, and [help them] become more confident in their daily living skills by putting more tools in their toolbox,” Cindy says.

SMART goals are another key concept of the workshops. Through this framework, women in the EWSF program develop specific, measurable goals, then work with Loann to take steps to meet those goals.

“Helping clients set SMART goals makes it easier for them to focus on being productive and motivates them, giving them a better chance of being successful,” says Loann. “It’s a thrill when they finally achieve their goals.”

Setting Women Up for Long-Term Success

After running a full session of in-person workshops last year, the team was able to reflect on the content presented and soon realized a comprehensive workbook would be an ideal tool to complement the workshops and organize the modules. The workbook would allow the women to refer back to the lessons and worksheets as they work on their goals, even after graduating from the program.

The team was thrilled with how the workbook turned out. “It’s a very thoughtful process,” Cindy reflects. “We begin in the perfect place, and we end in the perfect place, and everything in between has meaning.”

Transitioning to Virtual Workshops: “Our biggest fear was that nobody would participate.”

When COVID-19 hit last spring, and the workshops shifted to a virtual format, Sue was concerned they would lose some of the interaction and camaraderie the attendees experience in person. To keep the women engaged, she and Cindy spent extra time preparing the first module, modifying content and slides to present virtually.

While holding the workshops remotely eliminated health fears and issues like transportation, it did create new challenges such as technical glitches. Still, they persevered. The participants were committed to and engaged in the workshops.

“They asked superb questions.” Cindy says.

Sue recalls asking if anyone needed help with a section and one woman, Kiana, spoke right up and said she was struggling and needed help. “That allowed all the other women to be open,” adds Cindy.

With no end to COVID-19 in the near future, Cindy and Sue will continue to adapt the modules to present virtually and are also working on a facilitator’s guide to accompany the workbook and workshops.

When Nancy asked them what their number one hope is for women in the program, Sue said, “To be the best version of themselves as possible.”

For more information about the Empowering Women, Strengthening Families program eligibility, please contact Loann Tan at or 630-754-4510.