Omega in Action | Omega

Omega in Action

Omega in Action highlights inspiring people and organizations making meaningful change. From protecting the environment to empowering women, healing veterans, and serving nonprofits, you'll find fresh perspectives, trending news, and the latest information on noteworthy events here at Omega and around the world.

Regional Nonprofit Women Leaders Enjoy Downtime

1 week 4 days ago

Omega’s 250-acre Rhinebeck, New York, campus offers rest and rejuvenation not just to workshop participants, but also to nonprofit leaders. In September 2016, the Dyson Foundation invited a group of leaders who were past participants of the New York Council of Nonprofits's executive director training to a "Day of Respite" at Omega.

Alumna Casandra Beam, executive director of Ulster Literacy Association, initiated the idea of gathering with her peers for much-needed time away to converse, connect, and rest.

Nine alumnae arrived on a beautiful September day and began their retreat with activities designed to foster reflection and dialogue. The activities were created and facilitated by Beam and Susan Grove, Omega’s community engagement manager and former NYCON training participant.

"Susan and I designed activities intended to establish trust, allowing the group a chance to share from a more vulnerable place, rather than from the more typical leadership role," Beam said. "As it turned out, our group responded beautifully, with heartfelt sharing about the immense stresses executive directors experience, regardless of what phase their agency is moving through." 

In the afternoon, participants chose from a list of activities available on campus, from kayaking on Long Pond Lake or reading in the Ram Dass Library to enjoying ice cream in the Café or meditating at the Sanctuary. Each participant was invited to structure her own downtime to be most supportive to her. Each leader chose her own balance of spending more time with others or withdrawing into some rare solo time to reconnect with herself.

“The day was extremely nourishing,” said Elise Gold, executive director of Jewish Family Service of Orange County. “There was a balance of concrete, how-to support and emotional connection, and the freedom of the afternoon also allowed us space to give to ourselves in ways that we typically don’t do. I was grateful to be able to walk to the Sanctuary and just sit by the little pond.”

Beam echoed Gold's positive experience adding that her day enabled her to have new insights about what true success feels like, describing a more internal space of confidence, belief, and surrender.

"I returned the next day to my office with a refreshed sense of purpose and belonging," she said.

Attendees pictured:
Back Row (left to right): Nicole Fenichel-Hewitt, Spark Media Project; Caren Fairweather, Maternal Infant Services-Network; Cynthia Fiore, Taconic Resources for Independence; Ava Bynum, Hudson Valley Seed; Elise Gold, Jewish Family Service of Orange County.
Front Row (left to right): Elizabeth Waldstein-Hart, Walkway Over the Hudson; Casandra Beam, Ulster Literacy Association; Kellyann Kostyal, Safe Homes of Orange County; Lisa Silverstone, Safe Harbors of the Hudson.

Connected by the Fabric of Love

3 weeks 5 days ago

The message of love is a timeless one. This year it was the theme of the Omega Peace Quilt, an annual collaborative art project created at our Rhinebeck, New York, campus.

Since 2005, fabric artist Helema Kadir has led seasonal community members and staff through the process of creating the quilt. It is an opportunity for creative expression and the chance to participate in a community-building experience focused on an uplifting theme.

The inspiration for this year’s subject came from an art project created by local artist Regina Cosio, who made a set of postcards each simply printed with the word Love, followed by a period. Kadir says she loved the art project and spoke with Cosio to apply it into this year's Peace Quilt.

The 2016 Love. quilt reflects the diversity of Omega's seasonal community members and staff with the word "love" represented in Greek, Russian, Gaelic, Swahili, American Sign Language, Japanese, Korean, Hebrew, Arabic, and even Morse code.

Along with quilts from previous years, the Love. quilt will be on display in the Dining Hall in 2017 when Omega's Rhinebeck campus re-opens in May. But you don't have to wait until then to see the quilts. You can check out this year's quilt as well as quilts from previous years, and read more about the history of the project now.

Expanding Options for People With Disabilities

1 month 1 week ago

One in five Americans have disabilities, but less than 20 percent are employed, said Frank M. Castella, Jr., president and CEO of the Dutchess County Regional Chamber of Commerce, at the National Disability Employment Awareness Month Awards Breakfast in October.

The breakfast was hosted by the Mid-Hudson Employment Alliance and the Dutchess County Regional Chamber of Commerce to celebrate National Disability Employment Awareness Month and included an award ceremony honoring local businesses and organizations that have excelled in hiring people with disabilities, including Omega.  

