Fabulous Women Over 40: Payge McMahon

Fabulous Women over 40, Payge McMahon, adventure athlete walking down hiking trails.

By Sheri Oneal

Wow, this summer got real busy and I fell behind with my interviews for my Fabulous “Women Over 40” blog series but I have a very inspiring woman to showcase for September!

Fabulous Women over 40, Payge McMahon, adventure athlete at Percy Warner Park.

Payge McMahon is an amazing testament of courage and inspiration and she proves that your life direction can change in the blink of an eye. Her story is a testament that sometimes negative things that happen in our lives can lead us down an inspiring path.

At 16, Payge was in a car accident that broke her back and left her in a body cast. Her mother was her positive inspiration in helping her maintain a good outlook during her healing when she had to learn how to walk again, (she still struggles with chronic back pain). Payge went on to college and earned a B.A., in International Politics and Spanish, at Penn State, she studied at universities in Spain and Mexico and an MBA at California Lutheran University. She worked her way up the corporate ladder, negotiating and managing global contracts for Fortune 500 companies before eventually landing on Wall Street.

When Payge turned 28, her life’s direction would change forever when her mother, a non-smoker, died from lung cancer. Her death crushed Payge to the core. “I literally felt my heart break,” she says. Sometime after, Payge found a hidden notebook in her mother’s nightstand with a list of 20 adventurous things her mom had hoped to do in her lifetime. Payge noticed that only 6 things had been marked off of the list and she felt an overwhelming need to live out her mother’s bucket list, this sparked the journey that would change her life.

Fabulous Women over 40, Payge McMahon, adventure athlete looking out over ridge.

She quit her job on Wall Street, sold all her belongings, divorced her college sweetheart and took off on her first adventure. At 32, she backpacked the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu, it was the first time Payge had ever slept in a tent, gone backpacking or climbed a mountain.

Over the years she has had some amazing adventures: like dog sledding in Alaska, cycling through Thailand, Vietnam and Cambodia, summiting Mt. Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, Mt. Fuji in Japan and Mt. Sinai in Egypt. She has explored the Sahara desert and Amazon Rainforest, backpacked across Northern Spain, the Himalaya in Nepal and the list goes on. With each adventure Payge sprinkles bits of her mother’s ashes along the way slowly fulfilling her mom’s bucket list. She wears a necklace around her neck that carries some of her mother’s ashes and feels as if her mom is with her every step of the way.

Fabulous Women over 40, Payge McMahon, adventure athlete with mother's ashes in necklace.

Payge created a website Turn the Payge for family and friends to follow along in the journey. As more and more people learned about her story thank you letters began coming in sharing how her journey was inspiring them to start their own bucket lists. Many looked to Payge for advice on backpacking, travel and gear. National Geographic Adventure, Competitor and other publications contacted her to write about her adventures. ESPN featured her story on their program, ‘Journeys & Victories‘ and it won a Gracie Award, which honors women in media.

Adventure travel and outdoor gear and apparel companies also took notice because they see her story as compelling and relatable. They also recognize that she knows how to reach people and cross-market brands: she is now sponsored by companies like adidas Outdoor, Canada Goose, Wigwam Mills and Taos Mountain Energy Bars.

Payge shares her experiences to inspire others to get outdoors, experience life and step outside their comfort zone. You can see Payge doing just that on “The Raft,” a new adventure/survival television series on National Geographic Channel. When the production company contacted her to do the show, she initially thought to say, ‘No.’ It wasn’t that she would have to spend 6 days, with a stranger, on a small 4X4 foot costal raft, floating in the Bermuda Triangle, without any food or water. “I don’t like cruises,” she says, “and sharks. But, then I thought… what a cool opportunity this would be to test my limits in a worst-case travel scenario.” Check her out in ‘The Raft’s’ premiere, titled, Bump in the Night.

Fabulous Women over 40, Payge McMahon, adventure athlete on trail.Today, In addition to being a professional adventure athlete, motivational speaker and journalist, she is also a yoga instructor. She took up yoga to help strengthen her back and cross train for adventures. She received her teaching certification in Thailand and has since studied in India and Nepal. Wanting to help others go beyond their perceived physical limits, she specializes in training endurance athletes and those recovering from injury, surgery and/or living in chronic pain. “Yoga changed my life. The way I abuse my body and mind on some of these endeavors, if I didn’t practice yoga, I’d be crippled by now,” she laughs.

Fabulous Women over 40, Payge McMahon, adventure athlete with map.Payge now has 3 more adventures and places left to visit to complete her mother’s bucket list, dive Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, ski in Antarctica and run on The Great Wall of China. Her goal is to continue to inspire others to get out and live their lives actively and to try new things, just as her mother inspired her to do. Payge is a true inspiration and testament to living healthy and doing those things most feel are unreachable. She is truly a “Fabulous Woman (barely) Over 40!”

Thank you for reading, see you next month!

