Burlington Nonprofit Takes People With Cancer Sailing on Lake Champlain | True 802 | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Burlington Nonprofit Takes People With Cancer Sailing on Lake Champlain


Published May 26, 2021 at 10:00 a.m.

A sail on the Healing Winds boat - COURTESY OF HEALING WINDS
  • Courtesy Of Healing Winds
  • A sail on the Healing Winds boat

For several years, Burlington-based nonprofit Healing Winds Vermont has taken people with cancer, along with their family and friends, for free sailing expeditions on Lake Champlain.

The pandemic changed some things for the org. Last July, the group invited "health care heroes" aboard its 40-foot sailboat.

"We took out this nurse, and she brought her mom and two sons," said Sylvia Oblak, Healing Winds' executive director. "We dropped the anchor, and they were doing cannonballs off the sailboat, and [the boys] told us it was the first time that they could see their mommy having fun that summer."

Such outings inspire the nonprofit and the many volunteers who help make it run, from ship captains to crew members and even paid staff who took reduced salaries to keep the organization afloat during the pandemic.

Based at the Community Boathouse in Burlington, Healing Winds is preparing to launch on Memorial Day weekend with free rides of up to three hours for cancer patients, people in remission and caregivers. Those in the health care industry are again invited aboard, and the org will hold sessions for kids with cancer who want to learn the basics of sailing. Healing Winds has taken out more than 2,000 guests over the years and offers the trips to anyone in town for cancer treatment.

For many, it's a highlight during a very turbulent time. Oblak recalled one guest who went sailing late last summer at a time when she wasn't leaving the house at all for fear of contracting COVID-19.

"You gave me my whole summer in one sail," she told the captain. The woman died just a few weeks later.

"Sometimes, it's one of the last memories these families have of their loved one, and they're all together, having a blast," Oblak said. "They've left cancer behind on shore for an afternoon and are just focused on each other. And it's just a peaceful experience, and it's a respite."

The expeditions can also be "a big component in the healing process," Oblak said.

"They tell us that it's strength building, and they feel empowered to fight on, and it's just put wind in their sails," Oblak said. "It's profoundly deep, the experience on our sailboat."

The original print version of this article was headlined "Float On"

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