Intensive Care Unit Nurse Starts Candle Business to Decompress
Stephanie Aris was an intensive care unit (ICU) nurse at the Hospital of Central Connecticut in New Britain—13 miles southwest of Hartford—during the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020. Hospitals were the battlegrounds for the worst medical disaster since the 1918 influenza pandemic, which killed an estimated 50 million people worldwide.
As a registered nurse, Stephanie’s job was to provide medical care—and deal with grief and death. But no training could prepare her for what she would face during the pandemic. She was on the frontlines of misery, where bodies were fighting a deadly and little-known virus.
Bad news was everywhere. News organizations reported what seemed like excruciating details, from nurses using plastic trash bags to protect themselves because they didn’t have personal protective equipment to the images of dead bodies being carted off on stretchers in the sweltering heat of August in New York City into trailers that lacked air conditioning.
Could it get any worse? At one point, things were so abysmal that hospital administrators, medical experts, government policymakers, and medical ethicists were thinking the unthinkable: the rationing of breathing ventilators—it was like telling passengers on a sinking ship that there was no room for all of them on the lifeboats.
The crush of the pandemic at hospitals took a personal toll on Stephanie’s mental health. She needed to find comfort in a world that seemed to be falling apart. So she turned to the ancient craft of candle making, which dates back 5,000 years. She had no idea that it would change her forever.
Even as a child, I always knew that I wanted to help people.
According to Nurse.org, Connecticut’s registered nurses rank 11th in wages for the highest paying states in 2022 at $84,850. The 33,400 nurses in the state make an average hourly wage of $40.79.
Stephanie says, “Even as a child, I always knew that I wanted to help people. When I was a kid, I would always bring wounded animals like birds and other animals into my mom’s house, nurse them back to health, and then release them back into the wild. I wanted to help people in some way.”
Looking back, Stephanie, now 39, had aspirations of attending New York University or the University of California at Berkeley. But her mother was struggling with Stephanie’s younger siblings and asked her to move from New York City to Connecticut.
The only school she applied to was Southern Connecticut State University (SCSU) because her mother was living in New Haven at the time, and it was last-minute. She had the dream of premed on her mind. But she learned that doctors were not as hands-on as she wanted to be.
“When the doctors come into a patient’s room, they ask the patient a couple of questions and then leave and go on to the next patient,” said Stephanie. “The nurse is more at the bedside, taking care of the patient, helping them with medications.” With this knowledge, she would pivot toward nursing.
She earned her Bachelor of Science in Nursing in 2012 and got her first nursing job in 2013 in a short-term rehab nursing home. From there, she went to Gaylord Hospital, a long-term rehab hospital in Wallingford, Connecticut. She would later transition into the intensive care unit (ICU), where she worked for five years.
Nurses work long hours, and Stephanie’s experience was no different. She worked 12-hour shifts at the hospital, roughly 11 hours spent with patients. Stephanie says, “it’s crazy to sit and think that nurses can do that, or that any profession works those long hours.”
Stephanie says, “I think it was mostly just the passion of it, like you have to have a love for what you’re doing to do something like that.” She treated patients who had strokes or needed dialysis, prepping for surgery, taking care of wounds, drawing blood, and assisting with surgical procedures.
I never really got used to the sadness around death but tried my best to be as accommodating as possible to the needs of the patient and the family.
She sat in on end-of-life meetings and took care of patients who were organ donors. Stephanie says, “I never really got used to the sadness around death but tried my best to be as accommodating as possible to the needs of the patient and the family. We never really have a chance to grieve because as soon as a bed is empty, we have to move on and make room for another person.”
Often, Stephanie had to shut down her emotions to get through the day. “I’ve cried many times with families, and in the bathroom by myself,” she says.
Do the Right Thing
The nursing field requires much, and it starts in school. Nurses have a broad knowledge of anatomy, physiology, science, chemistry and more. Stephanie says, “I’ve always been a nerd. I have always loved science and math and would do little science projects.” To prove her bona fides, she adds, “I grew up watching Bill Nye, The Science Guy,”—who today has over 2.9 million Instagram followers.
She says her love of academics “just came naturally.” She planned to “do better than what she saw” at home. Stephanie was the first of her mother’s family to graduate from college. As the oldest of the three siblings—two girls and one boy—“I wasn’t a problem child,” says Stephanie.
A first-generation American, Stephanie never went through the rebellious stage that most children do. Her mother was from Jamaica. “I saw all these struggles and stuff, so I kind of had to grow up faster than normal kids would.” Referring to her parents’ Jamaican heritage, she says, “Jamaican culture is strict. I didn’t want to get in trouble, so I didn’t do anything [wrong].
Stephanie’s parents broke up when she was three years old. Her mother was pregnant with her sister at the time, when she left due to allegations of physical abuse. Stephanie’s father was in the army, so they lived in North Carolina, California, and eventually ended up in Connecticut. “We were just bouncing around to [different] family members at one point.”
Most of her memories are of the Bronx, New York, where she attended elementary through high school. The family grew up on Gun Hill Road, where frequent gunshots, death, and drug dealers pervaded the neighborhood. In retrospect, “You don’t realize how crazy New York is until you actually leave,“ Stephanie comments. “You discover there are nice places in the world.”