For 15 years Omega has worked with Abilities First, an organization committed to expanding employment options for people with disabilities. Abilities First nominated Omega for the award, and Adam Cincotti, executive chef and general manager of Omega FoodWorks, accepted the award on Omega’s behalf.

"Our partnership with Abilities First over many years has been of great mutual benefit, providing much-needed support in our dining hall and enriching the fullness of our staff community," said Omega CEO Robert "Skip" Backus. "We are grateful for this recognition and award."

National Disability Employment Awareness Month began in 1945 when Congress enacted legislation designating the first week of October as “National Employ the Physically Handicapped Week” as a response to the number of World War II veterans returning from the war with disabilities.

The month has become a time for “recognizing disabled people's contributions to the workforce and reinforcing our country’s commitment to providing employment opportunities for all," said Castella. "Just like everyone else, disabled people are the sum of many parts, including work experiences.”

Juno Resident's Work Appears in New York Times

2 months 17 hours ago

Rejuvenation and restoration are not just about self-care—they're also integral to our capacity for service in our communities. This was true for Heidi Hutner, one of 36 recipients of the Omega Women's Leadership Center's (OWLC) Juno Women's Leadership Residency in 2016.

Heidi, whose work is focused on the topics of caring for Earth, animals, and people, is the director of the Sustainability Studies Program at Stony Brook University. Her TEDx talk, Eco-Grief and Ecofeminism, traces her journey of personal loss and healing into environmental studies and activism. During her time on Omega's Rhinebeck campus, Heidi found herself surprised by how easily her agenda for her residency slipped away, and how she was able to attend to deeper needs. "I thought I would write a lot at Omega, but instead, I rested. Attending the nurturing program at Juno gave me the time to breathe. To exhale. To relax. To heal. The result of this healing surprised me greatly. I was so recharged, that my first article for the New York Times would soon be published in the weeks after I left Omega." 
 
That article, "A Conservationist’s Call for Humans to Curb Harms to Our Animal Kin," highlights a conversation between Heidi and Carl Sarafina first conducted for her web interview series, Coffee with Hx2. Carl is the author of Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel, which explores the scientific research and cultural reasoning around reassessing human's relationships to the natural, sentient world. Heidi has also written several pieces on women climate scientists and women's indigenous activism related to the Dakota pipeline.  
 
Heidi was able to bring the restoration of her time at Omega home to re-examine aspects of her life that needed clearing and cleansing. "I am more focused and able to narrow down my interests and help others in a more beneficial way. My heart is more open because much has cleared—the Juno Women's Leadership Residency helped me to declutter my insides! This decluttering has also helped me in my activist community projects. I left Omega healed, whole, and wide awake."

Women & Children Touched By Cancer Find Haven

2 months 1 week ago

Support, connect, and help lighten hearts—these are the simple goals of Camp Lightheart, an overnight children’s camp for those who have a mom with breast cancer or who have lost their mothers to breast cancer. 

Camp Lightheart was launched in 2007 on Omega’s Rhinebeck campus and has returned each year since. This August, 18 children participated in the camp and more than 150 children have attended over the past 10 years.  

The camp was created by Breast Cancer Options, the largest community-based organization providing free breast cancer services in the Hudson Valley area and one of the few organizations giving direct support to children of women diagnosed with breast cancer. 

Offered free to participants, the camp is an opportunity for children to meet others going through similar experiences.

"Words cannot express how grateful all of us at Breast Cancer Options are for your support," said Hope Nemiroff, executive director of Breast Cancer Options. "The campers love Omega and feel accepted and safe which is important for children in their situations. One camper had begun sleeping on the floor next to her mom’s bed to keep an eye on her. Camp really helped her to deal with her fears and be able to talk about them."

Metastatic Breast Cancer Retreat

Some of the children have moms who attend the Metastatic Breast Cancer Retreat also held at Omega. This year, 25 women attended the retreat and since 2011, more than 115 women have participated.

The retreat includes special programs to help attendees deal with an advanced cancer diagnosis, how to manage stress, and how to deal with treatment side effects. Healers donate their services. 

"The women in the retreat feel as though they have found a second home and love the camaraderie and support they are surrounded by," Nemiroff said.

During the retreat, women share stories and learn from other women like themselves, as well as special speakers, physicians, and others.