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Fabulous Women Over 40: Rita Maggart

Fabulous Women over 40, Rita Maggart, volunteer artist in women's prison

By Sheri Oneal

May almost slipped by me but I squeezed in a day this week to interview a wonderful woman for my Fabulous Women Over 40 blog series. I am proud to introduce Mrs. Rita J. Maggart! She is an artist, a writer, a floral designer and a teacher who began volunteering her time 24 years ago as a teacher’s assistant at the Tennessee Prison for Women.

Fabulous Women over 40, Rita Maggart, volunteer artist in women's prison

Rita Maggart grew up in Lebanon, Tennessee and graduated from George Peabody College of Vanderbilt University. She married her husband John Maggart who was in the military and lived in Germany for 5 years before settling in Nashville. Her early career was teaching 3rd grade in Metro Nashville Schools and preschool children in Montessori schools, she believes her inner strength resides through her faith and that is what inspires her to help others. Over the years she has found comfort expressing her feelings and thoughts in the pages of journals combined with sketching images of botanicals. In 1995 Rita did a work study in England under her mentor Sheila Macqueen, a renowned floral artist and designer known for her work with Britain’s royal family. Rita then started a floral design business in Nashville where she focused on events, home decor, and event coordination with botanicals. In 1996 she decided to use excerpts from her early journals to share with others which led to her book called “In The Growing Places,” which combines her inspirational poetry, thoughts and drawings showcasing her experience with floral arrangement instruction. Nashville singer/songwriter Angel Pontier has used the book for inspiration to write songs.

Fabulous Women Over 40; Rita Maggart, books

Rita’s love of art lured her to study oil painting with artist and instructor Gayle Levee of Nashville. She has also studied Visual Communications at Nashville State Community College with Pam Hawkins and is currently studying the art of abstract painting with Lisa Jennings of Nashville.

Fabulous Women Over 40; Rita Maggart, artist

Paint pallet, Rita Maggart, Fabulous Women Over 40

What I admire most about Rita and what makes her such a fabulous woman is her desire to help others. Women’s ministry is Rita’s play it forward space and she finds solace in working with groups of women where her encouragement helps them find their true internal God given gifts. She started volunteering at the Tennessee Prison for Women in 1991 after hearing speaker Emma Thompson mention they needed volunteer teachers. Rita offered her time teaching reading in the woman’s prison system for several hours each week. Later she would teach a creative class on art and journaling which eventually would lead to arts and craft classes. She felt strongly that the art was a meaningful way of therapy for the women and became very appreciated in the process. Today Rita helps coordinate a Pen Pal ministry connecting the women in prison with women in her church. This inspirational process helps them find strength, comfort, self love, confidence and inner peace. She has continued to stay in touch with several women over the years who are still in the prison system through letter writing.

Fabulous Women Over 40; Rita Maggart

Fabulous Women Over 40; Rita Maggart, artist, teacher

Fabulous Women Over 40; Rita Maggart, prayer

Rita’s interest in life tend to center around communicating and creating. In 2005  she combined her interest of macro photography and oil painting with botanicals where she created bodies of work centered around sepia toned flowers. Using natural light and floral surroundings her work offers a beautiful fine art vision of floral arrangements. Animation artist Dave Turner AKA Digital Dave has turned her botanical photos into animation art and has made them come alive in a video montage found here.



Rita resides in Nashville tennessee with her husband John Maggart, they have 3 sons and 5 granddaughters. She has an artist studio at Harpeth Art Center & Gallery in Pegram and an upcoming Art Exhibit at the at Nashville Airport flying solo exhibition called “In Sight” which showcases 36 x 49 archival pigment prints this June, July and August in the Southwest Concourse “C.” She will be at Scarritt-Bennett November 19, 2015 with singer/songwriter Angel Pontier in a performance of poetry and music at the “Poet’s Corner.” 

If you would like to know more about Rita you can visit her site here. She truly is a Fabulous Woman who has made a difference with her creative endeavors and sharing personality.

I hope you have enjoyed this month’s Fabulous Woman and will check back for Ms. June, stay tuned!


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*NOTE all Sheri Oneal blog post are ©2015 by Sheri Oneal. Any use of photos or content (other than sharing the link) must be agreed upon in writing.

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Fabulous Women Over 40: Loan Hillsten

1975 Vietnamese Refugee, Fabulous Women over 40 , Loan Hillsten

By Sheri Oneal

This month I am excited to share Ms. April in my blog series Fabulous Women Over 40. Loan Hillsten and I have had the same circle of friends for about two years. I learned of Loan’s story at a dinner party one night when inquiring about where she grew up. She is a vibrant and caring person who carries a secret past most of her friends and colleagues do not know about.

We, as Americans, are privileged to live as freely as we do. The awareness of those here from other countries is evident, and often the media shares insight to the struggles they have endured coming to America with dreams of freedom and opportunity. I have never known anyone personally with a similar journey until I met Loan. Her past is riddled with memories of fleeing her war ravaged homeland with her family in search of freedom in the United States.

