Episode Nine

Where grace happens How a corporate recruiter found meaning helping people in recovery

Margo Walsh with a group of her MaineWorks employees on November 18, 2016. Photograph by Joanne Arnold

An extended audio version of this story can be heard on Episode 9 of Work in Progress, Slack’s podcast about the meaning and identity we find in work.

Nearly 20 years later, Margo Walsh still remembers the moment, sitting in a rehab facility in Portland, Maine, like it was yesterday.

Walsh was smoking a cigarette and thinking about her life — about the bruises on her body that came from falling down the stairs drunk, about her liver count, which she just learned that at 32 was that of an old man, and how it was finally time to admit, after drinking for more than half of her life, that she had a problem.

A tiny window in the room looked out on sky filled with steel gray clouds, and it had just started to snow. Suddenly, a shaft of light came through the window and flooded the room with a bright glow, and Walsh was overcome with a feeling she had never felt before. It was a feeling of great calm and of letting-go.

“I have never felt that absolute a sense of peace,” she recalls. “Christmas Day 1997, was my moment of absolute clarity.”

That’s when Walsh’s recovery truly began. It would be a long road, one that would involve her leaving a high-powered corporate recruiting career on Wall Street and finding her calling by starting a business helping people in recovery get back to work.

The men Walsh employs at her company, MaineWorks, are an entirely different clientele than the Ivy League graduates she used to recruit when she worked at Goldman Sachs. They are convicted felons and drug addicts, and she wouldn’t have it any other way.

Walsh with her team. Image courtesy of Margo Walsh
“I would rather work with the intensity of the broken place. The vulnerable. The outcast,” she says. “Because that’s where grace happens, at the absolute bottom.”

Where it began

Walsh grew up in Cumberland, Maine, one of six children. Her parents were Irish immigrants who drank a lot. They were also medical doctors who cared about others.

“Both of my parents were very kind and altruistic,” she says. “I have an incredible sense of connection to humanity.”

From a young age, Walsh knew she wanted to help people. On family trips, she used to press her face against the car window and imagine the lives of the people inside the houses she passed. She read psychology books and dreamed of becoming a psychologist.

Her addiction also began in childhood. Sweets were forbidden at home, but she used to cram sugar cubes into her mouth and binge on candy.

“That is the basis of my alcoholism,” she says. “Stuffing an incredible amount of sugar, needing it desperately, and then going home and lying about it.”

At 15, Walsh discovered wine. She drank for the next 17 years, through college, during her time at Goldman Sachs and into her next role as a recruiter for a management consulting firm. She drank in the beginning of her marriage and after she had her first son, right up until one terrible drunken night landed her in rehab.

Building a bridge

After her moment of clarity in 1997, Walsh stayed sober and returned to her husband, young son, and corporate job in Connecticut. But she was a changed person. She had worked for years to create the life she had, but she was filled with feelings of shame and of being an “imposter” everywhere but in her recovery support meetings.

“I couldn’t believe there was actually a place where you could show up and be absolutely broken and be welcomed,” she says.
Photograph by Joanne Arnold

In 2000, Walsh and her husband moved their family to Maine so she could be closer to her ailing father. She spent much of the following decade as a stay-at home mom and as a volunteer leading recovery support groups at the local jail and at a shelter for alcoholics.

One day, Walsh heard a famous lawyer give a talk about the importance of hiring convicted felons, and she had the idea to use her recruiting skills to help felons and addicts transition to a more stable life.

She started MaineWorks in 2011, and chose her company’s logo very intentionally. It’s a bridge.

Walsh meets with U.S. Senator Susan Collins to discuss the MaineWorks mission with her MaineWorks colleague Kelly Murphy Luce in July. Image courtesy of Margo Walsh

“I feel like my role in life is to facilitate transition,” she says.

And every weekday, Walsh fulfills that role by rising at 5 a.m. to drive those attempting to better their lives to work at construction sites. It gives her purpose and belonging.

“It replaces church,” she says.

Work in Progress story produced by Mio Adilman.

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