All in the Family

Relatives Share Success in Bodywork Careers

By Rebecca Jones

For the Sopranos, the family business was rubbing people out. For the Van Kampens, the Olivers, the Tragers, and the Benkerts, the family business is … well, just rubbing people. They’re among the many families who’ve discovered that massage therapy is not only a family-friendly career, it’s a career that can also involve the whole family. Here’s a look at how four families handle the challenges and blessings that come with being part of a multiple-therapist household.

The Van Kampens

Clients of Van Kampen Massage & Wellness, in Clinton, Iowa, can book a massage with Pat Van Kampen, or his wife, Colleen. Or some may just ask for E 1-7.

The Es are the Van Kampens’ seven daughters: Erin, 32; Erica, 30; Elisa, 28; Emily, 26; Eve, 25; Eilene, 22; and Elizabeth, 20.

Only the four youngest Es work at the family studio, but all seven are licensed massage therapists and grew up working in the family business—as receptionists and office help, then as therapists.

“One by one, as they came of age after having graduated from high school, we offered them the opportunity to go to massage school. But we never wanted to pressure them,” Pat says. They did pay half the cost of massage education for each daughter.

They all accepted the offer. Four  have college degrees in addition to their massage training, but they’re all practicing MTs now.

“I considered doing other things,” says Erin Norin (E1 because she’s the eldest), who now has her own practice, Acacia Wellness, in Cedar Falls. “I have a bachelor’s degree [in social work], but I worked as a massage therapist while I was getting my degree and I fell in love with it. The nice thing about being a massage therapist is you can bring whatever interests you into your practice.”

The Van Kampens’ interest in massage therapy started simply as a means to better health.

“Colleen and I came from very traditional backgrounds in medicine,” Pat says. “I was a cardiology technician and Colleen was a registered nurse. We thoroughly enjoyed those careers. But as our family grew, we started taking some courses in alternative therapies. We wanted to do things to be proactive in regards to our health.”

By the late 1980s, Pat felt he’d come to a crossroads in his career. He wanted different challenges. Massage therapy seemed a perfect option.

He enrolled in the Iowa School of Natural Therapeutics, where he studied for a year and a half. Colleen soon followed him.

In 1988, they opened their business and began educating a conservative Midwestern town about the benefits of massage therapy. Pat and Colleen estimate they’ve each given more than 30,000 massages.

They also introduced their daughters to the practice, Pat says, “before they even had a thought about becoming massage therapists. It was part of their health regimen growing up. There would be evenings in our home where all seven would be lined up, one in front of the other, doing neck and shoulder work on each other under our instruction.”

Members of the extended Van Kampen family have also spent time working in the business. Pat says he’s been blessed to have good employees, regardless of lineage, but he takes special joy in the family connection. “There’s no better associate you can find for a business than one whose last name is on the sign,” he says.

Colleen acknowledges that not everything is always rosy in a family business. “We do have moments of disagreement,” she says. “But we have frequent family meetings and office meetings. When we have problems, we’re all very capable of expressing our emotions and problems, bringing them to the table, and resolving them quickly. We’ve raised our children to express themselves.”

One of the keys to making the business run smoothly is that each therapist is an independent contractor. “The girls each have their own client base,” Colleen says. “They’re each in their own massage room. They get to be their own boss in that regard.”

As far as family dynamics, they’ve just gotten easier with time. “Oh, gosh yes, my older sisters are bossy,” admits Eve, E5. “But the older we get, the better friends we’ve gotten to be.”

Eve combines her massage therapy practice with a freelance graphic design career. “I keep a good balance,” she says. “We all do about four days a week at work, then we have time for our hobbies and our families. It works out perfectly.”

Eileen, E6, had her first child at age 19. She’s found that massage therapy is an ideal career for a young mom.

“When I was a little girl, anytime I was sick, the first thing mom would do is grab her bottle of oil and massage my feet and scalp,” she says. “I decided to go into it to help me work my way through college, but now I love massage therapy so much I never felt the need to go to school after that. It’s such a comfort to know I can work, make a decent amount, and be with my family.”

Pat says being the only male in a family with eight women has made him realize what a fortunate man he is.

“I am so proud of my daughters and the way they’ve taken on the challenges of being involved in the business,” he says. “I’m old school; I’m meat-and-potatoes massage therapy. The new things that the business needs to be exposed to ... the girls work on—not just for us, but for their own business as well. It’s their business. They’re involved in the challenges of marketing, in new challenges, new therapies. The more they do, the more Mom and Dad back off a little. And they’ve proved themselves over and over.”

Derek and Ephraim Oliver
Derek Oliver, 57, had been doing massage therapy since 1992, and in all that time he’d only had one business partner. The arrangement didn’t work out.

But when his youngest son approached him about the possibility of joining him in the massage business, he thought, “Why not?”

“He just wanted to follow in  Dad’s footsteps,” Derek says. “We’ve been working together for two years now, and it’s been great.”

Ephraim Oliver, 22, is the only one of his siblings to follow his father into massage therapy in East Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania. He thinks that’s because he’s seven years younger than his next-oldest sibling. “Most of the others were out or leaving the house by the time he started doing massage,” he says. “But when I was growing up, that was the main job I remember him doing.”

The younger Oliver went to trade school to study heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC), but soured on the hours HVAC technicians keep. 

With Dad’s blessing and assistance, Ephraim went to massage school. Since then, father and son have taken neurosomatic massage training together, and enjoy attending seminars and continuing education classes as partners.

Today, both men have built their own clientele base, with Ephraim specializing in hospice massage, as well.

But they acknowledge that it was difficult working together at first. “For the longest time, Ephraim was frustrated because he was having to live on my reputation,” Derek says. “He was known as ‘Derek’s son,’ instead of him in his own right. But he soon started picking up more and more clients on his own, and doing more hospice massage. Now he’s got his own reputation.”

