The Beginnings of the Adirondack Arts and Healing Retreat
for Women with Cancer and Chronic Illness
by Naj Wikoff
The inspiration for the Adirondack Arts and Healing Retreat goes back to three women I knew who were each living with cancer. I met Robyn Korpan of Keene Valley in 1988. She fought courageously with a cancer which took a terrible toll on her body, but which never dampened her humor or spirit. She was a widow with two young children. She was determined to live as long as possible to imbue them with every bit of emotional and spiritual strength she could. She tried experimental bone marrow transplants and other painful treatments and in so doing, lived far longer than her doctors expected. I was privileged to be one of a close circle of friends who saw her often and bore witness to her determination, the ravages of the disease, the depth of her courage and a spirit that became more intense and more beautiful.
Wendy O’Neal was passionate about nature and fought her cancer with music, art, poetry, love, healthy food, fresh air, hiking and by engaging the entire community as her support system. Wendy was a very creative personality. Every day was exciting for her. Her generosity knew no bounds. Her little home on Main Street in Keene Valley became a community center. Later, her country home near Wadhams did the same. For her, getting weaker meant paddling or walking more slowly. It was an opportunity to give more attention to each plant, each pebble, each rain drop and each moment. Wendy’s love of life and people was boundless. She had a heart as big as the outdoors.
Anne Lacy was a friend of Wendy, an artist and a slip of a woman. She had a huge thick mane of red hair, later to become sprinkled with gray that hung down and over her thin frame; so thin that I thought she would have been no match for a disease such as cancer. But she was. Anne is known for her illustrations of the plants and animals of the Adirondacks, most especially for a poster of the Adirondack Park which she created for the Adirondack Council. The map of the Park is surrounded by drawings of marshes, fields, hillsides, lakes and brooks and all the life they contain. She too, with humor, her art and her determined spirit, waged a war with cancer that wrestled it to near submission on several occasions.
The moment of inspiration about a retreat came at Camp Uncus in the hamlet of Raquette Lake. I was attending a benefit for the Adirondack Council in the fall of 1998 held in recognition of Anne Lacy and her tremendous contribution to the preservation of the Adirondacks. Both she and Wendy were there. While wandering around the Great Camp, it struck me what a perfect setting this would be to bring together women living with cancer so they could share their stories. Through Robyn, Wendy and Anne, I knew of the difficulties fighting cancer while living in a rural community and how helpful it was for each of them to meet and know others going through similar challenges. I knew how important the environment was to them. I knew how important the arts were to each of them and how they had used the written word, song, music, stories and laughter to fight and learn how to live with the disease and share their feelings.
It seemed that a place like Uncus would be a fitting setting to bring all these elements together. I also knew that next door was Great Camp Sagamore, now a not-for-profit organization that hosts many retreats. Indeed, it was Wendy who first brought me to Sagamore and introduced me to the staff. As I was thinking these thoughts, Beverly Bridger, the Executive Director of Sagamore, walked in. I shared with her my idea for a retreat for women with cancer using people in the arts to serve as instructors. I asked her if she would be open to hosting such an event. She immediately said yes and asked when. We agreed on the fall. We discussed who should we have for faculty and almost simultaneously said Fran Yardley and Peggy Lynn (then Eyres), both of whom, when asked a few days later, immediately agreed and arranged their schedule accordingly. Fran and Peggy have since taken on leadership roles in all aspects of the programming and administration. I also suggested to Beverly at the time that such an event would work best in partnership with a hospital. We both agreed that Chandler Ralph, the Executive Director of the Adirondack Medical Center, would be the person to approach and the rest, as they say, is history.
One reason the Retreat is a success is that it is set in the Adirondacks, a region which has long had a history as a place for healing, most famously with the Trudeau Institute in Saranac Lake. As a result, the medical community, local artists, and local and seasonal residents have a deeply felt trust in the healing power of the wilderness. Spending a weekend in the woods as a place to heal is not a strange proposition. Rather, it feels right. What also makes it work is that the faculty has had to deal with profound challenges, be it surviving cancer, having a spouse who died as a result of cancer or some other life changing experience. During those times, their art was an important means of transition and recovery. Thus, on many levels there is a profound commitment by the people who have created this program; the faculty, the participants and those who have provided financial, administrative and housing support.
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