An isolated girl becomes an educator and author

“El Nido saved my life and I think it probably saved my mother’s life too”

Dr. Tessa W., a doctor of educational psychology, has spent much of her professional career empowering individuals, and women in particular. The author of four books, Tessa was teaching women how to “lean in” long before Sheryl Sandberg. In addition to her publishing career, Dr. Tess, as she is known by her clients, has conducted hundreds of professional seminars and workshops as well as corporate coaching for clients including American Express, General Electric and Estee Lauder. Her most recent book is on resiliency, a topic that Tessa knows about firsthand.

Born in 1934, the youngest of three children, Tessa contracted rheumatic fever and suffered lung damage when she was a young girl. The family lived in Cleveland and Tessa’s doctor told her mother that if she stayed in Ohio for another year Tessa wouldn’t survive the harsh winter. The family moved west and eventually landed in Los Angeles. Severely asthmatic, Tessa’s adoring and resourceful mother left no stone unturned to help her daughter. “I don’t know how she found El Nido, but my mother was always on the forefront, like she was when she was willing to send me to El Nido. It saved my life and I think it probably saved my mother’s life too.”

At seven years of age Tessa went to live at the El Nido Lodge in Laurel Canyon, a retreat for pre-tubercular girls offering fresh air, healthy food, and recreation, and where success was measured in pounds. Tessa has memories of waking up in the fresh air surrounded by yucca plants, of attending school, and of taking her medications in the kitchen of the Lodge. She remembers when she first arrived that the Lodge was full and she stayed in the cabin with the cook and her husband, who were kind to her. By 13, Tessa was healthy and able to go home to her family in Boyle Heights. “I don’t remember exactly how long I stayed at El Nido, but it saved my life,” she adds, “and I’ve been healthy ever since.”

When Tessa first moved to Los Angeles she had to be homeschooled. When she returned home after staying at the El Nido Lodge, she was able to attend school with all the other children her age. Eventually earning her PhD in Educational Psychology and Counseling from USC, Tessa was asked by the Secretary of State of California, March Fong Eu, and the Speaker of the California State Assembly, Leo McCarthy, to serve on the Curriculum Commission for the State of California in the 1970s. Tessa made history by rejecting dozens of books that contained outdated sexist and racist stereotypes, demanding that publishers revise the texts. She explains her philosophy, “If you don’t do it, who will?”

At 81, Tessa continues to live a life of resiliency and exuberance. Married 21 years to her husband, Sam Brown, a cantor at Temple Beth Hillel, she was heartbroken when he passed away in 2009, not long after both her mother and sister passed away. After mourning for more than a year, she found herself with a choice to make – bitter or better – and Tessa chose better. With the energy of someone decades younger and an unwavering desire to help people, she continues to have a therapy/coaching practice, organize support groups and has two new projects. There’s no slowing down the indefatigable Tessa!