August 31st of 2005 Phillip Hernandez was killed in a cycling accident when he was hit by a suburban while out for his evening bike ride ending not only his life–but life as his wife, kids and family knew it.
Phil’s death set his widow, Michele Neff Hernandez, on a path seeking other widowed people. She wanted to know how to live through the death of her partner and friend…the only people who seemed likely to know were others who had outlived their partners. So, Michele started looking for widowed people who would be willing to tell her their stories, and answer her questions.
November 3rd of that same year, Daniel Dippel died of complications of Esophageal cancer. His wife’s name was Michelle, and little did either Michel/le know that the deaths of their husbands just months apart would be the beginning of a lifelong friendship. Michele and Michelle shared a first name, a birth year and the experience of outliving their spouse in their mid-thirties. Connected through a family connection, the two women became each other’s lifeline through the ups and downs associated with grief and widowhood.
Michele Neff Hernandez soon realized the difference having a widowed friend made for processing, venting, and rebuilding through this challenging experience, and she began to craft a plan for offering other widowed people the same experience.
One beautiful fall day, Michele and Michelle were driving home from visiting Daniel’s grave, when Michele shared the idea she had for creating a weekend long retreat for widowed people. The purpose would be to provide them with the community both Michel/les benefitted from because of their connection. Michele wanted to be sure that other widowed people could find this same type of support through an understanding community. That small spark of an idea (written on a napkin in the car) led to the creation of Camp Widow, and to the organization that would become Soaring Spirits International. Michele was determined to ensure that no widowed person would have to grieve alone, and she knew that she could count on Michelle to cheer her on and support her every step of the way.
Michelle Dippel, Barbara Frova and Patience Worrell joined Michele as founding board members for Soaring Spirits Loss Foundation, Inc. The original name would be changed to Soaring Spirits International five years later in recognition of the global reach SSI’s programs had already created. Their shared commitment to the mission of Soaring Spirits facilitated the founding of an organization that would serve millions of widowed people worldwide.
Michele Neff Hernandez continues to serve as CEO, and has dedicated her life to advocating for the widowed. Michelle Dippel continues to serve on the Soaring Spirits Board of Directors, and the Michel/les still count each other as best friends.