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Building relationships to help young adult cancer survivors

AU TRAIN, Mich. ( WJMN) – Three years ago, Local 3’s Rebecca Bartelme had the privilege of checking out a site in Au Train that was going to be the home of a retreat center for young adult cancer survivors. A year after that, she caught up with True North Treks at the WALDEN Institute when they became fully operational. Just recently, she stopped by to see how the effort has been going since taking off in the Upper Peninsula.

“Everything was in the works and then COVID happened and COVID really kind of pulled the plug, turned the lights out on our whole season that year we had to cancel all of our treks,” said David Victorson, Executive Director, True North Treks. “The ones that we do out west as well the ones here in the U.P. One of the ways that WALDEN, the WALDEN Institute was really helpful however was, it allowed us to have what we call bubble experiences where we had survivors bring groups of their caregivers groups of their family members out to stay here in their own COVID bubble.”

Recently, the WALDEN Institute has been able to welcome cancer survivors back for regular treks to help them connect with the healing space found in nature. It’s also given this non-profit a chance to grow and make connections in the community.

“It’s really been so heartening to see people come out of the woodwork. to collaborate with us in different ways,” said Victorson. “One thing is the bus we just got. The shuttle bus we just got from ALTRAN. I don’t even know where that started but all of a sudden we were in conversation with them about getting one of their shuttles that they were going to be taking out of commission and having it for our purposes to take our participants to Pictured Rocks or pick them up at the airport. That has just been a game changer for us and it saved us thousands of dollars.”

“MDOT and the FTA does allow us to re-purpose the buses,” said Jennifer Heyrman, Executive Director, ALTRAN. “Normally, we get online and we auction them off but we are allowed to donate to other non-profit organizations. For she and I personally, it kind of struck a little chord. We both had siblings that passed from childhood leukemia.”

“That was the first time I had heard that was when they answered you and it just takes it to a whole other level for me,” said Victorson. “To know that both of them lost their siblings when they were younger to childhood cancer. Everyone has a connection to cancer unfortunately in some way, shape or form and many stories are sad but some stories are also inspiring and there can be a lot of growth and resilience that people experience when they know someone who has cancer and they are still alive. They’re still breathing, still doing those things that are bringing meaning and purpose to their life.”

This is just one of the many partnerships that has formed.

“Superior Watershed [Partnership] just in Marquette, they are going to help us build a trail system on our 127 acres so that we can actually start to use the lands of our property more and be able to do day hikes and even go camping on our own property like that,” said Victorson. “We’ve had some really great partnerships with Northern Michigan University. First, over the past summer we worked with their indoor agricultural program and we had two interns that we paid to come and help us start our small farm. It’s beautiful where we have participants picking cucumbers and green beans and lettuce last weekend that we got to grow over this past season and now they get to eat and learn more about the importance of where your whole foods and really kind of connecting back again with where their food comes from. Another group at NMU is their Construction Management Program. We’re working right now with some of the faculty and with 15 senior construction management students and they’re helping us build some different… we have lots of building needs out here. Whether it’s a new shed. They’re actually helping us build a new group sauna.”

“And also with MSU, we’ve partnered with them and we created the maple syrup,” said Kile Zuidema, Facilities Manager, True North Treks. “We tapped 101 trees and so with them we can show them how to do that. as far as tapping and how our system works as far as main lines and lateral lines and all of the syrup benefits.”

Anastasia DeLeo and Elisa Salazar are two cancer survivors from the Chicago area who have never been to the U.P. prior to going on their recent trek and had the chance to experience all of these different thing.

“I was diagnosed with endocervical adenocarcinoma which is cervical cancer in 2018,” said Salazar. “So coming up on three years and so I think it doesn’t really matter where you are in your whole journey. You know you kind of go through different, different emotions, experiences, feelings. So anyway, I just really felt like I needed to do this for both cancer stuff and connection and the nature piece.”

“I went through chemo and a double mastectomy and radiation all in 2015,” said DeLeo. “And…. it was all about survival. It was about getting me to the next doctor visit. Getting me to the next step of whatever plan my doctors have given me, let’s move. There was no processing.”

Anastasia wasn’t really able to process until she did her first adventure with True North Treks out west.

“It was probably the best moments of my life,” said DeLeo. “That week turned my life around and made me realize how much processing I really needed and time away from the chaos of life and there is no peace like Utah and like Michigan. These places hold so much peace, such tranquility, such silence that you don’t get anywhere else.”

That’s what brought Anastasia to her second trek, this time at the WALDEN Institute where she formed lifelong relationships with others who understand what each other is going through like with Elisa.

“Yes I survived and I’m very, very blessed,” said DeLeo. “But I went through a lot more than the average 34 year old. And a lot of these people that are on these treks have gone through more things than anyone their age.”

“I think that’s a super common thing to that we all talk about people sort of think that you’re healed, you’re done and they get tired of hearing about… you know we all feel extremely lucky to be here at the same time, you know we all still face you know a unique set of challenges most people I guess our age don’t,” said Salazar. “I was talking about hysterectomies the other day and my friend was like, ‘Oh yeah my mom had one, she was fine.’ And I’m like, ‘Yeah and how old is your mom?’ I’m glad she’s fine but you know this isn’t really like a thing. To Stasia’s point, it’s just really nice that, that connection is so important.”

Both Elisa and Anastasia are a part of the story that the WALDEN Institute hopes to continue for young cancer survivors for many years to come.

“For Yoopers, we all know that the U.P. is a beautiful place,” said Zuidema. “When I come through our gate, it doesn’t matter how bad of a day I’m having, I come down through the gate and it is a very sigh of relief that I’m here. My hope for the future is that it continues on well after I’m gone. I mean there’s many things that can happen here as far as the facility and it can grow and it will grow and my goal is to have it like I say well beyond after I’m gone and just to keep rolling with it.”