Prime Time for Women founder finds ways to connect

HAGERSTOWN, Md. – Her research into healthy aging long ago convinced Bernadette Wagner that women who connect are healthier, happier and more productive.

So, four years ago, she founded a nonprofit that aims to foster those relationships for women in their “prime years.”

“When we founded Prime Time for Women, it was this idea, based on the science that social connections have a greater ability to improve physical health, emotional well-being and longevity than diet and exercise combined,” Wagner said recently during of an interview in her Hagerstown home.

“And it was kind of like, OK, so how do you do that in real life? How do you make these connections? Before the pandemic, we did a lot of group programs — we did belly dance classes and we did the Prima Donna dancers, a hip-hop group for women over 50, and other activities.

By 2019, she had developed a television show of the same name for Antietam Broadband. A former member of the Washington County Board of Education, Wagner was a natural. She recorded 20 shows over two seasons, each episode starring local women.

But like everything else, COVID-19 has required changes in how prime time works for women.

“We really had to switch to being outdoors and doing more one-to-one classes,” she said. And Wagner’s “Year of Hikes” blog was born.

The premise was simple — as of January 2021, Wagner would be doing 52 weekly hikes with 52 different women on the same section of the Appalachian Trail.

They spent this time walking and chatting, and Wagner learned a little about each of her mates and shared their stories on the blog.

“One of the things I learned from hiking is that I coined this expression, I don’t know if it’s a real expression or not – but I called it ‘trail intimacy.’ When you walk, you know, your breathing kind of catches up and syncs up, and your steps fall in a rhythm because you’re trying to stay close to the person as you talk and walk. And I think there’s this calming effect.

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“And I think there was an opportunity to share on a more intimate level, partly because you weren’t on an equal footing.”

Now she’s connecting through another activity: cooking.

“This year we’re running a blog called Cultures, Cooking and Connections,” she said. “And every month I cook with a different woman from a different ethnic background.

“I love to cook and I love exploring different ethnic foods,” Wagner said. “So I was like, what if instead of reading a damn cookbook by myself, I could cook with women who do it all the time and know the history behind it and share their cultures and their stories?”

In January, for example, she shared a kitchen with a woman of Slovak descent but raised in Pennsylvania’s coal country.

“I had never made homemade pasta before. I’ve thought about it, but I’ve never done it… She said, ‘Do you have a pasta machine?’ I said no. She said, “I’ll bring mine.” And so it was this whole experience that I never would have had.

“And then I cooked with a woman from Pakistan who came here, married a man she didn’t know – it was an arranged marriage – and only found out about it and from their children. As a result of this whole thing, I went to her daughter’s wedding in Chantilly, Virginia, two weeks ago. I was probably one of about 10 non-Muslims… it was this great experience that I would never have had and my husband had – and he never would have.”

She has since shared culinary conversations with a Cuban woman who, after fleeing the Castro regime, “had a really interesting perspective on what’s going on in our political climate in this country.”

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Last week she cooked with a neighbor who is originally from Brazil.

“I enjoy cooking with people,” said Wagner, “but I firmly believe that it’s the stories that emerge while cooking. Cooking is the vehicle to connect… to find that common ground and that common humanity. And that’s why I enjoy doing these different projects so much.”

So where does she find all these new acquaintances to walk, talk and cook with?

“It’s a bit of word of mouth,” she said. “A couple of women reached out to me and I organized hikes and then they shared their experiences and then other people got in touch.”

Many were just starting out hiking and had never hiked the Appalachian Trail; They saw it as a personal challenge, said Wagner.

“And of course I’ve written about nature and how it’s changed over time,” she said. “But really, the essence of the blog was to highlight this woman’s story. And I think through the process I became a much better listener…I really focused on what they were saying and I was like, ‘Oh, that’s a nugget I want to blog about.’”

Hiking with these women also gave her an insight into their different perspectives. Some were politically conservative, others were not. Wagner was “just trying to sit in the middle and really hear their stories” and maybe understand “how did they get to where they were?”

Prime Time for Women continues to sponsor group activities – including a reunion hike in June for last year’s participants, which helped raise money for Micah’s Backpack, which provides food for children, in conjunction with Hagerstown’s Hunger and Hope Walk Area Religious Council.

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The Prime Time for Women television show has been indefinitely paused with the pandemic, although it is still available on Antietam Broadband. Will it come back?

“Maybe,” said Wagner.

“What I want to do now, I think, is I want to highlight women entrepreneurs of a certain age and get them involved and give them a chance to talk about their stories… I read this statistic that says the median age of female entrepreneurs in the US is like 43 – they’re ready for the next thing.

“That’s definitely what ‘Prime’ is – that ‘I’ve got more work to do’ idea. And maybe now I have some time to focus on myself.’

“And I think the majority of women don’t give themselves that space until they reach a certain age, but I don’t think it can’t be young.”

Wagner’s daughter, for example, postponed her admission to law school after the COVID outbreak and got involved in Washington’s Fair Housing Program during that gap year — and realized law school wasn’t the direction she really wanted to go.

“I would say she’s in her prime,” Wagner said. She is now doing a thesis in a different field.

“That would never have happened without this break,” said Wagner, but “I think for many women this break only comes when the children leave the house.”

Maybe call it a second chapter. Or even a third. For now, Wagner is back involved with Meritus Health’s Walking to Wellness program, making connections between participants.

And that has become a mission.

“When you have a purpose, your life has more meaning,” she said. “There’s a quote, it’s like the meaning of life is to find your passion; The meaning of life is to give it as a gift.”

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