"The retreat left me changed," one participant said. "I went in not sleeping, feeling tired, isolated, and depressed, and left lighter. It's hard to explain but being around these women, in a tranquil setting, sharing our condition but laughing and talking like 'normal people' made me feel human again."

Another participant was grateful that the program was offered at no cost. She said, "Treating this disease takes 40 percent of our monthly income. To know that Breast Cancer Options is there for free advice at any time and sponsors retreats like this is invaluable to me."

Book Reading With Elizabeth Lesser Now Available

3 months 2 days ago

On Monday, September 19, Omega was proud to host the book launch—on campus and via live stream—of Omega cofounder Elizabeth Lesser's new memoir Marrow: A Love Story. We are pleased to now offer the on-demand video free of charge through November 18.

The evening featured moving readings from Lesser and inspiring music by David Wilcox, exploring the question, "What does it mean to be true to oneself and also be connected to the ones we love?"

Marrow traces the journey made by Lesser and her sister Maggie, when Maggie needs a bone marrow transplant to save her life, and Lesser learns that she is the perfect match. In the process, the sisters dive deep into the marrow of their relationship and explore the multifaceted nature of love. 

Lesser is the author of The Seeker’s Guide and the New York Times best-selling Broken Open. For almost 40 years, she has studied and worked with leading figures in the field of healing—healing self and society. 

Retreats for Homeless Youth Have Big Impact

3 months 3 weeks ago

Lewis has enrolled in a four-year college. Chantel is transferring to FIT for a degree in fashion design. John is healing his tumor and enrolled in a wellness internship at Omega. Monte applied to drama school.

These are just a few successes reported by the Reciprocity Foundation—a New York City-based nonprofit that works with homeless and high-risk youth—following retreats they held at Omega Institute’s Rhinebeck campus.

“The weekend at Omega was like hitting the restart button on my whole being," Chantel, a retreat participant, said. "I feel like a different person.”

The 2016 retreat had 10 participants, including Essence, who said she was afraid to eat salad before coming to Omega. She tried the salad bar anyway and noticed that the greens made her feel great. All the youth gained valuable exposure to healthy lifestyle elements including nutrition and movement. 

Vivian, another participant, said, “Being at Omega is about becoming clear. When I’m here, I can see my past and my present clearly. I know who I am. It feels good.”

The Reciprocity Foundation roots its work in contemplative practice, helping youth cultivate inner clarity rather than focusing exclusively on external outcomes. They aim to break the cycle of poverty by advancing education and well-being, and helping youth create a powerful vision for their lives. During the retreat, many had their first opportunity to practice yoga, experience wellness treatments, take nature walks, try sitting meditation, share stories, and connect with one another. 

“Youth have told us that the retreats are life-changing and have offered them a rare glimpse into how it feels to live as whole, integrated people,” said Reciprocity cofounders Taz Tagore and Adam Bucko.

Since 2011, about 100 young people have participated in Reciprocity Foundation retreats at Omega, with astounding results—including 35 percent of participants applying to college within six weeks of the retreat and 95 percent saying they felt less stress and were ready to make plans for their future.  

“The gift of Omega is that everyone gradually softens, opens up, and puts their pain and fear into words,” Tagore said. “Nearly all participants now practice meditation; some have even started meditation classes at their shelters. The Omega retreat experience enabled someone deeply suppressing trauma to finally open and share. This was powerful and this young person moved out of shelter just three weeks after the retreat. That is incredible!"


Article photo © Alex Fradkin

Documentary Says Disabled Veterans Can Still Serve

4 months 6 days ago

Why Can’t We Serve is a documentary film in the making that asks a powerful question, "Why can't wounded warriors and people with disabilities serve in the military?"

Marty Klein wants to help answer this question. While serving in the U.S. Air Force in the early 1970s, Klein developed an eye disease, lost his vision, and was discharged.

“The first seven years of my life without sight was really hell, because I had to recreate my life without sight and I didn’t know who I was as a blind person,” Klein said. “It was really difficult. I just thought it was my problem. I did deal with it and I got lucky and I have a great life now."

His healing journey included both working at Omega and attending many Omega workshops. One of the weekends that had the most impact on him was a spiritual workshop with Ram Dass and Krishna Das.

“The sound of the harmonium played at night touched my heart,” he said. “I've been chanting and leading kirtan, evenings of sacred chanting, with my harmonium ever since.”