The First Candle
“During the first wave of COVID-19, our [hospital] unit got hit badly. It was almost like a battlefield; you’re just watching people die back to back. It was a lot mentally and emotionally.” I fell into a deep depression.” And when it started to subside, the George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter movement happened, which worsened her mental health. “I couldn’t pull myself out of this state I was in.” With a Black husband and two boys, what was happening hit her hard.
She couldn’t sleep at night. She started watching YouTube videos of soapmaking, which she says are “super relaxing.” One click on a candle-making video sparked her curiosity. Once she made her first scented candle, she felt a great relief. “I was able to pour whatever sadness I was having into that candle, and then it was gone.” The darkness hanging over her turned to light. But she had her doubts about turning it into a business.
“You know when you try to venture into new things, you always have that doubt in the back of your mind, ‘Am I going to do it right?’ ‘Am I going to mess it up?’ I had to quit those thoughts. It helped me to get out of that funk that I was in. I’ve never been the type of person that will sit and be sad. I’m always the friend that people call, and I encourage them and help them.”
She had to get herself out of the dark place she was in. “I knew I had to pull myself out of it. The Black community doesn’t talk about going to a therapist or seeking help because we think that’s a sign of weakness. I didn’t want to go down that negative rabbit hole.”
Stephanie named the business Helping Hands for Tranquility and launched her website in early August 2020. The business’s Instagram handle is StephShop2020. She says, “it’s been awesome!” There have been up and down moments. Imposter syndrome was creeping in to create doubt. But she believed she was moving in the right direction, at the right time.
I love going out to the vendor shows; that has been the most fun part of it all because we get to talk to people.
Market Research Future reported that the global scented-candle market is expected to reach $4.22 billion by 2027, including scented oil candles, fragrance infused candles and other types of specialty products. According to the National Candle Association, candles usually range from $1.99 to $35 for a large “pillar or jar” candle. Prices can go much higher. For example, Diptyque, the luxury French fragrance brand, sells some candles for $355.
“I love going out to the vendor shows; that has been the most fun part of it all because we get to talk to people.” They ask questions, and Stephanie gets to educate them on candle care. She continues to get questions about how she started the business, which gives her time to reflect on her journey.
Stephanie loves to perform research online. Her creative mind creates all kinds of candle names and scents, from Distinguished Gentleman to Breath of Fresh Air (her personal favorite) to Roselle, the Jamaica independence candle.
But marketing is her biggest challenge. “I’m learning as I go with that, and I want it to be as organic as possible.” She states, “I don’t always have the ideas or how to put the product out there.”
Marketing involves product names, scents, packaging, photographs, social media, and the overall brand experience. It’s a lot of work, and the marketplace is constantly changing with new competitors.
Helping Hands for Tranquility produces candles for $25 along with wax melts, diffusers, and sprays. Stephanie is proud to use handmade, hand-poured, soy vegetable wax blend candles made with clean, eco-friendly fragrance oils.
She frequently checks prices to make sure she is getting the best deal on vessels for candles. “I make sure that whatever companies I use for products, they have the same mission as I do,” she says. And she ensures that “Whatever the manufacturing is putting out into the world doesn’t create a bigger carbon footprint; it’s clean, safe, and not causing any toxic side effects.”
My vision is to have our own space so that people can come to a store and feel the product, touch the product, and know where we are.
It’s Bigger Than Candles
In November 2021, Stephanie left her nursing job to build her business full-time. The family has been essential in building the business to where it is today as it celebrates its second year in August 2022. Her sister, Shenique, has assisted at pop-up events. “She wants to see where this can go,” says Stephanie.
“She has been an amazing support. My husband has been amazing.” Her other siblings support her when they can. Even her mom assists by reposting on social media and bragging about the products.
Stephanie loves going to the venues, but the goal is to have a physical space. “My vision is to have our own space so that people can come to a store and feel the product, touch the product, and know where we are. In addition, she would like to expand into wholesale accounts to be more accessible for customers.
Helping Hands for Tranquility offers candle-making classes, “so it would be nice to have an actual home base where that people can come, instead of us going to venues and trying to figure out where the business can do the classes.”
Not having a steady paycheck keeps her moving forward. Her inspiration is “to leave a legacy for my kids. I enjoy it. I have so much fun making the candles, interacting with people at the markets.” She says, “There’s no choice for failure.” That’s not an option. You know New Yorkers, “We’re tough, and we have to find a way. We have to figure it out. No time for crying; that’s how I was raised.”
She does realize that her “no-room-for-failure” philosophy does put added pressure on her. “That’s been a good and bad thing.” She is learning that it is okay to fail. “But don’t stay there.” She tells her kids, “It’s okay to feel sorry for yourself for a moment. But don’t unpack there because that means you want to live there.”
Her advice is twofold: 1) Don’t be scared to seek professional help. 2) Research is the best. “Educating yourself and doing the research is the best tool you can give yourself in anything you do.”
Anthony Price is an entrepreneur, writer and publisher of Mini Books, concise stories for people who are curious about the world.