My Ray of Sunshine

She has been my ray of sunshine.

This has been the hardest thing I’ve had to write in many years. I’ve been trying to stay off of social media outlets because while there is so much love being shared for my dear friend, it is a constant reminder of the reality that she is no longer here. Even though, I know there are so many like me experiencing immense sadness and loss, I am going to do my best to focus on the incredible soul that my friend, Jennifer, shared with everyone she encountered.

I met Jennifer 20 years ago. She was with UNMH at the time and I was developing the fledgling employee volunteer and giving program at Cardinal Health. We were both serving on Albuquerque Healthcare for the Homeless’ annual First Day of Winter event. She was rambunctious, driven and super competitive. It was great to see her in action. Motivated to change the world, her energy was fierce and as an introvert, sometimes overwhelming to me, but I enjoyed working with her as a colleague. I watched her move from UNM to Citi to Wells Fargo and cheered her on along the way. It was fun to impact the community together in many ways. I remember one time, our respective organizations were up for the same award at the Governor’s Spotlight on Volunteers conference. I had no idea how Cardinal Health pulled it off, with of our smaller sized organization and budget, but we were awarded the Corporate Award. Jennifer had no problem asking me for my application because she wanted to learn what we were doing and make sure Wells Fargo was on track for the next year. As I said, she was competitive. However, I also noticed after having her children that she became so nurturing to those around her. When my career ended at Cardinal Health, she called me because there was an opportunity at Wells Fargo that she wanted me to apply for. I started the process, but something happened that was so unlike me with a miscommunication in the interview process (I later told her that I think the universe had other plans for me).

My path led me into the boutique and that’s where our friendship really flourished. At times, we were each other’s dates for social events because our husbands hated attending, but because of the nature of our work, we needed to attend out of obligation. We’d meet for wine, coffee or even quick conversations in her office or my shop when schedules allowed. We’d talk about our families, our similar childhoods, business and life in general. We probably talked the most about balance. How, because of our roles making it a priority to have real family time among the chaos of work commitments. I loved it when she’d laugh so hard she’d snort and she reminded me often that she could always find me because of my joyous laughter. She honored me at the Women of Influence event (that she emceed and I was an honoree for) by wearing the dress she had purchased at the boutique. She and I took a selfie from the stage. The next month, I cheered loudly from the audience as she was recognized with the Young Leader Award at the Business in Ethics event. I had just started designing and was planning a launch event that would be a fundraiser for one of my favorite non-profits. I asked her to emcee it and she graciously accepted it.

Sadly, the store closed, and I just didn’t have the energy to pull off the event. She immediately reached out to see if I was okay. She gave me a little space, a week or two, and then invited me over to her home. We sat al fresco drinking wine and talking. Again, she asked about me. We talked about business for a minute, but the focus was how I was doing in that moment. We started talking about fashion. I shared my concerns, about my failure, and fear of continuing in that space. She said she wasn’t going to let me give up and commissioned me on the spot to create two outfits for her: one for Diner en Blanc and one for Concours du Soleil. I accepted the offer and immediately got to work creating the sketches. I went back to her home the next week to take her measurements and began working on the look. With the first outfit complete, I met her at her daughter’s gymnastic studio. She tried on the two-piece pantsuit in the bathroom (I opted for a pantsuit in lieu of a dress because I knew she was going to be schlepping around her table, chairs and picnic basket). It fit like a glove and she looked beautiful in it. In that moment, with her support, I knew I would succeed. The next day after giving careful consideration about continuing in this space, I sent her the following message:

Hi my friend!

I can’t tell you how much your faith in my abilities and support of my dream means to me. Your outfit is my first commissioned piece and seeing you in it yesterday gave me the confidence that I now know I can succeed. As you’re aware, closing the boutique nearly killed my desire to move forward in this space, but I don’t know if I completely told you why. Do you remember what you wanted to be when you were growing up? Well, I wanted to be a fashion designer and when that didn’t happen, I moved on. Thank God I found a wonderful path in a career that I not only enjoyed but felt I made a difference in. When it ended, I wasn’t quite sure what I’d do next. I was then catapulted into small business. It was hard work…harder than anything I had ever done before, but I felt it was my life’s work. I could help people see how beautiful they really are and give back in a huge way that made my heart sing. However, I didn’t have all the tools I needed in my tool box to make it successful or even make a living out of it. I was horrible at operations and sales, but you don’t know what you don’t know. When I came to the realization it destroyed me…for a brief moment.

