By Lindsey Banks
When Katerina Gmitter moved to Chapel Hill 10 years ago, she felt there was one thing missing from her new community — support for women like herself. Gmitter had been diagnosed with breast cancer at the age of 32.
Gmitter’s friend and neighbor, Jessica Murley, lost her father to pancreatic cancer and noticed a similar gap in survivorship care. Together, the two local women launched Healing Pines Respite, a nonprofit organization that provides North Carolina women with a break from cancer and family obligations so they can focus on self-care.
“We’re really just trying to focus on connection and getting women together because so many of us are isolated, and that’s even more true for women with cancer during this time,” Gmitter said.
Healing Pines organizes respites for 8 to 10 women at a time which include two-night accommodations at a hotel and spa in North Carolina. These respites are open to women who are either currently in cancer treatment or up to two years post-treatment.
Unlike other survivorship programs, Healing Pines focuses on connecting women with a supportive community and giving them rest to mentally heal from the stress that comes with cancer treatment.
Healing Pines’ first respite was held in June 2019, and just as the organization was gearing up, the pandemic altered its plans.
“We’ve just delayed that takeoff because I think post-COVID, people need this more than ever,” Gmitter said. “And I also think that people can really understand the value of human connection now and why it’s so important to just really allow women to connect with each other that are going through a shared experience.”
Healing Pines had a respite scheduled for late March 2020 but canceled it, putting their guests’ health and safety first.
Gmitter said that they began looking for alternative ways to offer women relaxation and support, turning to Zoom events with guest speakers, yoga instructors and online meditation.
“We are having spring outdoor respites with yoga, and then what our intention is for fall, either overnight respites, depending on what happens with COVID and vaccines, or maybe the half-day spa respites that can maybe also be held outdoors,” Gmitter said.
Healing Pines recently received a local grant that allows it to offer other direct services for women, including gift cards for groceries, oncology massages, acupuncture treatments and outdoor yoga sessions, Gmitter said.
“Prior to COVID, we launched our first fundraising event, and it was very successful,” she said. “We had this high energy, and we were working on community partnerships and engagement, and then COVID hit.”
Healing Pines is currently hosting a virtual fundraiser called “Share the Love” during the month of February. There will be an online auction next month for vacations at rental homes donated by property owners.
The last fundraiser Healing Pines hosted was back in February 2020, weeks before the pandemic. Murley said that this ‘90’s-themed event was the last outing for a lot of community members before the country went into lockdown. These fundraisers also helped spread the word about Healing Pines.
She also said that women hear about the program mainly through social media or the cancer centers at UNC and Duke University. Women can apply online and are put on a waiting list, which currently lists about 40 women, including women from Chapel Hill and Carrboro.
The programs are free, thanks to community partnerships, local grants and individual donations. Gmitter said that some of these donations are from women who have gone on a respite, including a woman named Rose, who has since passed away.
“We were sort of the first place where she really found some peer support and was able to really begin to accept that she had metastatic cancer,” Gmitter said. “She passed away a month after our respite, so she had asked in lieu of flowers for donations to be given to Healing Pines Respite.”
Though Rose’s passing was almost two years ago, Healing Pines is still receiving donations in her memory. Murley said this really speaks to the impact the organization has on the community.
“The experience is very meaningful because it’s not only about a massage or a yoga class,” she said. “It’s really about the connection with other women, and when you haven’t had that, it’s really powerful, and I think Rose wanting donations to come to us just speaks to that.”