The blind veteran hopes his feature-length forthcoming documentary can create positive policy changes. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires businesses and corporations to hire people with disabilities with one exception—the U.S. military, which is not required to comply with the ADA.

He wants to offer hope and healing to discharged veterans with disabilities and shift the culture for people with disabilities in general.

“Fast forward from 1970 to now—veterans coming back, soldiers with wounds from combat are discharged out of the military and go home with a disability and no identity,” he said. “A lot of them are committing suicide—22 a day. It’s crazy. I believe that if more people were able to stay in the military there would be less suicide.”

More than 100 people attended a benefit concert in Klein's hometown of Woodstock, New York, in July to help raise money and awareness for filming the documentary. The night included a silent auction with in-kind donations from many local businesses and organizations, including Omega. 

Klein also believes that a policy change could open the door for all people with disabilities who could have the option to join the military in a non-combat position.

“There are so many jobs in the military done today on a computer, and most people with disabilities can handle computers just fine,” Klein said. “I wrote three books and two screenplays on the computer, and I’m blind. We can do these things.”

Visit whycantweserve.com for more information.

Facing Pushback on Mindfulness in Schools

4 months 1 week ago

Mindfulness is hot. U.S. Congressman Tim Ryan practices it with colleagues on Capitol Hill. The British Parliament is doing it, too. And hundreds of programs teach it to students in schools across the country each day.

But not everyone is on board, as Fiona Jensen discovered firsthand when one of the schools she works with found itself on the receiving end of a potential lawsuit.

Jensen is founder and executive director of Calmer Choice, a community-based nonprofit in Massachusetts that runs programs in schools to help kids reduce stress, build resiliency, and increase well-being. In the fall of 2015, Calmer Choice was accused by a parent and school board member of crossing the lines of church and state and potentially putting kids at risk by teaching them mindfulness practices.

Eventually the case was dropped, but as Jensen reached out to others in the mindfulness in schools community for support, she consistently heard, “We’ve been waiting for this to happen.” Through her conversations it became clear that there was an interest among the community in getting together to discuss the situation further.

Working Group Meets to Discuss Strategy

In June, Omega welcomed a group of more than 20 thought leaders for a self-directed retreat to look at teaching mindfulness in schools and discover what could be learned from Calmer Choice’s experience. The group included researchers, educators, religious scholars, and a lawyer, as well as representatives from nonprofits, the public, and the media.

Using Calmer Choice’s curriculum as a case study, Jensen explained, “We wanted to know what is in here that can potentially offend and why, so that we can have a deep understanding and can really hold that with integrity. If we don’t know where the landmines are, we’re going to step on them.”

To do this they reached out to, among others, Candy Gunther Brown, a religious scholar who has testified against having overtly religious yoga in the classroom. She provided information that helped guide some of the discussion during the two days.

The group looked at specific practices and curricula and discussed what might be perceived as violating the separation of church and state.

For example, when talking about teaching lovingkindness in the classroom, Adria Kennedy, Calmer Choice’s program director, said that it’s a practice the kids love doing, but it would likely not pass the litmus test. “It becomes a question of whether you can do it without using the terms or having the repetitive phrasing, because it’s the phrasing that makes it become like a mantra,” she said.

Some organizations have dropped the lesson from their curriculum, while others, like Calmer Choice, have substituted it for a lesson on gratitude and generosity. But Jensen suggests because the science indicates it’s the repetition that changes the neural pathways, there may be a question of potency when you begin to change exercises.

As the group examined different practices through this lens, they were able to start to categorize them. “We created a concentric circle diagram where the inside circle included exercises that would be safe to teach, like 5-fingered breathing and engaged attention. The next circle included exercises that might be okay, depending on your delivery and geographic location. The outside circle included exercises to avoid, like using Tibetan bowls, namaste hands, mudras, mantras, and anything that might be associated with religion.”

The group also took a hard look at what their intention is for bringing these practices to kids.

“What we really want to do is build resilience in kids and equip them for this world that’s on fire 24/7...so we’re really looking at what we do so it can be done in a way that is truly nonoffensive and completely secular,” said Jensen.

The group is considering creating a Mindfulness in Education coalition to help continue to guide these conversations. They are also planning to distill their notes into a short document they can share with others doing this work.

To stay informed or get involved, contact Fiona Jensen at fjensen@calmerchoice.org.