Ephraim now feels like he’s his father’s equal in technique, and he’s delighted that they can see each other’s clients, if necessary. 

Derek says he and his son have found that they have different strengths, which complement each other. “Learning how to run a business while being a good technician is a challenge,” he says. “We spend so much time learning our trade, and I’m good at that. But I’m a very poor businessperson. I’m poor at computers, poor at organizing a business. Ephraim is good at those things, but has a harder time communicating with people.”

For all of that, they’re both clear who the boss is. “That would be my mom, Margaret Oliver,” Ephraim says. “Technically, dad is the president, but she really handles everything.”

Larry and Stephanie Trager

It was 1998 when Larry Trager walked into the chiropractor’s office where he rented space for his massage therapy practice and noticed his landlord chatting with a young woman.

The chiropractor introduced him to Stephanie, also a massage therapist, who would be sharing the massage room.

“My first thought was, ‘Darn, I have to share,’” Larry says. “And my second thought was, ‘What a lovely person she is.’”

Six years ago, the two were married. And they’re still sharing office space in Santa Barbara, California.

Stephanie, 36, has a bachelor’s degree in nutrition and natural health sciences, and has been working as a massage therapist since 1997. Larry, 58, was trained as a financial administrator, and has been a massage therapist since 1979.

“We share the same appointment book,” Larry says. The rule: whoever isn’t booked for a massage takes care of their 5-year-old twin boys.

And when the inevitable schedule mistake happens and they double-book their massage studio, they’ve been known to move one of the clients into the boys’ bedroom and work from there. “We’re used to problem-solving together,” he says.

In addition to their massage practices, the Tragers are co-owners of Corporate Touch, the largest chair massage company in Santa Barbara County, which employs 10 therapists. Stephanie trains the staff; Larry is operations manager. “We feel blessed to have this business together because we work so well together,” Stephanie says. She says their greatest challenges involve the logistics of parenting.  “Now we have to figure out who’s caring for the children, who’s seeing clients and who’s taking care of Corporate Touch. If there’s one issue, that’s it: working out the boundaries.”

Larry adds, “If anything, here’s the pitfall: if her practice gets extremely busy, then it’s challenging for me to get enough work done managing the chair massage company, because of the child care situation. We do have 16-18 hours of paid child care per week, but after that, one or the other parent takes care of the children.”

Larry says that when the opposite occurs—when his massage practice heats up—Stephanie relaxes into the flow of family life. “She’s a wonderful homemaker, and when she’s not working, her energy flows into nurturing our family. She’s a fabulous cook.”

He says being married to a fellow massage therapist has been a blessing to him both physically and emotionally. “Pain happens in life,” he says. “When one of us is really hurting, we have the ability to deeply nurture each other ... It deepens our love for each other, to be there when the other is really hurting and touch is just the thing.” Stephanie agrees. “Initially, him being a massage therapist was an attractive quality,” she says. “It showed me this person had similar values to me. Today, we still love talking about the body and teaching each other new techniques.”

Karen Benkert, Michelle Paul, and Aricka Johnson

Karen Benkert had taught preschool and worked as a part-time secretary for her husband, a building contractor, while also home schooling her two daughters, Michelle Paul and Aricka Johnson.

But several years ago a bout with uterine cancer helped her to decide a life-changing career move was in order.

“I had six surgeries in just a couple of years,” says Karen, 46, of Payson, Arizona. “I developed an autoimmune response, and my body no longer wanted to function. Massage therapy was something I sought out to do instead of taking steroids.”

Astounded at the beneficial results, she decided she would like to learn how to do massage therapy herself.

Knowing that her daughter, Michelle, had earlier expressed an interest in reflexology, she proposed that they might take classes in massage therapy—together.

For the next year and a half, the two commuted from Payson to Tempe, nearly two hours away, to attend the Southwestern Institute of Healing Arts. And often as not, Aricka carpooled along, since she was taking classes at the neighboring Southwestern Institute of Natural Esthetics.

Karen and Aricka graduated from their respective schools in October 2005, and Michelle—whose pregnancy slowed her down just a bit—graduated a few months later.

Early this year, the three of them opened a business together in an old house that the girls’ father spent two years renovating. Karen and Michelle provide massage therapy, while Aricka offers facials, body treatments, waxing, and permanent makeup.

“Going to school with my mom was pretty cool,” says Michelle, 25. “It didn’t feel like I was alone. It was nice to be able to practice on her at home. That helped me a lot.”

Both mother and daughter acknowledge that it was unsettling to have mom go from being the teacher to being a fellow student. “It was kind of weird to see her studying, (with) us learning the same things,” Michelle says. “But it wasn’t bad at all. And if I had any questions, she could still be my teacher a little bit. She could explain it to me. Or vice versa.”

Karen views the opportunity to study with her daughters—and then to go into business with them—as nothing short of a miracle.

“I had been so sick, and sometimes we would be so tired,” she says. “Studying things like pathology, physiology, and anatomy, it was crazy sometimes. But we would quiz each other on the drive down to the valley.”

Now that they’re in business together, the women say maintaining a clear line of communication is critical. The women work by appointment only, and both Michelle and Aricka maintain day jobs as well. Both are certified nursing assistants—Aricka at a hospice and Michelle at a care center. That leaves Karen to see to the day-to-day running of the business.

“I realize not all situations work out as well as ours has,” Karen says. “I tend to be organized as far as making sure we have all the details worked out so there is no miscommunication. I just make it clear what I expect from them, and I try to get feedback from them.”

Karen adds, “I do think we’re blessed. We’re a family that does work well together.”              


Rebecca Jones is a Denver-based freelance writer. Contact her at