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Our second Communitas Health retreat was held June 19-23rd, 2019, at the Commonweal Retreat Center, in partnership with three organizations (Commonweal, the Healing Kitchens Institute, and Kids and Caregivers) and again exceeded our expectations for what an experience like this could be. The retreat brought together a diverse group of 10 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, autoimmune conditions, chronic kidney failure, 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. 

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The retreat 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, Traditional Chinese Medicine practices, and qi gong. They made art and music together and soaked in the peaceful, natural surroundings of Commonweal on nature walks and silent strolls through the labyrinth. We also had theater games, an art barn, and movement activities. In the evenings, we came together for sound bath meditations, singing, and a solstice ceremony. 

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Specifically, the Healing Kitchens Institute grant funding enabled us to have culinary experts design and execute hands-on culinary medicine workshops for both the teens and their caregivers. Two workshops were held during the retreat: one for teens and one for their caregivers. In these workshops, retreat participants were equipped with culinary medicine techniques and got to transform into creative chefs for the afternoon. The workshops covered comfort foods when feeling unwell, the benefits and challenges for both groups to cooking, and food-as-medicine topics from Western and Traditional Chinese Medical perspectives (probiotics, importance of chewing, etc.). There was an interactive exercise about the perspective of Traditional Chinese Medicine on the medicine qualities of the five predominant flavors and the crossover of culinary herbs and herbal medicine. Together with the teens and caregivers, the workshop leaders prepared meals featuring these flavors and herbs. The teens made nori rolls, and the caregivers made congee. The culinary medicine workshops were a universal favorite amongst the participants. Following is a quote from a 15-year-old participant about the teen workshop: “I liked the cooking workshop so much because I was able to learn about easy foods I can make when I don’t feel good.” 

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Following are some additional testimonials from the retreat participants: 

“Coming here was the best decision I have ever made. It helped me feel better about myself and boost my self-confidence. It also taught me a lot of things that I can do at home that were simple and easy, despite having pain. The people here were the nicest people and the most understanding people I know.” —15 year-old participant 

“I loved meeting everyone and being able to connect on a level that I haven’t been able to before. I also loved learning all the different ways to help me and being out in nature.” — 14 year-old participant 

“This retreat will change the way you see yourself and your child. The support and love are abundant. The experience and friendships are invaluable. Together you will experience a profound shift in how to approach whatever you are facing.” —Mother/Caregiver 

Again, thank you from the bottom of my and all the participants’ hearts for your generosity, which helped us create a program that is accessible to all. My hope is that someday all youth living with chronic and life-limiting illness and their families can have an experience like this, regardless of the ability to pay.