Back Row of Photo
Sheryl Petty, EdD, education equity and systems change consultant
Tom Roepke, New York City school teacher 
David Troutman, Calmer Choice Board Chair 
Randy Fernando, executive director of Mindful Schools
Clemens Bauer Hoss, MD, PhD, Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences at MIT 
Daniel Rechtschaffen, therapist and originator of the Mindfulness & Education Conference 
Michael Crowley, PhD, assistant professor in the Child Study Center at Yale

Front Row of Photo
Adria Kennedy, RN/NP, MSN, program director at Calmer Choice 
Fiona Jensen, OTR/L, executive director at Calmer Choice
Janice Houlihan, MEd, cofounder of Inner Explorer
Laura Bakosh, PhD, cofounder of Inner Explorer
Leslie Booker, teacher at Lineage Project
Susan Kaiser Greenland, JD, cofounder of Inner Kids
Sunny Wight, founder and executive director of Mindfulness First
Linda Lantieri, founding member of Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning
Lori Gustafson, MS, senior outreach specialist at the Center for Healthy Minds at the University of Wisconsin-Madison
Jane Hsu, principal at PS 116 in New York City
Chris Willard, PSYD, psychologist and author

Missing From Photo
Ali Smith, cofounder of Holistic Life Foundation
Michael Craft, business and program development strategist at Omega
Mikyö Clark, producer
Larry Brown, teacher at Cape Cod Academy 
Garrett “Dinabandhu” Sarley, launch manager and project consultant for 1440
Rev. Samuel Speers, DMin, assistant dean of the College for Campus Life and director of Religious and Spiritual Life at Vassar College

A Fresh Approach to Diversity

4 months 3 weeks ago

Omega recently hosted and participated in an important 3-day diversity training led by the Opening Doors Diversity Project. Participants from across New York’s Hudson Valley included representatives from Poughkeepsie Farm Project, Hudson River Housing, LGBTQ Task Force to Undo Racism, Dutchess County Human Resources, Local Economies Project, and Cornell Cooperative Extension 4H Youth Development. Each participant was there to review how they personally and professionally relate to diversity, and learn strategies and tools to bring back to their organizations and communities.

Opening Doors facilitators, Kathy Castania, Maryellen Whittington-Couse, and Eduardo Gonzalez, Jr., led participants through exercises to identify and explore their experiences in the current dominant/excluded model at work in our society—a “power over” approach. Then they introduced a partnership model—a “power with” approach. Participants learned to identify overt, implicit, and internalized oppression and discovered how to become responsible allies.

The training drew on real-life examples of oppression, primarily through storytelling by facilitators and participants. For example, facilitator/apprentice, Ricardo Adams, shared, “Saying, ‘Black lives matter,’ and someone responding, ‘All lives matter,’ is like saying, ‘Cancer is bad,’ and someone responding, ‘What about tuberculosis?’” Ricardo’s example illustrates how this way of thinking prevents us from recognizing and working together to address real issues for each oppression.

The training led participants to think through a number of important questions, like what dominant and excluded groups have you been part of throughout your lifetime? Have you experienced privileges as a member of a dominant group or the disempowerment of an excluded group? Has your experience been a combination of both? How can you use this awareness to notice and interrupt interpersonal and institutional oppression?

"This training helped my colleagues and I take important next steps on our personal learning journeys. It was very valuable to learn alongside peers in our region, since we can meet again and support each other to make changes in our communities and institutions," said Susan Grove, Omega's community engagement manager. "As Omega looks to support leaders who want to address inequitable systems that marginalize people, we are grateful that Opening Doors provided a learning experience that forged strong connections with leaders in our community." 

Facilitator Kathy Castania expressed high hopes for our region as a result of the targeted recruitment of local individuals who organize on issues of social justice. Workshop participants are in the process of organizing a follow up meeting to share how they are applying the insights they gained and to explore how they can work collaboratively moving forward.

To learn more, explore these fact sheets written by Kathy Castania: What Is Diversity? and The Evolving Language of Diversity.  

Photo
Jamie Levato, training organizer

Kathy Castania, Opening Doors Diversity Project training facilitator
Ricardo Adams, Opening Doors Diversity Project facilitator apprentice/participant
Maryellen Whittington-Couse, Opening Doors Diversity Project training facilitator
Eduardo Gonzalez, Jr., Opening Doors Diversity Project training facilitator
 

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