Magic happens every summer for approximately 40 young adults with life-threatening illnesses. For one week in July and one in August, Canyon Ranch in Tucson, Arizona, opens its doors to a group of seriously ill 18-25-year-olds – a different group for each week. Under the umbrella of the Dream Street Foundation, these weeks provide a rare opportunity to share an experience that for many will be life changing, and for all, will be a lasting memory.
“Being a child or young adult with a disease is very isolating,” says Selma Bornstein, a former Canyon Ranch guest who later became a fitness walker at the Ranch, and who has donated her time to the free, volunteer-run program each summer for seven years. Her experience as a pediatric oncology social worker gives her a particular affinity for the problems faced by young people with chronic or terminal illness.
Other Dream Street programs focus on children, but the program hosted by Mel and Enid Zuckerman at Canyon Ranch is a unique opportunity for young adults to connect with peers whose lives also revolve around serious medical issues. Designed to create a caring and nurturing experience in a serene setting, the program is conducted by professional counselors and psychologists, nurses and Canyon Ranch staff to provide an emotionally rich, rewarding and healing opportunity.
A week of exploration and sharing
The week begins with an all-expense-paid trip to Arizona. Some of the selected participants have never flown before – some are traveling alone for the first time. They are welcomed at Tucson International airport by a van and Canyon Ranch staff member. Upon arrival at the Ranch, they are settled into a casita that’s been turned into a dormitory and is shared with Dream Street counselors and nurses. Each attendee receives a Dream Street backpack, and seven Dream Street T-shirts – a clean one for each day. Strangers at first, the group will bond magically during the first couple of days, and leave feeling as if they have been friends all their lives.
Carefully crafted focus groups are the heart of the program, conducted by two skilled therapists who create a safe and warm environment for the discussion of highly charged issues. For these young adults – 50-70 percent of whom are terminally ill – questions teem and answers may be hard to find. How to handle relationships, family challenges, planning a future, medical decisions and feeling disempowered and vulnerable are the kinds of issues that are addressed in the twice-daily focus groups.
Evening focus groups are created in an environment of “softness.” Dimmed lights, comfortable pillows and blankets, lots of tissues and healthy snacks and drinks create a “campfire” atmosphere. Then it’s back to the comfort of the casita for further discussion, fun and games, laughter – and an occasional, privately delivered pizza!
Choices abound, with exercise classes, swimming and opportunities for individualized exercise or nutritional guidance. Every Dream Streeter enjoys some pampering services, from massages to beauty treatments. Full-time dedicated medical staff is on hand to administer medical treatments and deal with any unexpected needs.
Symbols of hope, shared experiences
Activities designed to encourage psychological coping skills are part of the program, like journaling, crafting and scrapbooking, with plenty of unprogrammed free time to explore the possibilities of Canyon Ranch. And, most importantly, participants have time to be heard and understood, respected for their individuality and experiences, and honored for their courage.
Toward the end of the week, they work on several special projects. Each person paints a rock, and decorates a “life arrow” and a “death arrow,” with bright feathers, yarn and alphabet cubes. Life arrows bear words of hope, while death arrows may carry expressions of anger, anxiety or fear. The rocks are presented to Mel and Enid, then placed in the rock garden between the Clubhouse and the Double U Café. The death arrows are buried, along with the negative feelings they represent, in a ceremony adapted from Native American culture. Some life arrows, embodying their creators’ positive thoughts, can be seen in trees outside the Pavilion. Others become gifts for someone with whom the camper has forged a close connection during the week.
“To say that it’s selfish to be a Dream Street volunteer is an understatement,” says Bornstein. “It is such a privilege to be allowed into the lives of these special people, and to offer comfort and compassion where it’s needed.” Another joy of the program is seeing young people from different cultural and socioeconomic backgrounds come together and learn mutual respect and understanding, she says.
“I saw an enduring example of this two years ago when a young man with a serious diagnosis and poor prognosis, a child of the streets and gangs, recoiled from the welcoming embrace of his counselor. Seven days later, in the evening closing ceremony, this same young man offered his life arrow to his counselor, saying that he wanted to give it to the person who’d showed him it’s okay to be loved. He then went around the room and hugged everyone, campers and staff alike.”
It’s just a small example of what can happen when people show compassion without judgment, she says – “When Dream Street honors the lives and trials of young people, and when Canyon Ranch opens its doors for magic to occur.”