By Lauren Bus
* Names have been omitted to respect the privacy of participants *
On July 22, in the sleepy beach village of Camlachie, Ont., nearly 20 women gathered for a weekend of sisterhood with women they had never met before. They were the participants and contributors of A Woman’s Worth: A Wellness Retreat for Worthy Women.
This two-day retreat was born from conversation between elementary teacher Sheila Ward and a handful of local wellness practitioners. They observed that many women who could benefit from services such as massage, yoga and counselling, experience barriers to accessing them.
Examples of obstacles include lack of financial stability, adequate childcare and options for transportation. When seeking a location for the retreat, Dr. Joan Ross, a local general surgeon and philanthropist warmly offered her beach house, along with many female wellness practitioners who volunteered their services.
The retreat was offered to women from Lambton Circles and The Hub, two organizations in Sarnia, Ont. for individuals and families experiencing poverty. Lambton Circles creates intentional relationships between families working to get out of poverty and multiple community allies to provide support and friendship during their transition. The Hub is a community safe space for youth between the ages of 16 and 24. It provides access to 31 community partners including social welfare programs, mental health and addictions services and a place to take a shower or eat a warm meal.
A Woman’s Worth was dedicated to the late local activist Thea DeGroot, a formidable woman known well in the community, as well as abroad, for her social justice work. Heavily involved with Lambton Circles, Thea’s active participation spanned nearly ten years. “It almost brings me to tears after all of the years of her involvement, she would be so proud, and so pleased,” Gayle Montgomery, founder and co-ordinator of Lambton Circles said. “I don’t think there would be a better way [to honour her] than for someone to reach out and continue to share her compassion and her heart.” Thea passed away in May 2018 after a brief but hard-fought battle with pancreatic cancer at the age of 69. The grief of her loss was widespread, and this inaugural retreat will continue to honour her memory and legacy for years to come.
The first day of the retreat felt more like an early fall morning than a Sunday in July. Despite the atypical weather, the women arrived at the beach house, assisted with transportation, to find the comfort of a wood-burning fireplace while the sound of waves in the background inserted a feeling of summer. The original intention was to practice yoga and meditation on the beach; however, participants found themselves sitting comfortably on blankets in the large common space, donning slippers as they embarked on a journey of self-care.
As she stoked the fire, Ciara Ross, Joan’s daughter and a social worker in training, assisted with introductions and orientation. She explained the namesake ‘Gerry’s Place’, for the beach house that honoured the previous owner who passed away nearly four years ago. Gerry, a loving neighbour and mentor, would have been so pleased to host such deserving women, according Joan Ross.
A local yoga teacher, Ann Bending, began the wellness activities. From there, the women could sign up for a variety of activities such as a massage by registered massage therapist Alyssa Fielder, life-coaching with Mary-Ellen Edlington, parenting counselling with Michelle Nelson, a social worker with St. Clair Child and Youth Network and art therapy with Joan in her whimsical art studio.
Women emerged from different therapies appearing transformed; one woman even said she felt like she was floating. Counselling sessions left women rejuvenated and energized, and life-coaching allowed them to dedicate their minds entirely to honouring themselves and setting goals for the future.
Soothing instrumental music played in the main room of the house, where some women chose to write in their journals donated by Susan Chamberlain from The Book Keeper, an independent, community-supportive bookstore. Throughout the beach house was a collage of quiet conversation, contemplative reading and respite.
As the day progressed, the women began to open up to each other. During an art therapy session, one woman revealed that this was the first time she had felt like she could be creative since she experienced postpartum depression. Another revealed that she had taken in her niece when the 15-year-old had nowhere else to turn, and spoke of the difficulties that accompanied. As each woman revealed details about herself, they began to foster connections that would deepen throughout the weekend.
Dinner was prepared by co-ordinator Sheila and served family-style, with food sourced and donated by local farms and stores such as Tap Roots Farm, Bright’s Grove Foodland and Dattolo’s Bakery. Praises were sung for the meal as the women experienced a growing sense of communion.
After dinner, the women gathered to learn the benefits of aromatherapy with Monica Minnema, a representative from the essential oil company doTerra. She shared with them the therapeutic pleasure of aromatherapy, and offered a variety of oils to choose from to create their own infused eye pillow to take home as a gift, along with the Yemaya products that had been donated.
At the end of the evening, some women went home to take care of their children or get ready for work the next day. Other women, with the help of friends and family, relished the opportunity to stay, choosing their room in the sprawling beach house and settling in for the night.
The next morning, Ann returned to teach sunrise yoga, during which the women chatted and shared personal stories. One participant was wearing a pink shirt, and another mentioned that she loved the colour pink, but never wore it because she didn’t like to stand out in a crowd.
Another told the group that she had recently been hospitalized for an eating disorder, and when she was admitted, there was no pink in her skin, only grey and green. Since then, she said, she actively surrounds herself with pink in any way she can because the colour reminds her of love, life and warmth.
At breakfast, one woman said that before the retreat weekend, she had never had healthy relationships with women. She didn’t trust them and she never felt connection with them. This weekend had changed that for her.
The group ventured down to the lake to take a swim because the rain had finally let up, and on the beach, they searched for beach glass. Each of the women mentioned that the weekend had been food for the soul and would love to take part in the event each year.
For many women, A Woman’s Worth: A Wellness Retreat for Worthy Woman meant a weekend of tending and befriending. It meant connecting with others who have experienced similar difficulties and traumas, and experiencing what love and support can do to connect a group of strangers. Feedback from the women said the experience was restorative, and that they felt supported and empowered.
Before Thea passed, she told her family to look to the stars when they were missing her, that she would become stardust. The night of the retreat was overcast, but as the women stood on the shore and looked out across the lake, the stars shone through the clouds.
A final thank-you to all donors and contributors whose support made the retreat possible:
● Susan Chamberlain of the Book Keeper who donated journals for each woman.
● Emily Fortney Blunt donated $100 towards meals.
● Tap Roots Farm donated the greens for the meals.
● Jen Zantingh purchased and donated Yemaya Natural Product gift bags for each woman
with the help of Yemaya representative Sandra Bailey.
● Joan Ross donated her beach house for one night, 2 days, and all the art materials for
● Brights’ Grove Foodland donated $70 worth of food for meals.
● Dattolo’s Bakery donated buns for dinner.
● Sheila Ward (Co-ordinator and food preparation)
● Joan Ross (Beach house owner)
● Ciara Ross (Social worker in training, support)
● Ann Bending (Yoga Instruction, Inner Dawn Yoga)
● Alyssa Fielder (Registered Massage Therapy)
● Mary Ellen Edlington (Life Coach)
● Michelle Nelson (Psychotherapist with St. Clair Child and Youth)
● Monica Minnema (doTerra representative)
● Luanne Deery (Reiki)
● Laura Louise Persichetti (Meditation Teacher)
For more information on Circles Lambton and The Hub visit: www.circlescanada.com and www.reboundonline.com
About the Author
Lauren Bus is completing her Master of Media in Journalism and Communication at Western University. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in Communications Studies and English from Wilfrid Laurier University, and she has lived in Bright’s Grove, Ont. her entire life. She is a cat mom, aspiring dog mom and lover of all things green. She makes a mean macaroni and cheese and consumes way too much caffeine. She can be contacted at [email protected]