Programming Connection

Weekend Wellness Retreats 

Positive Women's Network (PWN)
British Columbia
2011

How Does the Program Work?

For more detailed information on how the Weekend Retreats work, including sample forms and agendas, please see the Wellness Retreat Manual in the Program Materials section.

Location

The PWN Weekend Wellness Retreats take place at lodges in various sites throughout British Columbia.

Retreat lodges and locations are always chosen on the basis of their relaxed, comfortable and informal character, and their proximity to both a central, easily reached hub (such as Vancouver) and a natural environment. This provides women with an experience that differs from their regular everyday environment while remaining accessible.

Engagement and Recruitment

Participants

Any woman over the age of 18 living with HIV in British Columbia is encouraged to apply to participate in a retreat. Priority is given to those women who have never before attended a retreat.

There is no typical participant; in fact, the diversity of participants contributes significantly to the unique experiences and relationships developed by the women during each retreat. As the retreats are designed to accommodate women from all across the province, PWN provides free subsidies for transportation and childcare services to enable those who are geographically isolated and/or responsible for caring for children to attend. These expenses are reimbursed on the final day of the retreat as some participants are unable to front these expenses for reimbursement at a later date.

Given that Aboriginal women are disproportionately affected by HIV and make up a large percentage of PWN membership, PWN strives to hold a retreat specifically for Aboriginal women living with HIV in BC every other year, which feature a variety of Aboriginal-focused activities and workshops.

To promote the retreats, PWN sends an information package to its members (women already supported by PWN). An example of the retreat information package can be found in the Program Materials section. The package includes the retreat announcement, registration form, medical form, a sample agenda (upon request) and a frequently asked questions sheet

Women who have demonstrated an interest in experiencing a retreat but who have trouble scheduling time with a doctor or have other challenges in filling out required paperwork may request support from PWN staff for help scheduling appointments and completing forms. This is very important for reducing barriers to participation for some women. It is also important to note that many doctors will not allow their patients to have methadone “carries” for the duration of a weekend, making it impossible for those women who require them to participate.

Additionally, to reach out to individuals who are not PWN members, information about the retreat is sent to a variety of other agencies that support women living with HIV in the province. PWN has formed partnerships with these organizations and sometimes individual case managers who work within them, which serves to expand the capacity of PWN to support women living with HIV throughout the province.

Information session and screening interview

Women interested in attending a retreat based on their review of the retreat information package are invited to attend a group pre-retreat information session at PWN designed to ensure readiness and encourage attendance. This session, facilitated by the retreat coordinator and/or PWN support staff, addresses common fears and concerns faced by potential participants, walks them through the retreat experience and addresses their questions. Whenever possible, a woman who has already attended a retreat will describe her experience to give other women an idea of how enriching the experience can be.  Women from out of town can attend the meeting via teleconference. Women do not need to attend the information session to apply for the retreat but it is encouraged.

All women interested in attending the retreat who have not previously attended one are required to complete a brief screening interview with a PWN support staff member over the phone before they may be accepted. The purpose of the interview is to identify if any of the women have a physical, mental or emotional health situation that could be an issue in the retreat environment. The retreats are accessible to women with all mobility capacities, but the environment is not equipped to support other serious health-related concerns. In addition, the interview is designed to assess whether a woman is able to abide by all of the retreat rules, including not using drugs or alcohol while at the retreat, and to ensure that she is comfortable interacting with other women from a diversity of backgrounds and experiences. Drugs and alcohol are not allowed at the retreat, given that some women attending may be in recovery. Doctor-prescribed medicinal marijuana is allowed to be used in a designated area.

A woman is not able to attend the retreat if the PWN staff member identifies sufficient concerns about her ability to follow retreat guidelines. Women who are unable to attend for this reason are encouraged to apply again the following year.

Notification

After all the applicants’ files have been reviewed, the PWN support team meets to decide which applicants will be accepted and which will be waitlisted. To help them make these decisions, they prioritize women who have never been on a retreat, who are newly diagnosed and who are from outside the Lower Mainland area. Typically, while approximately 25 women attend each retreat, the team selects around 35 applicants to account for cancellations. PWN sends letters to the applicants indicating that they have either been accepted, waitlisted or not accepted.     

Participants who are accepted receive information about the date and time of departure and return, in addition to details about transportation and personal items to bring. They are asked to confirm their attendance by phoning PWN. The retreat coordinator follows up with each participant who is accepted to confirm her attendance, arrange transportation and discuss any questions or concerns. She also reviews participants’ medical forms and food requests and does case-by-case troubleshooting to help accommodate each woman’s participation. Typically, the retreat coordinator is in touch with each participant via telephone or email several times before a retreat.

Approved participants are also sent a retreat participant-led workshop application form. This form explains that at the retreat, in addition to workshops led by outside professionals, women are encouraged to facilitate their own activity. By leading workshops, retreat participants not only have the opportunity to build self-confidence and leadership skills, but they may also serve as role models to fellow participants.

The retreat coordinator determines which workshop applications are feasible; if a participant’s idea is not feasible (for example, due to budget constraints), the retreat coordinator will support the applicant in coming up with an idea that will work. She works with each participant-led workshop applicant to help her make her workshop idea a reality. Successful applicants are reimbursed for any supplies purchased for their workshop and awarded a modest honorarium for their contribution. Examples of past participant-led workshops include: dance, arts & crafts and storytelling workshops; facilitation of a Narcotics Anonymous meeting; leading nature walks; body mapping; and other skills-building workshops such as time management, public speaking and community activism. 

