In 2023, Rolling Ridge celebrates 75 years of ministry. Every month this year, we plan to share a story reflecting the impact Rolling Ridge has had and is having on people. The Ridge is in the business of transforming lives and helping people find what they need. This month, Michael Reed, our Associate Executive Director, looks at the healing Rolling Ridge provides as a safe and sacred space through the lens of one of our guest groups. You may need a box of tissues as you read. If you have a story to share, please let him know.
By Rev. Michael Reed
There’s a family of eagles that roost at Rolling Ridge. Last summer, in the closing moments of a retreat for families with children in recovery from cancer, a baby eagle soared into view—then crashed into a thicket of pine branches. The children and their families stopped to look up. With growing anxiety, they watched as the little eagle dangled forty feet above the ground. Was it stunned? Hurt? Where were its parents? The eagle began to struggle in the branches, caught upside-down and unable to right itself.
The metaphor of the moment wasn’t lost on Deana and Jim Cavan. They’ve devoted their lives to bringing healing to families facing the unimaginable: a child imperiled by pediatric cancer. That’s why they had come to Rolling Ridge, bringing half a dozen families with them, as part of a survivor’s retreat facilitated by Rett’s Roost, the nonprofit organization the Cavans co-founded. The four-day retreat had been filled with emotion and shared connection—with times for play and opportunities to heal. And now, in the retreat’s all-important closing moments, the families watched helplessly as another young life struggled.
I had a chance to talk with Deana Cavan not long ago. I wanted to learn what life is like for families impacted by childhood cancer—and ask her what difference a retreat can make. Deana believes fiercely that some burdens are best borne with the help of those who share them. She knows too about the world-shattering trauma that families go through when a child has cancer. “The parents lose control,” she tells me. “They aren’t able to save their child.” The retreats she runs are designed to help families—both the bereaved and the survivors—escape the deep well of isolation and do the work that love and grief require.
Deana’s own story—and the story of her beloved son Everett, after whom Rett’s Roost is named—is intimately intertwined with the work she does. Everett was born in 2014, a happy, blue eyed boy. But at six months of age, Deana and Jim noticed that he was becoming increasingly hard to soothe—with crying and then vomiting. After an initial ultrasound, they were rushed to Boston Children’s Hospital, where Rett was diagnosed with an aggressive form of cancer that was nearly impossible to cure. The family spent the next three months in the hospital. Despite treatment, Everett's cancer only continued to spread. Deana searched the country for any remaining option—even taking him to Memphis for a clinical trial at St. Jude’s. She also started a GoFundMe fundraiser to help pay for his medical expenses.
Eventually, however, it was time to say goodbye. Family and friends flew in from around the country to be with the family, and Everett passed away on February 22, 2015. Six months later, after quitting her job and spending time in deep introspection, Deana and Jim were hosting their first retreat. Not long after, Rett’s Roost was born.
“The GoFundMe account grew to $120,000 in just three or four months,” Deana said. “That doesn’t usually happen.” And it turned out that the Cavan’s didn’t need the money to pay back their medical expenses, since Everett had qualified for a special healthcare plan for terminally-ill children. Instead, they decided to pay it forward. They hosted two family retreats in the first year after Rett died, with all expenses paid for every family in attendance. It’s a model they’ve used for Rett’s Roost ever since: participating families don’t pay a dime to attend a retreat—all costs are covered by donors and funders.
Rett’s Roost families at Rolling Ridge
The Cavans explained why they believe retreats are so powerful for the families they work with. “First of all,” says Jim Cavan, “it’s a chance to spend some quality time with their own family, away from the worries and concerns of cancer, and their child’s health and wellbeing, and to connect to other families who have gone through similar experiences.” There’s a bond that takes place while on retreat together. “It’s like a family reunion with family members you’ve never met before,” Deana tells me. She points to the survivor’s retreat at Rolling Ridge last summer as a prime example. “The kids that came—they didn’t know each other, but they just showed up and connected right off the bat,” says Deana. “It’s like, ‘You had cancer? Okay, cool. We’re going to be friends.’”
Retreats at Rolling Ridge come with opportunities for self-care and joy: a mobile petting zoo, therapeutic horseback riding, slip-n-slide wiffle ball games, nature hikes, magic shows, and—the highlight of every retreat—a foam bubble party out on the Great Lawn.
