Survivor’s personal path helps others start freshApril 23, 2014
Terri Wingham used to be driven by her career as a professional recruiter and had her sights set on the highest rungs of the corporate ladder, but now she spends her days trying to get more people affected by cancer to realize their “big hairy audacious dreams” through Fresh Chapter Alliance Foundation (FCAF) and its companion blog, A Fresh Chapter.
Wingham was diagnosed with breast cancer in October 2009, and a conversation with a friend around the same time shed light on a new purpose. Her friend asked her what she would do if she could do anything, to which she replied she was already doing exactly what she wanted. After some persistence, Wingham admitted she was interested in motivational speaking.
She said, “It took her pushing me because I didn’t want to think outside the box. I didn’t want to question whether I was truly happy with what I was doing. She had to ask me that question three times before I remembered a moment from my teenage years: ‘Well, when I was in high school there was this Olympic runner who came in and talked to our school. I don’t remember what she said, but I remember how she made me feel. I would love to be able to do that.’”
Wingham says that while the conversation had started, she didn’t have a plan at that point, but the wheels were turning.
“I think there’s this perception that we havethe answers and that cancer turns this light bulb on and we figure everything out. But, the reality is that even when I started A Fresh Chapter, I had no idea where it was leading.”
Telling a new story
With one more surgery on the horizon, Wingham says she was feeling “lost and purposeless” at the turn of 2011 after spending so much time in treatment, and that’s when she was struck with the idea of travelling to Africa.
“I didn’t want to end up depressed and bitter, and I felt like I was going down that track,” she said. “[Africa] had not been my dream… I really wanted to do something that could inspire me in a big way and that could replace cancer as the most recent story in my life.”
She didn’t go to Africa with plans to start FCAF, but the seed was planted after volunteering for six weeks in Cape Town, South Africa, and then travelling to Namibia, Botswana, and Zambia. On her last day in Africa, she visited Victoria Falls—a bucket list dream.
She said, “I think when I was standing under the falls, crying because I just felt so lucky to be alive, and felt like if I could get there, I could do anything. I started to really think about, ‘How could I help other people have this?’”
The long road to New Delhi
That’s the part in the story where you usually hear that everything fell into place, but Wingham is very honest about all of the hard work and time it took to get her idea off the ground. Her Commerce background and limited experience with non-profit organizations meant she was in a brave new world as she tried to develop a safe and sustainable program, build a network, get funding, and figure out where to start—mostly all on her own.
Wingham spent six months in 2012 volunteering in seven countries on five continents to learn how international voluntourism projects worked. She says by the end of the “trip around the world,” she had an idea to create a pilot program in India that incorporated once-in-a-lifetime activities that people dreamed about their whole lives, or wondered if they’d ever have a chance to do after they got sick.
“I knew I needed to pick a country that had something like the Taj Mahal, and then I knew I wanted to make sure the programming that we did had a positive impact on the community. It couldn’t just be about helping the cancer patients and survivors feel better about themselves,” she said.
Wingham says the language barriers and cultural differences quickly fade away as the volunteers start to notice commonalities and the impact on the communities they’re helping.
“When you can sit with somebody who has her own version of struggle—maybe she is physically challenged and was abandoned by her family—and you can be there to help wash her face or feed her lunch, suddenly you realize that you’re not the only person who has struggles, and you don’t look at her with pity like you might if you didn’t have that interaction with her. You look at her with compassion and say, ‘Well, your struggles might be your physical challenges, my struggle was cancer,’ but that struggle is universal. There’s something in that that’s healing for both parties,” she said.
Turning dreams into reality
Wingham met 12 North American cancer survivors in New Delhi for the first program in February 2013. They volunteered at placements organized by Cross-Cultural Solutions during the week, saw the Taj Mahal with the Toronto-based G Adventures on a weekend, and explored the “Fresh Chapter layer” throughout it all, which requires people to talk about some of the emotional challenges cancer forced them to deal with as well as share their dreams about what might be possible in the future. The program helps “build a bridge between being a patient and being a person.”
Since then, Wingham has seen the effects of the experience on the original 12 participants, and recently returned from a second trip with a group of 10. She has plans to hold three programs in 2015—two in India and one in Africa—and says part of planning new trips is figuring out what other peoples’ dreams are, too.
“It’s not just about me; it’s about the cancer patients and survivors out there who dreamt of Africa their whole life, or they dreamt of India their whole life, and they’re looking for an opportunity that helps to make a dream come true in a unique way while they’re also volunteering and giving back.”
Starting fresh without the travel time
FCAF also held a two-day pilot program in Los Angeles to see if the foundation could offer a shorter, lower-involvement way to introduce people to the idea of volunteering and dreaming big without the travel. Participants volunteered in a public garden during the mornings, and did activities focused on starting fresh in the afternoons.
Wingham would love to see the two-day program in every major city in North America, but right now, she’s trying to get her ducks in a row.
“When you’re building something, you always have to balance the big hairy audacious dream part of it with the how do we get through the next three to six months part of it,” she said.
“When you start something, you don’t know what you don’t know yet, and thank God you don’t because I had no idea how complex and difficult it would be to take something and make it sustainable,” she said. “You can’t keep taking people overseas until you put the groundwork in place. None of us are born knowing how to do that. The most difficult part is that trial and error of learning what you’re doing and learning how to do it well and being ok with failing. It’s not easy to admit that you don’t have all the answers and that it takes time to get there.”
You can be like Terri Wingham
Wingham says it helps to stay focused on programming for people with cancer while she is establishing a sustainable organization, but she has visions for five years down the road that are more focused on her passion of “starting fresh in whatever way you need to.” Content on A Fresh Chapter is sometimes about people with cancer, but the blog can be appreciated by anyone looking for a new start.
“I don’t want to stay in the cancer part of my story. Cancer is just one piece of it—and it’s an important piece and it was a transformational piece, but what really inspires me is helping other people who have been through this journey think about ‘What’s the rest of [your] story?’” said Wingham.
“So often in life, we don’t dream enough and we just go about the status quo. We get lost in what people tell us we have to believe and what society says we have to do,” she said. “Cancer and the experience of building a foundation have turned me into a dreamer.”
She says people can feel intimidated to take steps toward their goals because they see other people who appear to have it all figured out. It can be intimidating to think about what it will take to realize your goals, but all ideas and enviable projects started at the bottom.
“You could look at that and go, ‘Wow. I never could do that because I don’t have this brilliantly executed idea in my head.’ The reality is—none of us do! You just sort of move closer to what you think makes sense,” she said.
Terri Wingham will deliver a keynote address at Survivor Conference in Toronto, ON from June 5-9, 2014.
All photos submitted by A Fresh Chapter