Dicy McCullough: Abbi Heilig leaves corporate world for greater adventures

  • Posted: Sunday, January 26, 2014 12:31 a.m.
Abbi Heilig waves from the peak of Mt. Kilimanjaro at 20,000 feet.
Abbi Heilig waves from the peak of Mt. Kilimanjaro at 20,000 feet.

After graduating from West Rowan High School in the class of 2000, Abbi Heilig was excited about joining the Wolfpack at N.C. State. She wanted to study engineering but turned her interests toward science when inspired by a professor in organic chemistry.

Interested in health and “wellness,” Abbi found the more she learned about the molecular make-up of food, the more she realized you are what you eat. She graduated from N.C. State in 2004 with a bachelor of science degree in food science and biomanufacturing and a desire to help people live a healthier and more conscious way of life.


Knowing she had to make a living in order to help people, Abbi took a position as a sales representative with a pharmaceuticals company in Charlotte. She made enough money in that position to buy a house, a car and have extra money to put in the bank. When a promised transfer to Hawaii didn’t materialize after two years, she quit and moved there herself.

Most people, including her parents, were wondering what she was thinking. Abbi, on the other hand, somehow knew things would work out. Sure enough they did, or so she thought at the time. She had enough money in the bank to last three months, and when she was down to her last $30, she found her next job. Even though she seemed content on the outside, she felt restless inside, knowing there was something missing from her life.

It was after a move to San Diego that Abbi came to the realization her true happiness wasn’t in a 9-to-5 corporate job, but in helping people. In San Diego, she trained to become a yoga instructor, incorporating meditation into her practice. Knowing her calling was to spread the message of health and wellness around the world, Abbi began looking for a way to work and travel.

A friend suggested she would make a good yachti. When Abbi shared this with me, I looked at her and said, “What’s a yachti?” Abbi laughed and said, “A yachti is someone who works on a luxury yacht, usually with seven other crew members, taking care of the needs of the guests onboard. To be a yachti, a person has to take a one-week class at a cost of about $1,000.”

Taking the plunge, Abbi left San Diego in February 2012, selling all her possessions, including her car. She traveled straight to Florida to take the class. In addition, she read books and watched videos on subjects such as how to tie knots in order to be better prepared for future job opportunities. Since then, she has been on four yachting trips including trips to the Caribbean, the East Coast, South Pacific and Southeast Asia.

Between those yachting adventures, Abbi managed to slow down enough to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro. Flying from Charlotte the day after Christmas 2012, it was only two days after landing in Tanzania, Africa, that she and several friends along with several tour guides began the climb. Wondering how much experience she had for that ambitious climb, I was surprised when she said she didn’t have any mountain climbing experience, only camping trips with her dad.

Not letting that stop her, and having confidence the right equipment and her experience outdoors with her dad were enough, Abbi set off for an adventure of a lifetime. It turned out to be a life-changing event in the sense that Abbi found her strength within. She said there were plenty of times over the seven-day climb she wanted to give up, but didn’t. The only way she can describe it is to say she just kept putting one foot in front of the other. When she thought she couldn’t take another step, she began repeating, “I can do this, I can do this,” and also began praying.

After five days of climbing, everyone was excited to reach the top only to be disappointed by a total white-out. In other words, they couldn’t see the hand in front of their face. Tired but excited at the same time, they made the slow and treacherous climb down. A wrong step could mean falling off the mountain.

Although climbing the mountain was a highlight for Abbi, another highlight was making a connection with children and teachers at an orphanage in Arusha, Tanzania. Abbi made that connection through the organization, The Foundation for Tomorrow. With over a million children in orphanages in Tanzania, this organization matches up volunteers to help train and assist in different ways.

With Abbi’s expertise, she taught classes on eating healthy, growing your own foods and yoga. The program was so well received, teachers at the orphanage plan to continue using the new found knowledge they learned.

Asked how she felt about her daughter’s worldwide adventures, Abbi’s mom, Debbie Heilig, said although she does worry, in the final analysis, you have to let your children go. Abbi credits her mom and dad for giving her a wonderful childhood with lots of opportunities to grow and develop. She sees those years as laying the foundation for giving her the strength and courage to follow her dreams.

Abbi’s dreams of traveling the world may not be everyone’s vision of fulfillment, but for Abbi it has been. Although to the outside world, she looked as if she had it made with a good job, a corporate position and everything money could buy, Abbi will be the first to tell you money can’t buy happiness. Asked if someday she plans to settle down in one place, she said, “Maybe,” but for now, she’s content with helping people by spreading the message of “wellness” wherever she goes.

I suppose the lesson to be learned from Abbi’s story is that sometimes in life, it’s necessary to take risks to accomplish a goal or calling, even when friends and family don’t understand. As Americans, we don’t have to search too long in our history to find a number of risk takers, including George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Ben Franklin and more recently, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Knowing Abbi credits her parents for giving her the tools for independence and finding the strength to stand on her own two feet, I wonder what kind of parents those risk-takers had.

Now that Abbi has enough experience as a yachti to be a captain, if you ever have her for your captain, just sit back and enjoy the ride. Not only are you in good hands, but there’s no doubt you’ll have a once-in-a-lifetime experience. After all, how many people do you know who have climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro and lived to tell about it? I rest my case.

Dicy McCullough’s books are available in local bookstores, Amazon.com and Barnes and Noble. Contact her at 704-278-4377.

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