By Elaine Pofeldt
After earning a bachelor’s degree in theater and communications, Helen Butleroff-Leahy landed a dream job -- kicking up her heels as a Rockette at Radio City Music Hall. She loved the years she spent dancing, then choreographing and producing off-Broadway shows. Even back then, though, in those rich, rewarding days, there was a foreshadowing of the change that would upend her work life in a most delightful way decades later. While her fellow dancers were flipping through Glamour between performances, Butleroff-Leahy was diving into medical journals on nutrition, fascinated by physiology and health.
By her fifties, Butleroff-Leahy had another, very practical, reason to consider reimagining her life: many of her connections had left the musical theater world and it was getting harder to find work. “I realized I couldn’t go on forever as a choreographer and director,” she says.
She wanted a new career that would be in demand for years to come, and she thought of her passion for nutrition. In the battle against obesity, healthy eating would always play a starring role. Butleroff-Leahy considered medical school, but crossed it off the list because of the years of schooling involved – too late in life to undertake all of that, she felt -- opting instead for a graduate program in nutrition at New York University. She enrolled first in the prerequisite program to complete all the necessary science and math courses, then completed three years of work for a master’s degree, culminating in a year-long internship at New York Presbyterian-Weill Cornell Medical Center.
There was no doubt Butleroff-Leahy was biting off a super-size challenge, as she spent many a late night poring over organic chemistry textbooks. And it took some humility to start at the bottom in a new career. One course required her to serve students and clean dishes at the NYU cafeteria. “You have to say, ‘I’m going to do everything it takes,” she says.
The guiding light that led her through the years of schooling was the brilliant notion of merging her two careers. Working with a mentor, she came up with the concept for a musical that would teach kids about healthy eating and exercise. My Plate! received raves when she staged it for the first time at NYU.
After graduation, Butleroff-Leahy took her show on the road, forming a nonprofit, The Nutrition and Fitness Education Initiative, to bring My Plate! into New York City schools. The $30,000 per year she’s raised from a family foundation and small government grants has brought her 45-minute show to 56 schools in the past eight years, often in low-income neighborhoods where the challenge to find healthy fare and eat right is high.
For the second half of the show, the kids in the audience join the performers on stage to drive the healthy-eating lessons home. “They’re little sponges,” Butleroff-Leahy says. “They really, really respond and take the nutrition message home. They go to the supermarket with their parents and tell me all the things that change in their family lives.”
Now 66, Butleroff-Leahy is at an age when many people are slowing down. Not her. She’s still thinking big, working on plans to take My Plate! performances national, starting with Los Angeles. Between raising funds and producing the musical, she also sees five to 10 nutrition clients a week. “I don’t believe in retirement. I think it’s important to feel you’re a productive member of society, whether it’s through volunteer work or a job. I think you’re happier.”
Her husband, Robert Leahy, a psychotherapist, who supported her schooling both emotionally and financially, agrees. “We feel like we’re just starting,” Butleroff-Leahy says. “That’s a good way to feel. You just have to find the right niche for yourself.”
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During her internship, Butleroff-Leahy often got up at down and studied until two a.m. – and the sleeplessness wore on her. “I was probably risking my health by overdoing it. My husband was very concerned about me that year.” In retrospect, she wishes she’d scaled back her hours a bit.
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“If you want to get a job, get computer skills,” says Butleroff-Leahy, who makes sure she keeps up with any technology related to her practice.