KEENE — Naj Wikoff has one less role to fill in 2013.
Now, he is president emeritus after 14 years of leading Creative Healing Connections, a nonprofit agency that serves women with cancer and chronic illnesses, as well as veterans and military families.
The organization’s mission is to provide creative experiences that promote healing and growth.
“Without his leadership, vision, energy and hard work, we would not be where we are today,” Martha Spear, executive director, said in a press release.
Wikoff is succeeded by incoming board president Gail Doering of Saratoga Springs.
“Naj has a certain genius for combining healing and the arts,” Doering said. “He created something important that fills a critical niche in our community.”
A SAFE GROUP
Creative Healing Connections began as a result of Wikoff’s experiences with three friends who were living with cancer in the 1990s.
Robyn Korpan, a widow and mother of three, had breast cancer.
“She would take any experimental program for bone-marrow transplant, anything that gave her a chance to live longer. She wanted to live as long as she could to give her children the best possible start she could before she died,” Wikoff said.
As Korpan’s illness progressed, she made sure Wikoff knew she was still the same person.
“She let me know how important it was to have a safe group of people to talk to about her anger, black humor, anything; she could just express herself,” he said.
PLACE TO RETREAT
Wendy O’Neal was an environmentalist.
“For her, nature was so important, to be outside, no matter how sick she was. She and I had a little victory garden together. She had these times she just got together with women. One March, her house was surrounded by women standing arm in arm singing to her,” Wikoff said.
Artist Anne Lacy was not one to talk about her cancer, but she expressed herself through drawings and watercolors of fields and fauna.
“She was being honored by the Adirondack Council at Great Camp Uncus, a sister camp to Great Camp Sagamore,” Wikoff said.
As Wikoff surveyed the spectacular surroundings, he thought it would be the perfect spot for a retreat for women living with cancer. There, they could connect with nature and create art.
Beverly Bridger, executive director at Sagamore, offered her place. Nine months later, in September, the first retreat was held.
Wikoff recruited storyteller Fran Yardley and singer-songwriter Peggy Lynn. Ten people attended. In subsequent years, attendance increased to 30 attendees and more faculty was added.
Creative Healing Connections eventually outgrew Sagamore, and a 501c3 through the Adirondack Community Trust was created.
Inspired by his poet/veteran father, Wikoff tried to establish a parallel program for men but was not successful in securing funding.
Five years ago, a program was established for women veteran’s dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder and rape. The retreat was held at Wiawaka Holiday House on Lake George because of its proximity to the Albany Stratton VA Medical Center.
“We wanted to make it a little more accessible to that population,” Wikoff said.
It, too, started out with 10 participants and doubled in size. Now, there are two retreats for women veterans, and they both sell out.
“We do everything we can to raise money so anyone who wants to go can go,” Wikoff said.
Full, half and quarter scholarships are offered to women warriors who come from around the country.
“We don’t want to turn anyone away. The women veterans told us there is nothing like it in the country,” he said.
Three years ago, a retreat for first responders was created with partners Paul Smith’s College, Col. Eric Olsen and Homeward Bound, formerly called Patriot Hill.
Twenty men attended from a Brooklyn-based National Guard unit trained to respond to potential terrorist, nuclear, biological, chemical or explosive attacks.
“Eric (Olsen) wanted to do something pre-deployment to use our techniques to help enhance their resiliency, and it worked,” Wikoff said. “We use the military’s own measurement tools to evaluate our program, so they can compare it to what they do. We got a really high rating from the participants.”
The men wanted a program for their spouses. Last year, a Homeward Bound retreat was held at Ampersand. Though the women’s average age was only 25, the attendees had known at least three people who had died.
A Homeward Bound retreat is planned for families in April. Also in the works is a retreat for professional and informal caregivers at Valcour Conference Center.
Milestones include a national initiative for the uses of arts for healing in the military. A conference was held at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center with partners Americans for the Arts and Society for the Arts in Healthcare. For the latter, Wikoff is an ambassador, distinguished fellow and Janice Palmer Award recipient.
In the fall, a second national summit on the arts and health will be held.
“We’ve developed quite a good reputation,” Wikoff said. “For the success of every organization, you need to have a change in leadership. I will serve on some committees and help with events, special events and fundraising. The torch has been passed.”
Email Robin Caudell:
TO LEARN MORE WHAT: Creative Healing Connections ADDRESS: P.O. Box 167, Keene, NY 12942 CONTACT: Call 390-3899, or visit www.creativehealingconnections.org.