By PHYL NEWBECK
Suzanne Johnson of Shelburne loves to sail.
Her father was the Commodore of the New York Yacht Club and she can’t remember a time when she wasn’t on a boat. “It’s in my soul,” she said.
That’s why Johnson, a breast cancer survivor, came up with the idea of sailing as a way to help those afflicted with cancer along with their families and caregivers.
Since 2014, she has been taking people out on Lake Champlain through her nonprofit, Healing Winds.
Using the organization’s website, people may nominate cancer patients for the opportunity to spend three hours on the water with their loved ones.
In addition to the Burlington-based boat which can accommodate 10 people, Johnson has added a new vessel in Salem, Mass., that fits eight, and she hopes to expand the program nationwide.
In its inaugural year, Healing Winds set sail 30 times with 114 people. The following it had 45 trips with 157 people; last year it grew to take 435 people (thanks to a new, larger boat) on 57 trips. They are likely to increase those numbers before the season ends this fall.
Healing Winds provides up to three trips a day, six days a week, with nine different boat captains and over 75 volunteers.
Now 56, Johnson thinks sailing works well for her guests because it’s a sport that allows for conversation. The captain of the 39-foot boat puts out enough sail to move at a nice clip but not so fast as to scare the guests.
Johnson describes sailing as both metaphysical and metaphorical. “You’re casting off the lines and detaching yourself from anxiety and stress and the unknown,” she said. “Once we get outside the breakwater we are powered by nature and the wind and we hand the steering over to anyone but especially the nominees because we want them to feel they have control, even if it’s just for three hours.”
Johnson noted that it is hard for cancer patients and their caregivers to really detach themselves from the all-encompassing disease, but being out on the water gives them an opportunity to think about things other than illness.
Johnson moved to Shelburne 20 years ago and loves being close to the water.
She spent the majority of her professional career as a real estate agent and although she retains her license, she stepped away from her real estate job last December to concentrate on Healing Winds.
She is the only full-time paid staff member of the organization. A tireless promoter of her program, Johnson has already been the recipient of three donated boats. “When I survived cancer, I felt it was a gift given to me,” she said.
Although the road to creating Healing Winds wasn’t easy, Johnson always expected the program to grow.
“I’ve always felt this would be a nonprofit that touches many communities,” she said. “We aren’t finding a cure but we are providing a healing experience for our nominees and the important people in their lives.”
Johnson said the joy and gratitude she gets from the program is 10 times greater than she expected. “I think we are able to provide a little sliver of joy and happiness with all the sadness that surrounds cancer,” she said. “We can’t do anything about the disease, but we can provide something positive in a sea of unknown, frustration and pain.”