One afternoon, a couple weeks ago I was watching “Eat. Pray. Love.” I remember reading the book when I was at Cardinal Health and thinking, “what is wrong with her?” She cried throughout the book and it annoyed me so much. I wanted to shake her and say, “snap out of it!” It wasn’t until this year that I understood. Well that afternoon, I cried throughout the entire movie. I was in a state of depression and despair and then there was a line that really struck me. The line was, “Ruin is a gift. Ruin is the road to transformation.” And being the Catholic girl that I am I reached out to St. Jude for inspiration…the saint for hopeless causes. I said a prayer and asked for guidance and an idea struck me.

I’m a HOPELESS fanatic of fashion. I’m a HOPELESS believer that everything happens for a reason and you should use it to drive or inspire you. And, because I’m human, I feel HOPELESS at times so I give others hope to be who they are meant to be. Life is filled with CAUSE & effect. What if there was a fashion line that supported: livable wages, eco-social practices, and gave back? Now wouldn’t that be a CAUSE to get behind…and just think of that effect. Hopeless + Cause Atelier

I’ve struggled with the name DARAdesigns from the beginning because I don’t like being in the spotlight. I think I can better tell my story about my love for fashion and the type of women who want to wear my clothing through this brand. However, you are the 2nd person I’ve shared this with so please don’t share it yet. I’m not ready for the reveal just yet, but soon I promise! In the meantime, can you please do me the honor of a few small favors:

1) What non-profit organization would you like me to contribute on behalf of for your commissioned pieces? Sadly, it will be a small donation at this time…but it will be something because I want that to be a tenant of everything I do.

2) You are a gorgeous woman. Please shine in what I’ve made specifically for you. Please take photos and share them with me. No need to tell the world just yet who made them for you. Although I know Jamie wants to see you. Let me know if you need her number. 🙂

3) And if it’s not too much to ask, I have a fabulous friend who is a photographer and she would like to do a photo shoot in late September. Would you mind participating in it with your outfits?

Your personal note is like my first dollar bill. I will hang it proudly in my atelier space (dining room) until I can get into a real space. Thank you my friend for YOU!! I apologize for filling up your email with this novel, but I thought it was important to share this with you.

XOXO!! With much love,
Dara

Her response is one that I carry with me, every day and in everything I do.

Dara, I have tears in my eyes as I read this, I am overwhelmed with your kindness, gratitude and openness. I am thrilled to be your first commissioned piece, I am touched, honored and so excited to rock your amazing creation tonight.

I completely understand the challenges you have had and the transformation over the last several months. The best part of trying is learning. You did not FAIL, you found out what is in your heart, who you are and your passion. That is a BIG WIN.

I am excited about your new endeavor and the work you will do to link fashion with social profit work and outcomes for a sustainable Albuquerque and beyond….because I know you are the next NYC Fashion Week show….:)

I will ALWAYS BELIEVE IN YOU, trust you and celebrate you. the hardest part of tonight will be to say that you created by piece, but not yet be able to refer folks to you….your vision is a much needed one for ABQ—custom, classic and made with heart and love.  I will NEED and WANT more, but excited to help you in anyway.

I love your vision to support our social profit sector and I choose Junior Achievement to be the benefactor for your thoughtful and generous pay it forward gift. Educating our youth is so critical and helping inspire them to put their DREAMS first and find a way…you embody this in everything you do.  To re-light your passion and fire for fashion after a corporate career, small business owner, wife, mother, friend, daughter, sister is INSPIRING!

THANK YOU  my dear friend Dara, I am excited to see what the next chapter brings for you and I am honored to be your friend 🙂

Xoxox

Jennifer

Photographed by Erin Killion Photography

She sent me photos from the evening and she looked beautiful in her effortless style. I decided to call the look after her beautiful daughter. The wide legged pant has become signature to my line each season only mixing up the length, materials and width of the cuff. The next event, I had the honor of sitting at the Wells Fargo table with her and as Roby’s date. We mingled during the cocktail hour and she informed me how much her husband loved the dress. We were standing there talking when woman after woman stopped by to her how gorgeous she looked. She’d turn to them and say, “Thank you. This is the designer.” We danced. We drank. We played poker. We smoked cigars. It was a wonderful evening and the first time I had really been out since the store closed. That evening, I decided to launch my line in a much smaller way. In November, she was in the front row with her daughter. Many of you reading this know what a community Rockstar she was (it hurts SO much to use the past tense), but she was my muse and a fashion risk taker. She was daring with her fashion and I often came up with ideas she’d jump at the chance to wear. When I needed a model, she’d happily comply even when she’d secretly tell me how nervous about it she was.

