Prime Time for Women founder finds ways to connect

HAGERSTOWN, Md. — Her research into healthy aging convinced Bernadette Wagner long ago that women who connect with each other are healthier, happier and more productive.

So four years ago, she founded a nonprofit organization designed to foster those relationships for women in their “prime.”

“When we founded Prime Time for Women, it was this idea based on the science that social connections have a greater ability to improve physical health, emotional well being and longevity than diet and exercise combined,” Wagner said during a recent interview at her Hagerstown home.

“And it was kind of like, OK, so how do you do that in real life? How do you make those connections? Prior to the pandemic, we were doing lots of group programming — we did belly dance classes, and we did the Prima Donna dancers, which was a hip-hop group for women over 50” and other activities.

By 2019, she’d developed a TV program by the same name for Antietam Broadband. Wagner, a former Washington County Board of Education member, was a natural. She recorded 20 shows in two seasons, featuring local women in each episode.

But as with everything else, COVID-19 required alterations in how Prime Time for Women would function.

“We really had to shift to outdoor and more one-on-one stuff,” she said. And Wagner’s “Year of Hikes” blog was born.

The premise was simple — beginning in January 2021, Wagner would take 52 weekly hikes with 52 different women on the same section of the Appalachian Trail.

They’d spend that time walking and talking, and Wagner would learn a little about each of her companions and share their stories in the blog.

“One of the things I learned when I was hiking is that — I coined this phrase, I don’t know if it’s a real phrase or not — but I called it ‘trail intimacy.’ When you’re walking, you know, your breathing kind of catches up and syncs, and your footsteps fall in a rhythm because you’re trying to stay near the person as you’re talking and walking. And I think that there’s this calming effect.

“And I think that there was the ability to share on a more intimate level, partly because you weren’t looking eye-to eye.”

Now, she’s connecting through another activity: cooking.

“For this year, we’re doing a blog called Cultures, cooking and connections,” she said. “And each month I’m cooking with a different woman from a different ethnic background.

“I love to cook and I love to explore different ethnic foods,” Wagner said. “So I thought what if, instead of reading a darn cookbook by myself, I cooked with women who do this all the time and know the history behind it, and could share their cultures and their stories?”

So in January, she shared a kitchen with a woman whose background was Slovakian, but grew up in Pennsylvania coal country.

“I had never made homemade pasta before. I thought about it, but I never had done it … she said, ‘Do you have a pasta maker?’ I said no. She said ‘I’ll bring mine.’ And so it was this whole experience that I would have never done.

“And then I cooked with a woman from Pakistan who came here, married a man that she didn’t know — it was an arranged marriage — and just got to hear about that and her children. As a result of that whole whole thing, two weeks ago I went to her daughter’s wedding down in Chantilly, Va. I was probably one of like, 10 non-Muslims … it was this great experience that I would have never had, and my husband had — and he would have never had it.”

Since then, she’s shared culinary confabs with a woman from Cuba, who, having fled the Castro regime, “really had an interesting perspective on what’s going on in our political climate in this country.”

Last week, she was cooking with a neighbor who’s originally from Brazil.

“It’s fun for me to cook with people,” Wagner said, “but I really do believe that it’s the stories that come out while we’re cooking. The cooking is the vehicle to connect … to find that common ground and that shared humanity. And so for me, that’s why I like doing these different projects.”

So where does she find all these new acquaintances to walk, talk and decoct with?

“It’s a little bit of word of mouth,” she said. “A couple of women reached out to me and I set up hikes, and then they posted about their experience, and then other people reached out.”

Many were just getting into hiking and hadn’t been on the Appalachian Trail; they saw it as a personal challenge, Wagner said.

“And, of course, I wrote about the natural world and how it changed over time,” she said. “But really, the gist of the blog was highlighting that woman’s story. And I think through the process, I became a much better listener … I was really focused on what they were saying and thinking, ‘Oh, that, that’s a nugget I want to put in the blog.‘”

Hiking with these women also gave her a glimpse into their varied perspectives. Some were politically conservative while others were not. Wagner “was just trying to sit in the middle ground and really hear their stories,” and maybe understand “how did they get to where they were?”

Prime Time for Women still sponsors group activities — including a reunion hike in June for last year’s participants that helped raise money for Micah’s Backpack, which provides food for children, in conjunction with the Hagerstown Area Religious Council’s Hike for Hunger and Hope.

The Prime Time for Women television show went on an indefinite hiatus with the pandemic, although it’s still available from Antietam Broadband. Will it come back?

“Maybe,” Wagner said.

“What I want to do now, I think, I want to highlight female entrepreneurs of a certain age and bring them on and give them a chance to talk about their stories … I read this statistic that the average age of female entrepreneurs in the U.S. is like 43 — they’re ready for the next thing.

“That’s definitely what ‘prime’ is — this idea that ‘I have more to do. And maybe now I have a little bit of time to focus on me.’

“And I think that for the majority of women, they don’t give themselves that space until they are of a certain age, but I don’t think that it can’t be young.”

Wagner’s daughter, for example, deferred her admission to law school after COVIID hit, and during that gap year got involved in the Fair Housing Program in Washington — and discovered law school wasn’t the direction she really wanted to go.

“I would say she’s in her prime,” Wagner said. She’s pursuing graduate work in a different field now.

“That would have never happened without this pause,” Wagner said, but “I think for a lot of women, you don’t get that pause until your kids leave the house.”

Call it a second chapter, perhaps. Or even a third. Right now, Wagner is involved with Meritus Health’s Walking to Wellness program, again, making connections between the participants.

And that’s become a mission.

“When you have a purpose, your life is more meaningful,” she said. “There’s a quote, it’s something like the purpose of life is to find your passion; the meaning of life is to give it away.”