“I had no idea what I was doing,” said Suzanne Johnson on a sunny day in June. The Shelburne resident was sitting in the cockpit of the 39-foot O’Day sailboat, Gypsy Wind, reflecting back to four years ago, when she launched the nonprofit Healing Winds. As we spoke, volunteer captain Tom Peterson motored the vessel out of Burlington Harbor and onto the open lake for one of the nonprofit’s volunteer training sails. There was a gentle 5-knot breeze and a radiant view of the Adirondacks.
Four years ago, Johnson, a 20-year Vermont resident, was navigating treatment for breast cancer herself. She was a single mom with three kids. Before her diagnosis, she’d worked in real estate (she continued to do this while battling cancer), owned Tilley’s Café in Burlington, and even worked as a commercial sailing captain. A vibrant personality, Johnson (now 56) was used to skiing in the winter and being on the water in the summer. She found herself looking for a purpose while in recovery. “I had no hair at that point,” said the striking blonde.
A therapist suggested she find a way to give back to other cancer patients through her talent for sailing. Johnson knew from her own experience that cancer wears on the people closest to the person diagnosed. Treatment and grief can drive families apart. She found that few if any nonprofits focus on helping the family of those affected by a cancer diagnosis. So she decided to start one.
Within eight months, she had acquired a 28-foot O’Day called Jubilee as a gift from an acquaintance who was dying of cancer. She created an anonymous online nomination process, where anyone can nominate someone in their life who is dealing with a cancer diagnosis, whether a neighbor, a friend, a family member or themselves. She spent hours talking with nominees to schedule sails around their chemotherapy and treatment schedules.
“When you find yourself facing your own mortality with cancer and you are lucky enough to survive… you are also given the opportunity… to find ways to make a difference in people’s lives who are and were not as fortunate as you were,” Johnson said.
And she launched Healing Winds.
Today, Healing Winds offers free three-hour private sails to people dealing with a cancer diagnosis and nine of their closest friends, family or caregivers. If we were on a live sail with a “nominee,” as volunteers
and staff refer to their clients, the guest of honor would have been invited to take the helm once we passed outside of Burlington’s breakwater. The nonprofit has been fueled by volunteers, donors and Johnson’s tenacity.
And now it is expanding into a national charity with local chapters. What Johnson may have initially lacked in terms of nonprofit experience, she more than made up for in her knowledge of sailing, business and her ability to network.
Johnson grew up in coastal Connecticut, and her father, Frank Snyder was a commodore of the New York Yacht Club. Suzanne earned her commercial captain’s license at age 22. “I can’t remember not being around big boats,” she said before jumping up to the mast to help hoist and cleat the main sail.
Johnson found that being a cancer survivor allowed her to relate and communicate with people who were in the throes of treatment. That helped her recover emotionally and physically from her own battle. “I’d call people in hospice about their nomination, and they’d say, ‘Thanks Suzanne, but I’m done. I’m tired of it being about me.’ And I’d say ‘Hey, I get it. But think of this as an opportunity for you to say thank you to your caregivers and family and for them to make memories with you while you’re here,’” she said. She found normalcy was what patients craved, and an opportunity to rebuild relationships that had taken a backseat to their illness.
Jose Torres and his wife Lisa participated in a sail with Healing Winds on June 17, Father’s Day. Torres, who lives in Enfield, NH, was diagnosed with Stage 4 gastric cancer in September 2017. He taught his three now-adult children to sail. They joined him for his trip.
“Sailing is a great metaphor for life,” said Torres. “We’re dealt the hand we’re given. We use what Mother Nature offers us, and we are at her mercy to get from point A to B.” His wife Lisa said she was grateful for the opportunity to relax as a family. “We have to think, could this be the last Father’s Day? We have to make the most of every day we have. It was like we stopped the world for a minute to enjoy each other.”
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