Lake Champlain

‘Still Joy to Be Found': Vermont Cancer Charity Sets Sail for New Season

Healing Winds is expanding on its mission by also offering free sailing excursions to health care heroes

NBC Universal, Inc.

A small Vermont charity is bouncing back for the start of a busy summer after the coronavirus pandemic limited its ability to reach as many people as normal last year.  

“We are going to be very busy this summer,” predicted Sylvia Oblak, the executive director of Healing Winds.

The nonprofit uses donations to take cancer patients and their loved ones out on Lake Champlain free of charge for relaxation and a chance to just live as they did before their diagnoses.

“Even sick people deserve to enjoy their life,” said Becca Brown McKnight of Burlington, who took a Healing Winds sail in October 2020 with her husband and kids.

The business owner, mom of two and now breast cancer survivor stopped by the dock Friday to thank the organization that gave her a big boost between chemo appointments.

“The sail was absolutely a highlight of the whole year,” Brown McKnight recalled. “We were able to kind of leave cancer at the shore and go out and enjoy ourselves as a family.”

The "Red Hot Chilly Dippers" take daily swims into Lake Champlain to raise funds for Spectrum Youth and Family Services.

Oblak said the outings are generally around two hours.

“Sometimes, it’s the last memory they have,” Oblak said. “And sometimes, it’s a memory that, 10 years from now, they’ll look back on ... and say, ‘That was an incredible experience with my family and that was really a pivotal experience to be able to continue on in the fight against cancer.’”

The organization is now expanding its offerings after learning from last summer, when people with compromised immune systems had to lay extra-low because of the coronavirus.

The group opened up trips in 2020 to health care heroes who were really overdue for time off, and plans to continue doing so this season.

“It’s a wonderful mission,” said sailboat captain Kim Ketcham, adding that he sees taking nominations for hardworking nurses, hospital room cleaning crews and others as a great extension of the core goal of supporting cancer patients. 

“When you hear their schedules, you’re like, ‘Oh my god, I can’t believe you don’t take more breaks than this,’ but they can’t — they’re too busy,” Ketcham observed.

In New Hampshire, people on the front lines of the coronavirus pandemic are being given the chance to unwind with therapy horses.

Healing Winds said cleaning practices instituted in 2020 because of the pandemic will remain in place this year, with careful cleanings of seats and other touch-points between guests.

“I’m just grateful to be on the other side of this,” Becca Brown McKnight said, referring to her current excellent health.

The breast cancer survivor told NECN and NBC10 Boston that she is deeply appreciative for the dedication Healing Winds has to uplifting community members.

“Even kind of during the darkest times, there’s still joy to be found,” Brown McKnight said.

Click here for more information on the nonprofit organization

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