She was beautifully human. Even with the respect and leadership she earned, she still had to deal with so much bullshit. I remember being her guest at an event when one of her colleagues complained like a spoiled brat about the food being served  (like she had any control over it). I thought how petty and really wanted to tell the woman off in Jennifer’s defense, but instead commiserated with Jennifer remembering the crazy things I had to deal with. We laughed and drank wine. There came another opportunity that I’d have the chance to work side-by-side with her in Communications. I took the chance and applied. I made it to the final round and while disappointed, I was happy with who was hired. I was honored to be considered in the same pool of the level of caliber of talent they brought on board (and honestly, I can’t fathom what I’d do today if I was in the role—I truly believe things happen for a reason). Just a few weeks later, the news about the Wells Fargo scandal broke. To me, it was so far away because of the level of integrity of the local team, yet, I called her to see how she was doing. She mentioned that it was a tarnish on the company and an opportunity for learning, but there was so much good her company and local leadership were doing in our community. She believed in the power of New Mexico. We continued to work closely together on community projects through the Corporate Volunteer Council. As I was going through my divorce, she’d check in to see how my kids and I were doing. I’d invite her over and she’d bring the kiddos with her. I dazzled them with my electronic typewriter and instant film camera (they wondered where these ancient devices came from), while I fitted her for her different looks. Every fashion event, her plus one was her daughter and I loved to see them together. She was so excited when I was showing in NYC…I don’t think she remembered that she had set those wheels in motion in just two years before. We were constantly checking in every couple of weeks. Knowing my involvement with non-profits and in small business, and the lack of funding to attend the social events required for networking business connections, she always made sure, if one was available, I’d have a seat at her table. She did this even when I would tease her that this introvert didn’t need to be out there any more with her being my brand ambassador. However, I’d occasionally take on her offer if it meant spending time together or being at an event where she was speaking or being honored at.

My life has been incredibly blessed by her presence in it. Her kindness, genuineness, beauty and humor have made me strive to be the best me. I know anyone who has encountered her presence in their lives can say the same. I will miss her snorts, her holiday bitmojis, her smile and welcoming presence. I love her ray of sunshine and she will always shine through me.

Please feel free to share your warm memories of Jennifer in the comments below.

With light and love, and today, a broken heart working on healing because I know she wouldn’t want it any other way. I am sending all my love and healing thoughts to her family.

Dara Sophia

19 thoughts on “My Ray of Sunshine”

  1. This is such a beautiful tribute, Dara. Honestly, one of my first thoughts when hearing the news was to you, knowing how you both had a special bond. We all have our personal memories of Jen and stories of how she made us feel like we were the only person in the room, went out of her way to look in on us, encourage us, support us. Your stories are so special and speak to the special friendship you shared, that of sisters. Thank you for sharing. I know that she would be embarrassed by all the attention, not realizing how much she meant to so many of us. And yes, I will miss her snort and laugh as well. Love you you, my friend. Muah!

  2. Awesome tribute. That was one thing about Ms Jennifer is she was genuine. THe weirdo that i am i can sniff out fake nice and from the moment i met her, i loved her! She was caring and inspiring to everyone around her. My heart is heavy for her family and friends. Prayers pouring out.

  3. Beautiful, Dara. I remember meeting Jennifer for the first time. We were modeling in your show February 2017 at Hotel Andaluz. We we’re doing a run through and she was to walk before me. At first I thought, “wow, this woman is really pretty”. As the practice went on I could see her personality. She was very happy go lucky, positive energy and friggin HILARIOUS! I was so happy that she was next to me in the line up because she made me laugh and feel comfortable and she was just so easy to talk to. She really was magnetic.

