Linda Bruce, Nicole Howlett and Alison Costanzo are leading role models in their respective careers.

Inspiring Women Living Their Dreams

Meet three women taking risks and working hard to find success in the balance between career ambitions and family life.

Linda Bruce, Nicole Howlett and Alison Costanzo are leading role models in their respective careers.
Linda Bruce, Nicole Howlett and Alison Costanzo are leading role models in their respective careers.

Many women in the past may have had difficult times balancing their career and family, but today’s women are proving it can work. Meet three ladies from our region whose unique careers enable them to live their dreams.

Linda Bruce, Owner, Soulful Prairies

Nearly six years ago, Park Ridge resident Linda Bruce and her husband, Robert, purchased 80 acres of farmland in Woodstock.

They weren’t exactly sure what they would do with the property, but Bruce wanted to build an environment with sustainability, restoration and salvage at its core.

Fast forward several years and Soulful Prairies is now a thriving place of beauty, with sweeping views of prairie and pond land, 30 acres of which are in the McHenry County Land Conservancy program. Bruce and her husband are building a house there, and a hops garden is in the works.

The farm implements green practices and encourages others to do the same. It has “grow-and-share gardens,” small plots of land which people can purchase for $50, plant whatever they want in it, and donate portions of the harvest to an area food pantry.

There are educational programs, retreats, teambuilding events, beehives, a restored 1850s log cabin and several fundraisers, such as Soul Jam and farm-to-table dinners.

Besides green practices, Soulful Prairies is harnessing the innate energy of horses to bring about change and healing in humans. Bruce believes the animals can bring about life-changing awareness, growth and healing.

Bruce holds a master’s degree in counseling and is a certified practitioner of the Equine Gestalt Method. She was involved with social work for eight years before starting Soulful Prairies.

“I partner with horses to help people in the process of seeking truth and finding their way to a clear and honest life,” she says.

Nine horses reside at Soulful Prairies – some Bruce’s, some retired and some boarding. It’s a restful place for horses and people.

Bruce manages the day-to-day operations of the farm on her own, though her husband and four children help out when able. It can be difficult, at times, to balance work and family life.

“There’s a learning curve to everything,” Bruce says. “I’ve had to learn how to delegate. I know I can’t do it all on my own. If you really want to do something, you have to follow your gut. At first it’s overwhelming, but I learned to follow my heart and not get sucked in by the bigger picture. Let failure guide you – it makes the end goal clearer.”

Passion, she says, is also important.

“To me, physical health, emotional health, balance, sustainability and connection are all what make up a full life,” she says. “When we bring each of these aspects into our awareness, we live genuine and happy lives, a ripple effect is created and the world becomes a better place.”

Nicole Howlett, Senior Primate Keeper, Brookfield Zoo

At home, she has her hands full at times with her own miniature zoo of rescued animals and four girls under the age of six – including a set of twins. But Carol Stream resident Nicole Howlett is no less passionate about her job as a zookeeper at Brookfield Zoo, in Brookfield.

Howlett majored in Anthropology when she attended University of Illinois-Chicago, where a professor suggested she intern with the Chicago Zoological Society.

That experience inspired a new passion for the zoo’s primates. Howlett eventually became a primate keeper, a job she’s had for the past 13 years.

“I’m so fascinated with the primates,” she says. “Nothing in school prepares you for the work you get to do.”

Howlett’s daily duties consist of record-keeping, performing visual primate checks, cleaning, feeding vitamins, training animals to participate in their own care and implementing positive reinforcement.

“We do a lot of enrichment, improving their quality of life and how they think and act as foragers and climbers,” Howlett says. “I am known as ‘The Enrichment Queen.’ I love coming up with devices that keep them thinking.”

She also monitors primate health and weight, and engages in public speaking related to conservation, which she hopes people will learn more about. One message she shares often is how primates around the world are dying because of habitat loss and a market for their body parts.

“In Asia, the orangutan will be extinct in 10 to 15 years if nothing is done about the current palm oil crisis,” she says. “People should pay more attention to what they are eating and what products they use with the oil. At this rate, the only place to see orangutans may be in zoos.”

If some animals were not in zoos, Howlett says, they would eventually become extinct. For example, zoos have successfully rehabilitated endangered species such as California Condors and Red Wolves, and Brookfield Zoo has a number of conservation programs underway.

Howlett says her job brings few big challenges, though it’s a position that’s not for everyone.

“The field used to be really male-dominated, but it is female-dominated now,” she says. “You really need patience for this job because the animals don’t always do what you want them to do. That’s where training is an important factor.”

When it comes to balancing her career and personal life, Howlett faces an additional set of obstacles. Her job demands work on weekends and holidays, no matter the weather. And having four daughters at home sometimes makes it difficult to attend workshops and conferences.

Her husband Eddie – whom she’s dubbed “super husband” – comes to the rescue. “He even cooks,” she adds with a chuckle.

For those interested in entering zookeeping, Howlett offers some advice.
“Don’t give up – the field is very competitive,” she says. “Be very prepared to travel where the work is.”

She also suggests volunteering with animal organizations and is a big believer in education.

“Even if zookeeping isn’t for you, doing anything from medical school to trade school, or something in between, allows you to be self-sufficient, independent and more confident,” she says. “I want my girls to be proud of me and I’m really going to encourage them to choose a career – even if it’s out of the norm – that they’ll love to do as much as I do.”

Alison Costanzo, Executive Director, St. Charles History Museum

Riverside resident Alison Costanzo became executive director of the St. Charles History Museum in early 2015.

“I was ready to be a director,” she says. “To take on challenges and grow even more.”

In her first year, Costanzo has helped to rebrand the museum, launch a new website and logo, engage in strategic planning for permanent exhibits and improve community outreach.

“The museum hadn’t changed in 15 years,” she says. “I’ve worked really hard to implement new programming, community involvement and museum relevance.”

Raised in Lisle, Costanzo initially started out as a business major at Northern Illinois University but discovered the business program was not for her.

After taking several art and museum studies classes on the side, she fell in love with museums and pursued degrees in art history and museum studies.

Following graduation, Costanzo worked at the Center for History in Wheaton, before funding was cut along with her job. Out of work for nearly 1.5 years, Costanzo eventually landed at the Lombard Historical Society as an education and Victorian site coordinator. While in that position, she helped develop educational programs, community partnerships and a Civil War re-enactment.

She continues to keep people engaged at the St. Charles museum and aims to bring the place to life, sharing the city’s secret stories.

“For many years, St. Charles was known as the Pickle Capital of the World,” she says. “There’s also great Underground Railroad history here. There are so many cool stories to tell that have never been told.”

To unveil those stories, the museum has debuted new temporary attractions, such as Civil War exhibits in the summer and textile exhibits in the winter that feature fashions from the 1850s to the 1930s.

The job doesn’t come without its challenges. Costanzo has had to sift through database information and rebuild from scratch while persuading the museum board to embrace change.

“I go a mile a minute, and I think it can be a little frightening for them,” she says. “But they are all super-excited now.”

Her husband, Steve, has been a great source of support. Both are avid Civil War re-enactors and first met in an artillery unit.

“We have a lot of fun together,” she says. “We are a great team. He really is my other half.”

She also says it helps to have mentors. Early in her career, Costanzo found two strong female influences.

“I learned so much from them,” she says. “In this day and age, being inspired by other women who encourage and build each other up – you don’t really hear about that.”

Her advice for people seeking success?

“Don’t be afraid to take risks and follow your gut,” she says. “I follow what I believe in and push through when it’s tough. Loving what you do is important because then you tend to be really good at it.”