Wiawaka Center for Women soothes with nature, community
By Tamara Wilm Johnson
I had to make a radical change.
Therapy and treatments hadn’t eliminated the mental and physical pain that lingered due to some traumatic events I had experienced. So my therapist and I developed a multi-pronged plan of attack. It involved a women’s empowerment group through the organization Safe Horizon, psychiatric help, and another therapist with whom I would do experimental treatments.
Things seemed hopeful, but I felt I needed to do more.
Then I remembered the retreat on Lake George: Wiawaka Center for Women. I signed up for two workshops with Bonnie Olsen, who trained with Oprah Winfrey’s life coach, Martha Beck. After hearing about Wiawaka for years, I was finally going to answer its siren call.
Riding the bus from my New York City home to the Adirondacks, one Friday in late August, it was almost unbearable—not pain, but the anticipation. I couldn’t wait for an entire weekend of healing in the woods on the lakeshore.
Exiting the Uber that I took from the village bus stop, I saw beauty in every direction at Wiawaka. There were Second Empire-style cottages, impressive vegetable and herb gardens, and, of course, the mountains surrounding Lake George. The sound of bands playing across the lake at the village’s jazz festival floated over the waves that lapped at the shore.
Everywhere I looked there was something beautiful, calming, or just plain fun: multiple green peaks, the blue lake that seemed to stretch out forever, and all the activity on the water. The Minne-Ha-Ha steamboat chugged by, playing whimsical songs on its calliope. Parasailers glided through the air with purple and orange parachutes (some with smiley faces on them). Even a seaplane took flight.
As the oldest continuously running women’s retreat in the country, Wiawaka is filled with history. It’s also on the National Register of Historic Places. But perhaps what’s most important is its mission. The purpose remains to support women at every stage of life.
At the front desk in Fuller House I met the then-Executive Director Meaghan Keegan. She is one of several women who have run the retreat since 1903, going back to the very first director: Mary Wiltsie Fuller, the founder.
Mary Fuller was socially progressive. She used her position in society to help female factory workers in Troy and Cohoes, by providing this holiday house. She asked like-minded society friends to support Wiawaka, including with funds for scholarships.
Katrina and Spencer Trask—founders of the Saratoga Springs artist retreat Yaddo—purchased the retreat for her. This place had formerly been a girl’s school, the Crosbyside estate, and before that, the United States Hotel, one of the first resorts on Lake George. The Trasks sold it to Fuller for one dollar and a bouquet of flowers.
Today, the retreat continues to provide scholarships. In fact, I was the recipient of one. Keegan, the former director, said, “We don’t want anybody not to come because they can’t afford it—ever. All it takes is for someone just to ask.” Donations still help make this possible.
“Obviously times have changed a lot in 115 years, so working women aren’t only factory workers, they are busy professionals, entrepreneurs, they’re stay-at-home moms,” Keegan said. “Not everybody wants to quilt. Not everybody wants to do yoga … so I try to find really interesting and unique programs.”
These include art and writing classes, artist residencies, Georgia O’Keeffe Week, wellness classes, a women’s lecture series, and much more. Women can also receive massages and energy work, like Reiki or tuning—both of which adjust a person’s qi, promoting emotional and physical healing.
“This retreat center could exist anywhere … but it wouldn’t have the same effect,” Keegan said. “Because you wouldn’t have the natural beauty [so] that everywhere you look you can see trees, and water, and sky, and the birds. So I think that definitely plays into the magic of the place.”
Shortly after arriving, it was time to meet Bonnie Olsen, her daughter Leah (also a Martha Beck Life Coach), and the other attendees of the How Did I Get Here workshop in the “House of Trix”—a converted boathouse that’s been used for all sorts of games since its reincarnation. I found it to be a healing space, with the sounds of the waves slapping the floorboards and the smell of the lake coming through the screen doors.
Having done a lot of group work by the time I arrived, I wasn’t sure I would learn anything new. As it turns out, even though Olsen is not a mental health professional, I did.
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That day we rewrote our personal narratives. Olsen said “rewriting our stories can help us move past trauma.” It also creates new neural pathways in our brains. As a writer, I found the exercise invaluable.
That night I met Tina Fetten of Southern Tier Stand Up Paddle Corp., and her group of paddle-boarding yogis. These outgoing women shared their campfire with me. We talked about everything from yoga and SUPs to our amazement at this place.
Before she left, Fetten told me, “This weekend was magical. I think for women that are open to healing, this is a space that calls to them.”
At Olsen’s Peace and Calm in Chaos workshop on Saturday, it turned out that I was the only attendee. So I had a personal coaching session. We met at Wakonda—the cottage where the painter Georgia O’Keeffe stayed—in a space dedicated to the artist.
We got to work, investigating my negative beliefs and turning them around. My wedding was a month away, and I had been thinking a great deal about the way I looked. So we worked on body image.
After working with my original negative thoughts and rephrasing them, we concluded that my body was how it was, and there was nothing wrong with that. I was simply in a place that I still needed to move forward from, but I shouldn’t hate myself because of it. When the time was right I would move on, lose the weight, and look and feel like myself again.
I had never thought of it that way before. As I slowly got used to the idea, I felt freer to move forward and enjoy my wedding day, instead of feeling anxiety.
Olsen also had this to say about healing: “It takes connectedness, whether it’s trauma of your kind or [another] kind of trauma. I think that’s the biggest thing in our culture that we have lost sight of—the fact that we really need to be community for one another. We really need to be there for each other.”
That night brought another campfire, where I was able to bond with more women at the retreat. While Fetten’s group was out on their moonlight paddle, ladies from Mothers who Heal Together—women who have lost children—joined us.
The next day I spoke with Joleen Mahoney Roe, who facilitates the Mothers group. Wiawaka is a place where the Mothers can be with other women who understand them. As Olsen put it, “for the Mothers who have lost, it’s a place where they can feel held and cared for.”
Wiawaka Board President Doreen Kelly talked about something she would refer to many times over the weekend: the spirit of Wiawaka. At this campfire I was beginning to understand it. Wiawaka does something for the women who go there. It almost infects them with a joy and peace that passes from one person to the next. By the time most women leave they’re booking their next stay, or asking how they can volunteer or contribute.
Eventually, Fetten’s crew headed up from the lake. There we were, women from all walks of life, enjoying a fire like old friends.
I opened up about why I was there. Other women shared their stories too. “I think Wiawaka just sort of lends itself to that,” Keegan said. “People who don’t know each other end up somehow… realiz[ing] that they have all these things in common, and they’ve been through similar life experiences.”
The next morning I got up early to meditate on the porch of the House of Trix. I had been down there the morning before. The lake had been quiet and smooth as glass. The surrounding mountains felt like strong hands holding me up, supporting me.
This day, I was in for an unreal experience. On the water in front of me the paddle boarders were doing yoga. Fetten was leading them through the poses, and talking about how much they had all grown over the weekend. Inside the house, the Mothers were doing yoga too, hearing similar reminders from their leader, Mahoney Roe.
No words were spoken between us, but we all fed into each other’s energy. It was like it was moving through everyone on the small waves and the clean, crisp morning air. At breakfast, one of the paddle boarders told me how special that experience was for her as well.
It was sad watching my new friends leave that day, but it also reminded me of a saying you’ll see posted at Wiawaka and on various works of art for sale in Fuller House: “Come as strangers, leave as friends.”
Then, it was my turn to go. But first, keeping with Wiawaka tradition, I cleaned my room. The kitchen staff gave me lunch for my journey. Then the Uber arrived.
Leaving was made easier because I knew I would return.