  4. Hopeless Cause Atelier – now, I understand….not just the name but the dream, the vision – you, Dara and I love you so much! I love your bravery, your dream to design and strength to get there, your vulnerability. And I love reading how Jennifer loved you — again and again, she’s a role model to us all for standing up and next to our friends and values. Thank you for writing this and letting me read it aloud because i was too scared for my own grief. You and she were always such role models and champions for me — I love you so much.

  5. I rather thought you would have known her, and been close. Therefore, I’ve been thinking of you today and sending comfort to you and her family and friends.

  6. What an awesome way to honor her name. You amaze me at your compassion and love for everyone in this world. You are such a light is this sometimes dark world. I am so proud of the woman you babe have become. I feel so honored to call you a friend and sister. Love you. Thanks for being such an inspiration!!

  7. beautiful tribute- she was so much to so many, you had a great friendship and sounds like she really loved you. thinking of you Dara. thanks for sharing this

  8. So beautiful my friend! I smiled I cried and I laughed! Such a beautiful tribute to this Ray of Sunshine that shined bright on so many! So much Love for Jennifer and the precious Riordan Family! Love You Dara! <3

  9. This is truly a beautiful way to honor and pay tribute to your beautiful friend, who I know is loved by so many in Albuquerque. It’s such a blessing to have people like Jennifer cross our paths and bringing rays of sunshine. I’m sending prayers to you, the Riodan Family and every life she touched. Blessings and Love Dara!

  10. Thank you Dara for sharing. Jennifer was GRAND in every way. The impact, the love, and the light she shared with all of us shall live on. Forever in our hearts!!

  11. Oh, Dara, what an honest, lovely and inspiring tribute about your wonderful friend who was also honest, lovely and inspiring. I am sorry I did not know her. Her loss is huge, but she will continue to inspire people and be there for them and you by what she gave.

  12. Thank you for sharing. Jennifer was so full of life, she did everything with all she had and with the best intentions. I hate writing about her in the past tense. Usually, when you see these tributes you know that is only part of the story that there is a dark part no one is talking about, but with Jennifer, she was all that and really more. I talked to her last when she called me from the airport on her way to NY, to tell me about a job that she thought I would be a perfect fit for me. She was more concerned about my impending unemployment than I was. I already miss her greatly.

    1. Oh Emet. Tears for you. Love for you. Your sentiments are Beautifully written. The casket today was absolutely perfect. Afraid of my grief too, Laurie xoxo

  13. Dara, this is a beautiful tribute. Walking into an event with you and Jennifer was one of the first memories that came to my mind when I heard, and you were wearing an outfit you’d created and Jen was complimenting you on it…you both are women I have looked up to. I will always remember Jen’s willingness to give of her time, of her openness, and her true love for and joy in the people she was with. Love to you during this truly trying time.

  14. I am so very sorry, this is such a beautiful tribute to a beautiful soul.

    Keep her close to your heart and the beautiful memories your ray of light that shines through you.

    My condolences to her beautiful and loving family.

  15. I love you Dara. I’m so sorry to hear this story, but it was very honestly, beautifully and so very heartfelt shared. My heart goes out to the family and friends of this astonishing woman.

  16. Hopelessly bouncing between disbelief and knowing she is in heaven as an angel still cheering you (and all of your true friends) on. I’m mostly in the believing realm as the meteor showers glow tonight, special “coincidences” occur and FBF’s casket and Monsignor Voorhies’ words ring in my senses.

    Know she is with us. As I said in my txt to you – I choose to use the present tense In knowledge that she has her snort in it all. 😉💚Both now and forever. Xoxox

  17. Oh and Part 2. Wow! You did such an expert job in that interview! I’ve seen you do interviews live at Hotel Andaluz too. When it comes to fashion/passion, that introvert is nowhere to be found!

    And our time together with Healthcare for the Homeless – Remember the theme? It was about the Soul. “Healing the Sole” and the symbolism of walking in someone else’s shoes. I needed a silent auction lead. Jennifer stepped up and took the hardest job (in those days!) and blew it out of the park. I will always be gratful for our committee all those years ago. Lol. I remember going to Seasons for a committee meeting. I thought she was on speed…. Nope. Just passion. Dara-when it’s YoUR passion, you shine.

  18. Such a lovely tribute. Such a lovely woman. So sorry for the loss of your friend and a wonderful woman of the community. My condolences to you and to her family. May her light shine on!

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