The first Communitas Health retreat was held June 20-24th, 2018, at the Commonweal Retreat Center, in partnership with four organizations (Commonweal, Power of Hope Camp, the Healing Kitchens Institute, and Kids and Caregivers) and exceeded our expectations for what an experience like this could be. The retreat brought together a diverse group of 9 teenagers living with serious chronic and life-limiting illness and their parents for 5 days of connection, learning, rest, and rejuvenation. Patient diagnoses included cancer, cystic fibrosis, spina bifida, autoimmune conditions, history of organ transplantation, and chronic pain, with the majority of participants being lower income. Thanks to charitable contributions, organizational partnerships, and staff volunteerism, the retreat was offered free of charge to all participants.
The retreat built on the successful prior Communitas Health programs and provided these teens and their caregivers with a lived experience of practicing mind-body skills, healthy lifestyle modalities, and creative/reflective practices in a community of similar peers — all with the goals of improving life quality/health outcomes, creating a sense of meaning/purpose, and reducing suffering. It was a clearly transformative experience that allowed these youth and their caregivers to shift into new ways of living, being, and connecting with others. It offered a rare, life-changing opportunity for this underserved group of kids who are often lonely, hopeless, and home-bound to connect with others like them in a natural setting, learn life and health-enhancing practices, and make meaning with their peers. It also addressed the unmet psychosocial needs of their dedicated and often exhausted caregivers.
In the retreat, these families shared deeply, laughed, and cried with one another during our facilitated mind-body groups, casual walks through the grounds, over meals, and other unprompted moments during our time together. They experienced and learned new techniques they could practice at home and hospital, such as mind-body medicine skills (including meditation, mindfulness, and guided imagery), culinary medicine practices from Healing Kitchens Institute, therapeutic yoga, qi gong, and massage. They made art and music together and soaked in the peaceful, natural surroundings of Commonweal on nature walks and silent strolls through the labyrinth. The founder of Power of Hope Camp helped us incorporate creativity and spontaneity throughout the week, with theater games, an art barn, and movement activities. In the evenings, we came together for sound bath meditations, singing, and s’mores. During downtime at the retreat, the families bonded with each other, ate nourishing meals together, relaxed on porch swings, played games, went on walks by the ocean’s edge, and basked in the utopia of a diverse, yet inclusive, loving community. By the end, we were all saying we felt like a big family and also wondering if there was a way we could live like this all the time — present, without distractions, open, and accepting.
As the director, there were many poignant moments for me: watching the summer solstice sunset over the Pacific Ocean and seeing everyone in our program tear up and hug, inspired by the beauty and peacefulness; seeing the teens spontaneously gathering to play ukulele together and sing around the grounds of Commonweal after they learned some basic ukulele skills at our one of our music workshops; witnessing our community came together in beautiful ways to support and encircle a mom who received a call from her child’s doctor regarding some upsetting health news.
My hope is that the communities that experience these retreats not only feel empowered in their own changes but feel inspired to share their new perspectives and love with those around them and the rest of the world. On the final day of the retreat, there were many tears and hugs as we said our goodbyes – but I think we all knew this was the beginning of something special, rather than the end. Since the conclusion of the retreat, the bonds have only deepened between the families, as they continue to support each other in the face of illness.
Specifically, the Healing Kitchens Institute grant funding enabled us to have a culinary expert design and execute hands-on culinary medicine workshops that were incorporated into the retreat. Our aim was to help our participants use illness as turning point to create new healthy life practices, including dietary habits, for the whole family. Two workshops were held during the retreat: one for teens and one for their caregivers. In these workshop, our participants were equipped with culinary medicine techniques and got to transform into creative chefs for the afternoon. The workshops helped inspire a love of great-tasting, non-processed, anti-inflammatory foods that will reduce risk of future illness and create healthier and happier bodies and minds. Given that the participants live with a wide range of chronic illness conditions, the culinary practices were made as universal as possible to common symptoms that cut across a wide range of conditions, general health enhancement, and illness prevention. The grant also provided funds for nourishing and health meals to our participants and staff during the retreat. Not only were the meals extraordinarily delicious, they also provided a forum for us to share and create community.