The Abbey Retreat Centre is encouraging exercise through its fundraiser, the Haliburton Highlands Challenge, which asks people to run, walk, paddle, bike, or anything active in support of the registered charity that supports people and their caregivers living with cancer. The fundraiser has been a success and has helped the retreat centre continue its work. See to join the challenge and donate to the centre. /Submitted by Doug Norris

Get moving for the Abbey Retreat Centre

By Darren Lum

The Haliburton Highlands Challenge is helping the registered charity Abbey Retreat Centre continue to support those with cancer and their caregivers.

It encourages the public, whether as individuals or groups (following social distance rules) to walk, run, paddle, bike, or anything active really, and take on adventures of exercise.

This not only helps to raise money for them so they can continue to support people living with cancer and their caregivers, but also promotes exercise as a cancer-wellness strategy.

Doug Norris, the centre’s executive director, is thankful to the support they have already received and encourages more to join the cause.

“The goal was getting people out exercising as a way of acknowledging that exercise is actually a really strong indicator of health for people who are on the cancer journey and [dealing with] other chronic illnesses. Ironically, even though they may have physical limits, finding a way of exercising does a lot for psychological health and immunity boost and strength boost and we’ve been really grateful for the response of the Haliburton community both people who are cycling, paddling and walking for us and  making donations. The donations will let us keep offering what we do for we’re hoping the next year or so. So a big thank you to Haliburton County,” he said.

See to participate and donate to their effort.

Despite the lack of in-person sessions now because of COVID-19 restrictions, the retreat centre still has expenses, including the cost of therapists and facilitators, Norris said. The funds are also important because all guests participate for free, which falls in line with alleviating potential stress to a person with cancer or their caregiver.

“The Haliburton Highlands Challenge has been a way to help us keep the doors open and pivot a bit so we’re now looking at doing a full retreat online. This is a new thing that seems to be emerging where people commit to staying home for the weekend and attending online sessions three times a day and the rest of the time on their own doing some of the meditation practices or yoga that they would have done if they were here at the centre,” he said.

The centre is navigating a virtual world and is transitioning to offer what it used to do in-person over a four day period to an online model expected to be implemented in October or November.

He notes how there are other retreat centres offering meditation retreats online through a video-conferencing app such as Zoom and would also include a solitary meditation practice.

Going virtual is about safety for guests, who are compromised.

“That amounts to a retreat without actually having to undertake the risk,” he said. “And of course the constituency we work with – cancer patients – are especially vulnerable. There’s lots of vulnerable populations, but people who are already in life-threatening immune situations [are] one of the last groups that’s going out of town to get together with people they don’t know.”

For the past several months, he said, the centre has facilitated online sessions.

There are inherent challenges with virtual offerings despite guests ready to connect.

It will come down to establishing trust.

“A big part of the model that we’ve developed is about building a safe community over the weekend so people can very quickly enter into some very trusting relationships and conversations and disclosures and so on. That’s a lot harder when you’re not sitting around a circle face-to-face, sharing meals and going for a walk on the trails and so on,” he said. “One of the challenges will be to quickly develop that trusting relationship with a small group of people. We’re talking 10 or a dozen is the usual number.”

A little bit of patience is important while working within the parameters of online communication.
“Speaking and listening is different in a teleconference. We think that people are … becoming more adept at relating carefully in conversation online, which usually means listening a bit better and speak a bit less,” he said.

The technological aspect is making people adapt. That means speaking slower and waiting for others to speak.

Although the centre has a wait list of guests, he encourages residents in the area to inquire with the centre, if they’re interested. Inquire at

The conventional in-person sessions included the guest with cancer and their caregiver.

Typically the retreat centre would host five individuals with cancer and each of them would have a caregiver, who is often their partner or child.

“We try to pay attention to the challenge for both sides of that partnership. We haven’t decided yet whether the online retreats would be specifically for the cancer diagnosed people or follow our usual [format]. Like a lot of different fields right now, we’re carving new ground, right? And figure out what will work.”

The challenges posed with the transition to the virtual world aren’t as daunting as they might seem at first glance since the centre is using their proven template for their program.

“The program itself is ready and largely that’s because it’s what we’ve been doing for the last three years as an organization. We’re not having to invent something radically new. We just have to shift it to a new kind of platform,” Norris said.