After Hours: Bree Sandlin

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From the outside looking in, Bree Sandlin is an achiever with a seemingly effortless approach to work/life balance, but her story is far more than that. Bree is a marketing director for Shell Lubricants, and she and her husband, Stephen, are parents of twin boys, Beck and Elliott. Her story caught my attention when her associate answered our call for human interest stories about people in the quick lube and maintenance industry doing unique things after hours. She wrote telling us about Bree’s trek up Mount Kilimanjaro in Northern Tanzania and the time she finished the Marine Corps Marathon in Arlington, Virginia.

Being a storyteller and a forever fan of strong women, I knew I couldn’t pass up a chance to chat with Bree about her adventures, so I picked up the phone. The story Bree told was wonderful, painful, awe-inspiring, eye-opening and — in the best way possible — more than I bargained for on a Thursday morning.

As we began the interview, all I really wanted to ask Bree was, “How do you do it all? Some mornings it feels like the only way I’m making it is with the help of dry shampoo and hot coffee,” However, that seemed too honest to say to someone I’d only just met. So I asked, “How would you describe yourself? What’s your approach to life?”

Bree’s reply was simple, joy-filled and rattled off her tongue so quickly you knew it was entirely genuine.

“I think I smile a lot and just try to enjoy life as it comes. It’s really hard to get me down. Life is too short not to smile, so my first objective is to go through the day with a big smile on my face,” Bree said.

She continued, and I could hear her smile through the phone.

“I’m hardworking. I work very hard and have a lot of passion for what I’m doing. The people in my office are amazing and just getting a chance to work on strong brands like Pennzoil, Quaker State and Shell Rotella is so awesome. I get to see the technology that goes into these products, and it gets me so excited to talk to customers about what we bring to the table as a company. I definitely have a lot of passion for my personal life, too. I’m a mom of eight-year-old twin boys,” Bree said.

“Oh gosh,” I said. “I’m sure that could be a feature all it’s own.”

Bree half-heartedly laughed in agreement as if to say, “If only you knew.”

At only two-days old, the Sandlin’s son, Beck, began suffering serious complications. In his first few days of life, he underwent a series of gastrointestinal surgeries that eventually lead to a stroke when he was about six-months old. As a result, Beck has severe cerebral palsy. He is wheelchair bound, nonverbal and a complete inspiration in the Sandlin’s life.

“More than anyone, Beck, keeps me smiling all day, everyday. Sure, it can add an extra layer of complications to our lives, but it also adds a lot of fun,” Bree said. “He is absolutely the most amazing person in my whole life. He teaches me everyday what perseverance and true joy look like, but I don’t do it alone. I have an amazing husband, and we have true balance at home. Stephen is a stay-at-home dad, so he in particular, takes care of my son with special needs. We really try to complement each other, and that makes it a lot easier for me to come to work everyday and do the things I need to do to get my work done.”

They say life’s biggest challenges are given to life’s biggest warriors, and in 2012, the Sandlin family faced another one of life’s challenges — and it was a big one. It began with a proverbial mountain and ended with a real one. This is Bree’s story:

“If I’m going to talk about climbing Mount Kilimanjaro and running the Marine Corps Marathon, I have to start by explaining the inspiration to even do those things,” Bree said. “In 2012, I was diagnosed with stage three breast cancer. It was what’s called ‘triple negative,’ which is an aggressive form of breast cancer. I went through treatment for one year, and it was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done in my life. On February 13, 2013, I came out on the other end. My oncologist pronounced me clear and in remission. Now, every year we celebrate what Stephen and I call our ‘cancerversary.’ We relied on the services of Livestrong during the cancer fight, and after we won, Livestrong had a fundraiser initiative. If we raised a certain amount of money, we could climb Mount Kilimanjaro with a group of like-minded individuals. Stephen loves climbing. He was a forestry major in college and absolutely loves the outdoors. I had only climbed one 14,000-foot mountain in Colorado, and that was my sole experience with climbing. I’m not going to lie, it was pretty life-changing and yet again, one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. But to me it was the ultimate celebration of life and the ultimate chance to say, ‘We overcame cancer.’ The mountain analogy goes the whole way, from relying on other people to having to go through things that are pretty unpleasant to get to the big reward at the end. Cancer was a big mountain, but we climbed it. Mount Kilimanjaro was a big mountain, but we climbed that one, too!”

After being diagnosed with cancer, Bree became especially passionate about healthy eating and exercise. She had always enjoyed running and had done a few half marathons before but never a full marathon. When the Sandlin’s second “cancerversary” came around, Bree and Stephen decided to run their first full marathon at Disney World. They took Beck and Elliott and made it a family affair. Then, Livestrong reached out and asked Bree and Stephen to run the Marine Corps Marathon in November of 2015.

“Of course we jumped at the chance to do something for the men and women who have given their lives so I could fight for mine,” Bree said. “Having that experience was pretty unbelievable as well.”

As I talked to Bree, time seemed to melt away, and I was no longer thinking about my giant to-do list at work, the laundry I needed to fold at home or what I was going to eat for lunch. You see, you talk to Bree for five minutes and you immediately sense how grateful she is for her friends, family, co-workers and life itself. Her sense of “somebody, somewhere has it worse than me” is so simple yet so revolutionary when it comes to how we approach our everyday lives.

“I can keep running, and I can keep walking. There are people out there who can’t do either, and I can’t take my ability to do those things for granted,” Bree said. “I have a quote printed out at my desk that I look at a lot. It’s by one of my favorite authors, a woman named Brené Brown. She’s written several books, but one of my favorites is called ‘Daring Greatly.’ This quote is from that book. It reads, ‘What we know matters, but who we are matters more.’ I like to remind myself of that everyday. It’s the things in our life that make us unique and different that we should be celebrating. I’m not always the smartest person in the room but I don’t have to be to make a difference. There are still things about me that can be impactful and effective.”

By the end of the conversation I wished every morning my day could start like this. As for climbing any other mountains, Bree is considering Cotopaxi in Ecuador or maybe another adventure, but what she wants to do most is inspire other people to define their own goals and realize they have the strength to reach them.

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