Cara Wasden's face lights up with her signature smile as she describes the morning's hike with a group of fourth-grade students at Bouverie Preserve in Glen Ellen. "The kids love discovering nature, and I give them a very dynamic, &‘hands-on' experience," says Wasden, who works as a volunteer guide at the preserve.
Her boundless enthusiasm and excitement are evident in how she engages with people and her quick smile puts you at ease. But those who knew Wasden when she was a child growing up in the Central Valley would never recognize her in this outgoing adult.
Daily life as a young child was out of her control. She was plagued with physical tics and uncontrollable movements, and reading, understanding and retaining information was very difficult. Living in a rural area, proper diagnosis of her condition eluded Cara and her family, and, despite her symptoms, medical professionals failed to recognize her disorder — Tourette's Syndrome.
Tourette's Syndrome is a baffling medical disorder with disturbances in motor function and behavior that often is misdiagnosed in children and adolescents. For Cara, with each manifestation of her condition, she turned further inward in silence. "I was terribly shy and scared," she recalls, "I had no self esteem. I couldn't speak to a soul." In her teens, she and her family finally found out that she had Tourette's and that her father had a very mild version as well.
In her last year of college, she took a theater class and to her surprise, found that she loved it.
"It's like &‘American Idol,'" she said. "When I'm on stage, I don't have a care in the world."
After graduating with a degree in Human Development and Early Childhood Education, Wasden was faced with making a career choice. A friend mentioned that there was an opening for tour guides at the Hearst Castle: "He said, &‘It's just like theater.' So I applied and got the job."
Wasden was determined to overcome the challenges that come with Tourette's, and utilized what she terms "strategies," or ways she's found to work around her mental and physical challenges, to function to the best of her abilities. With hard work she succeeded, and went on to become a night time tour guide at Alcatraz.
Marriage took her to Petaluma, where her husband's family lived. Continuing her quest for personal growth, she took another leap and joined Petaluma Toastmasters, an organization that teaches public speaking and leadership skills. Not one to hide her medical condition, Wasden included a brief description of Tourette's in her first speech to the group. "People were incredibly receptive," she notes. "I felt supported and it helped me have the courage to go on and learn to be a confident public speaker."
As she worked on overcoming her deep-seated childhood fears, she was also having to contend with another medical issue—that of continuous, painful headaches that started 17 years ago and got progressively worse, draining her energy and putting her in a mental haze. "Tourette's symptoms were nothing compared to this," said Wasden. "I try to do all the important things early in the day before I lose the strength to function well."
This indomitable spirit has had an effect on those who know her. Taryn Obaid, a member of Toastmasters, regards Wasden as a mentor. "Cara has an unshakable positive outlook that you cannot help but assume," Obaid said. "She's very supportive in a way that honors people's unique individuality and you can see her continue to &‘up' her game as she moves into new territory and reaches out to encourage and advance others."
Read all of the PD's fire coverage here