Professionals

The retreat coordinator seeks and hires professional facilitators and practitioners to provide teaching around both traditional and complementary therapies. Each Wellness Retreat is facilitated by 10 to 20 different facilitators and practitioners including massage and bodywork practitioners, hair stylists, dance instructors, yoga instructors, acupuncturists, doctors, nurses, dieticians, art and music therapists, Aboriginal elders, and service providers from various organizations (e.g., the BC Compassion Club Society, Women Against Violence Against Women, Healing Our Spirit BC Aboriginal HIV/AIDS Society, BC Civil Liberties Association). The retreat coordinator utilizes several modes to identify professionals, including volunteer websites, professional schools, referrals from past retreat professionals and word of mouth.

The retreat coordinator provides each facilitator with a values statement and a contract and confidentiality policy, which need to be signed by the facilitator. Depending on the facilitator’s level of awareness about HIV, the retreat coordinator may provide education related to HIV/AIDS. All professionals hired are self-identified women and receive an honorarium for their contribution, which averages about $150 for a 90 minute workshop and $50 for a 50-minute session with a massage therapist. Facilitators are asked to cover their own cost of travel to site. Often PWN will put facilitators into contact with each other before a retreat so those who do not have a car are able to carpool with those who do. 

To ensure that the retreat site is suitable for the event, the retreat coordinator reviews the confidentiality policy and PWN’s values statement with the retreat site manager, who agrees to share this information with staff members at the retreat site.

Please see the Wellness Retreat Manual in the Program Materials section for more information and sample forms.

Retreat

The Wellness Retreats begin on Friday afternoon and run through Sunday. All first-time attendees are paired with a veteran buddy who has been on at least one prior retreat in order to ensure comfortable assimilation into the group dynamic and minimize feelings of unease and isolation.

Transportation

Most participants meet at the downtown PWN office and travel to the retreat location together as a large group on a chartered bus. There may be a few participants who choose to drive themselves or arrange their own ride to the retreat site rather than meet at PWN; these participants are told a specific time to arrive at the retreat site to ensure that all participants arrive at approximately the same time. To ensure the inclusion of all women regardless of where they reside, PWN makes travel arrangements for participants, including flights, buses, shuttles and taxis. Whenever possible, PWN arranges for participants to carpool with other participants to foster relationship building. 

Workshops and Activities

Each retreat consists of a mix of structured circles and workshops with frequent opportunities for independent free time. At the beginning of each retreat, the women are given an agenda including a welcome letter, schedule and guidelines to help guide them through all the activities taking place over the weekend. They are also given a “goodie bag”, which includes healthy snacks, bottled water and fun gifts like soap, make-up, slippers and a journal. This helps some of the women feel comfortable in their new environment.

During the weekend, from early in the morning until late at night there is always a workshop or activity taking place. This is done to alleviate any anxiety that women—particularly those attending a retreat for the first time—might experience if they are not sure what to do.

At the same time, women are completely free to choose how they would like to spend time. The only mandatory expectation is that everyone attends the opening circle on Friday and the closing circle on Sunday. The purpose of opening circle is to bring women together to meet each other, go over the agenda and retreat agreements, discuss house rules and answer any questions. The purpose of closing circle is to bring women together to debrief about the weekend, share what their experience at the retreat was like and take a group photo for those who feel comfortable being photographed.

For some women, participation in this retreat provides the first opportunity they have had in a long while to relax in a peaceful environment, so it is not uncommon for some participants to spend much of the weekend off by themselves. Most of the women, however, are eager to participate in the workshops and activities once they are on site and have become acquainted with other participants.

The workshops and activities at each retreat are designed to be informal and relaxed. They also vary according to the availability of professional facilitators. While each activity lasts one to two hours, given that some women are unaccustomed to workshops and others may take medication that makes it difficult to focus for long periods of time, women are invited to participate in each activity for as long as it holds their attention. 

There are a few activities that are offered at every wellness retreat. During each retreat, all participants are offered one 50-minute massage in a modality of their choice with a bodywork practitioner (bodywork practitioners who practice various modalities are invited to the retreat; typically, five practitioners visit the retreat on Saturday and conduct five sessions each). In addition, an information session on HIV and women, which is led by an HIV specialist, is offered. This can be particularly valuable for rural women who may not have access to such information in the communities where they reside. Lastly, a craft table is set up for the weekend and women are invited to do arts and crafts projects at their leisure.

Other possible workshops and activities:

  • Focused arts and crafts workshops (e.g., “how to make” dream catchers, baskets, candles, medicine bags, etc.)
  • Hair cutting
  • Acupuncture
  • Sweat lodge teachings
  • Art therapy
  • Self-care workshops
  • Filmmaking workshop
  • Performance by a drum group
  • Yoga
  • Body mapping
  • Canoeing or kayaking
  • Hiking and nature walks
  • Journaling
  • Rock climbing
  • Camp fires
  • Storytelling
  • Drumming
  • Cooking
  • Self-defence
  • Belly dancing

All workshops and activities are spaced out from each other as much as possible to allow participants time to linger and share between sessions. To avoid overburdening participants with the presence of additional people from outside the retreat community, all professionals are asked to leave the site after they have finished their workshop or activity.

Meals

It is important that all women receive the nutrients they need to remain energized and healthy at the retreat. Many retreat participants take HIV medications that have multiple side effects, including allergies and irritability toward certain foods. In addition, participants may have dietary restrictions due to religious beliefs, cultural traditions or personal preference.

Follow-up

After each retreat, the retreat coordinator calls each woman to talk about how she is readjusting to her daily routine. It can be difficult for a woman to return from such a positive experience to a situation in which she may feel isolated and alone. Many participants continue to stay in touch with the women they befriended during the retreats, and it is not uncommon for them to ask the coordinator for each others’ contact information. The retreat coordinator can help facilitate these connections by letting the various women know who would like to contact them and requesting permission to offer contact information.