Loan Hillsten AKA Loan Thi Kim Pham was born in Saigon, the capital of South Vietnam on November 24, 1963. She is the youngest of four siblings, two sisters, Le and Lan, and two brothers, Thuy and Lai. Loan’s mother, Tu Thi Trinh, was a housewife who made extra money cooking Vietnamese food and selling it at the local market. She passed away of liver cancer at the age of 43 when Loan was only 9 years old. (below photo is of Loan’s family before she was born). Loan remembers how wonderful her mom’s cooking was and how so many people loved buying her delightful dishes from the market. Loan’s father, Vinh Van Pham, fought for the South in the Vietnam War, from 1950-1954, and was left crippled when he lost both legs stepping on a land-mine.

1975 Vietnamese Refugee, Loan Hillsten

On April 29, 1975, the night before the “Fall of Saigon,” Loan and her family fled Saigon to escape definite death from the Northern Vietnamese forces who were expected to invade the next day. She remembers her brother-in-law (who was in the military) telling her dad the communist were coming to take over the city. Knowing they would kill anyone associated with the military first, they were forced to leave their home and all their worldly possessions behind. Loan remembers arriving at the pier scared, watching as people were screaming, crying and fighting to get on boats so they would not be left behind or be separated from their families. Because her dad was unable to walk he told them to go ahead and get on the boat but her brother-in-law wouldn’t let that happen and carried her dad on his back, fighting his way through the crowd to assure he was on the same boat as his family.

1975 Vietnamese Refugee, Fabulous Women over 40 , Loan Hillsten

The boat she boarded with her family held 30-40 people, with no one knowing where they were going, only that they were leaving land. The men stayed up on deck most of the time and the women and children stayed below with no bathroom and little food. She remembers hearing stories from her brother-in-law of men on the upper deck who jumped to their death in fear of what might lie ahead. When they arrived in the Philippines two weeks later they were not welcome. The U.S. military had to step in and took them by boat to Guam before they were able to come to the United States. They lived in a tent for couple weeks on this island. They had to shower out in the open and she recalls the army soldiers riding by whistling and yelling at her as she tried to cover her naked body making her feel defiled and embarrassed.

Loan’s memory of her childhood is scattered with visions most 12 year olds should never have to endure. Having only the clothes they were wearing when they fled, she and her family arrived in America. They were placed in a refugee camp, Fort Indiantown Gap, known as “The Gap” or “FTIG” located in Pennsylvania. The GAP served as a refugee camp for Southeast Asian refugees over an 8 month period in 1975. More than 32,000 Vietnamese and Cambodian refugees were resettled through the camp. Her first memory upon arriving was how cold it was and seeing snow for the first time. Each day they would gather in lines and wait for their meals, there was nothing to do all day and they were not allowed to leave the tightly secured base.

Fabulous Women over 40, Loan Hillsten

After 6 months, her family was lucky enough to have two churches sponsor them out of the refugee camp, being sponsored was the only way anyone could leave the facility. The churches helped them find a home in Urbandale, Iowa, to get them signed up for the school system and covered the cost of food and rent for the first 3 months. In their new small home, 10 people lived in a 3 bedroom house with only one bath, you can imagine the chaos that ensued each morning. Loan started elementary school where she had to not only learn a new language (since she spoke no English), but also acclimate to a fascinating and at times scary new culture.

In the years that followed, Loan and her family adjusted and assimilated to life in America. She and her siblings went on to finish college. Her American life was not, however, left unscathed even after surviving and escaping a war ravaged country, she would face the tragedy of losing two more family members to liver cancer. Her brother passed away at 25 years old, who at the time was working to complete a master’s degree in engineering. Her sister, 39 at the time, perished two years later. Knowing this disease runs in her family, Loan gets annual checkups.

1975 Vietnamese Refugee, Fabulous Women over 40 , Loan Hillsten

Today Loan resides in Murfreesboro, TN with her 15 year old son Taylor and is a Finance Manager at McKesson Corporation. Most of her friends see her as a beautiful, active and happy person, someone who is always laughing. Her friends look forward to her cooking and she always delivers something amazing to friendly gatherings, something I know her mother would be proud of because she carries on some of her cultural traditions. She is the first to help when someone is sick or needs something and she shows no sign of any of the past experiences she had to endure. This month marks the 40th anniversary of fleeing South Vietnam and the experience that led her to become an American citizen. She recently visited her father (photo below) and other family members in Iowa.

Loan Hillsten , Vinh Van Pham

It humbles me to see a woman who has gone through what she did at such a young age, yet see no sign of sadness or conflict in her life. Her strength and compassion is truly amazing she is an inspiration to me and is why I had to showcase her as a Fabulous Woman over 40! 

1975 Vietnamese Refugee, Fabulous Women over 40 , Loan Hillsten

I hope you have enjoyed Loan’s story! I would love to hear your thoughts so please feel free to leave comments below. Stay tuned for Ms. May!

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*NOTE all Sheri Oneal blog post are ©2015 by Sheri Oneal. Any use of photos or content (other than sharing the link) must be agreed upon in writing.

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