By KATIE WATTS / Petaluma Towns Correspondent
At age 40, Heather Mackin knows what’s next in her life – “I want to make a difference in my community,” she says.
Mackin grew up in San Francisco. Her parents and grandparents worked in the furniture business. “I called myself the Eloise of the furniture mart,” she says, referring to the “Eloise” books about the spunky little girl who lives in the Plaza Hotel.
“I ran that place,” she continues, smiling. “I designed my dream home, folded fabrics, schlepped furniture and,” she poses with hand on chin, “sat in the front window pretending I was a mannequin.”
Mackin admits while she was smart, “I did lousy in school and got into trouble. I had no focus or discipline, didn’t want to go to college, became this rowdy punk rocker. I wanted to be different but respected.” She struggled, still struggles, with that, she admits.
For two years she was part of San Francisco’s rave culture. “We thought we could move mountains with love, peace and music.”
When the scene deteriorated into drugs, she moved to Arizona and studied interior design and business administration. She admits, “I knew I wasn’t a pure creative, but I had the ability to speak the language and organize. I could herd the cats of creative energy.”
Mackin aspired to more than residential design. “I wanted to do commercial, to have more impact – besides, I don’t have the heart, or the tact, to tell someone something they love in their home is ugly.”
Although she did well enough in college to be accepted into the prestigious masters of architecture program at Arizona State University, she had also met a man and fallen in love.
“I picked love over career,” she says. So they were married, and moved to the city he’d come from, San Diego. “We were known for our parties; when you invited us over we brought the color to the house.”
They bought a house, “but the economy began to tank,” she says. “I was laid off but began my own business doing contract work.”
And then, in December of 2004 – “I felt a lump in my throat. It’s funny. You wonder if you’ll know, if you ever feel a lump and I knew, this is not normal.”
A week later, she was in surgery. Cancer had taken over her lymph nodes and there was a grapefruit-sized tumor in her chest. It was Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Four months of intensive chemotherapy followed.
“Here we were, still newlyweds, with a new house. We should have had this idyllic life, yet we were battling my cancer. It was the beginning of the end of our marriage. We were a couple of party kids and this was the opposite.”
After her chemotherapy, Mackin says, “I wanted to get pregnant. I had tasted death, if you will, and wanted to have a baby. We were both terrified – but about seven weeks after my last radiation treatment, I got pregnant.”
And then, when she was seven months pregnant, she and her husband separated. “After Ruby was born,” she says, “we tried for three years to work it out.”
When they couldn’t, she and Ruby went north to be with her mother, who had moved to Santa Rosa. Later, after the marriage was dissolved, “he moved up here to be near his daughter. Just because our marriage didn’t work didn’t mean our friendship had to go away. He is my best friend.”
Mackin found a junior designer position at Santa Rosa’s Trope Group, which offers workplace design and furniture. She did well, but when she found a more lucrative job in San Francisco, she took it. And then she left it, returning to what she now knew was home. Trope Group gladly welcomed her back and owner Christina Pratt “took me under her wing, teaching me, introducing me, nominating me for the Business Journal’s 40 Under 40.”
In San Francisco, Mackin felt like a small fish in a big pond but “when I came back, I knew I could be a much bigger fish in a smaller pond and could have an impact. I have big aspirations for Sonoma County.”
To that end, she has set her sights on becoming a member of Petaluma’s City Council. She has joined the Chamber of Commerce’s Leadership Petaluma year-long program. She was recently named to the board of Rebuilding Together.
Leadership has been an eye-opener, she says. “I am inspired by this community. There are so many nonprofits that are exclusive to Petaluma. What a special place this is. And the people in this community are amazing.
“I realized,” she says, “giving back is what I know. I can use my expertise,” she says eagerly. “I’m not afraid to ask people for favors, or invite myself places. I can walk up to strangers and introduce myself. That makes for good fundraising. “
Mackin pauses a moment. “I feel the stars have aligned: community, career and family. It’s the core of who I am. I can make a difference, I finally get what volunteering is all about. It’s taken me forty years. I’m hooked. Living here, I feel like I’ve won the lottery.”