Parents too are treated with massages and body work sessions, delicious meals from our dining hall, and time to relax and recharge. They also are provided listening sessions, with our Executive Director, Rev. Dr. Lawrence Jay, holding space for honest sharing in a safe environment. The listening sessions are not a time to fix but to be open and present to what is stirring within. For these families that are living through deep loss, Rolling Ridge offers healing in both body and soul.
Having fun at Rolling Ridge!
Deana is quick to point out, however, that retreats are not just a chance to escape—but also, or even especially, a place to hold space for sorrow and healing. It’s this latter aspect—opportunities for “grief work,” as Deana calls it—that makes their retreats so powerful. “Yes, we're going to have joyful moments while we're on retreat, but we're also going to do the hard work and learn how to work with our grief in the future. We teach families things like breathing and yoga and other self-care modalities that allow them to sit with what they're going through, and to feel—not that they have control again over their life—but that they can find ways to do the work.”
Much of what she tells me echoes what we’re all about here at Rolling Ridge: listening, rather than fixing; holding space and sharing burdens; and developing the transformative rituals and habits that allow a person to become their authentic self, even through pain. For Deana, coming to the Ridge helps families do just that. “We've had such a wonderful experience holding our retreats at Rolling Ridge,” she says. “The retreats there have this spiritual aspect to them. It’s one of the most beautiful and spiritual places for us.” While here, families spend time in nature and in meditation. They develop new rituals and therapeutic practices—even something as simple as taking ten deep breaths in nature—and work together to find the tools that will help them function in healthier ways.
With Deanna and staff providing programs for their children, the parents on retreat at the Ridge have the rare opportunity to “just be.” Walking the beautiful grounds, sitting silently lakeside, having conversations with other parents who understand, having someone deeply listen, not needing to cook or clean but having the Rolling Ridge staff take care of basic needs – all these opportunities create space to be present and to heal. As our Executive Director, Larry, notes: “Where in society do we create space for people to be fully heard, and know that their story is being held sacred and beautiful? That’s what Rolling Ridge is all about.” The grief never goes away, and healing isn’t a box to check or a destination to which a person ever fully arrives. But together, families learn to recreate joy and navigate a path towards hope and new purpose.
The kind of sacred presence that Rolling Ridge embodies—and the deep healing work that Rett’s Roost imparts—all came together last July, as the families of the survivor’s retreat watched the young eagle, tangled high in the branches of a pine tree. After what seemed like forever, the eagle began to beat its wings, whirling and twisting. The group continued watching until finally—finally—it came to stand upright on a sturdy branch. The children and parents cheered and waved. Deana and Jim gathered the circle once more—only now, it was the eagle’s turn to watch them. As they continued on with their closing ritual, the young eagle looked on as if listening, bearing witness to their presence in sacred space. Eventually, it unfurled its wings in farewell, and returned to the sky.
Jim Cavan, who was there that afternoon, put it best in a piece of writing he did to sum up the retreat, and their experience as a whole: “There are metaphors here,” he wrote, after the retreat had concluded. “About the unyielding love and unbreakable bond of family. About the remarkable resilience and resolve that these children have shown. About having hope for—and even faith in—brighter days to come. That’s the thing about signs: Whether you believe in them or not, they’re always there to find.”
Go Deeper: Want to learn more? Watch this moving video all about Rett's Roost. Much of the video was filmed on-site here at the Ridge!
Get involved: Your continued support of Rolling Ridge allows us to make space for groups like Rett’s Roost. We are so grateful for our donors, volunteers, and friends, who extend our ministry in a multitude of ways. And we invite you to join us in helping Rett’s Roost! They’ll be holding a retreat this summer at Rolling Ridge, July 5-9th, for families that have a child transitioning off of cancer treatment. If you are a healer, therapist, facilitator, or volunteer, they are seeking people to offer their services by filling up the cups of these parents and children. In particular, art therapists, massage therapists, energy workers, child carers, naturalists, and fun-makers are needed. Anyone with the desire to guide these families toward their inner wisdom and natural healing, or to provide a joyful, safe experience should sign up to help here: https://rettsroost.org/help-us-fly/volunteer/
Associate Executive Director at Rolling Ridge