Community Stories: Courtney Ochalek, United Way Cultivation & Engagement Manager

Published on October 15, 2022 in

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Courtney Ochalek
Jessica Carreras, Courtney Ochalek, Audrey Walker

I planned to join the Peace Corps after college to help children and families in Northern Africa. Instead, I got cancer.

Clearly, no healthy 27-year-old expects to receive a devastating call from their doctor following a routine exam. I realize now that life is like that – offering up what feels like insurmountable speedbumps that knock you off your designated path and into uncharted terrain.

Thirteen years, lots of tears, and a radical hysterectomy later, I’m still here. I’m healthy, smiling and a big advocate for people getting regular checkups and taking care of themselves.

Anytime you have an experience like that, it gives you a sense of existentialism. I wanted to do something with intentionality. I wrestled with that idea after walking away from my career in finance because it no longer aligned with who I was. Suddenly, I’m asking what am I actually doing here and what is my impact going to be?

On my journey to find the answer, I worked in fundraising in an area where nearly all the students were below the poverty line. We were doing supply drives but realized that basic needs weren’t being met. It made me want to get to the root of the problems in our communities.

It took me a minute to figure out my new path and come full circle to United Way, but I feel like I’m exactly where I’m supposed to be. I absolutely love what I do. That’s important for me because I look at time a lot differently these days and I want to make sure I’m spending it well.

In my life, optimism, hope and positivity go a long way. I’ve had a lot of trauma and bad, scary things happen. I think anytime you have that, you let it define who you are, or you use it as a steppingstone and share your story so that it either doesn’t happen to someone else or if it does, they know that it’s ok to talk about it and get help.

Courtney Ochalek is the Cultivation & Engagement Manager for United Way for Southeastern Michigan.

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