I’ve always valued friendships with other women and strove to maintain them. In fact, I spent my 60th birthday with two friends: one I’ve known since 1st grade and the other since junior high.That’s why, when a friend, who I’ve only known for 30 years, told me she was putting together a retreat in Costa Rica, I said, “yes”! Another friend asked me where we would be staying and what part of Costa Rica we were going to. I said, “I don’t know, but I’m in.”
I’m so glad I said yes.
The retreat happened thanks to three amazing women with a vision: Sue Lembeck-Edens, Rachel Mefferd and Judy Kohnen.
Sue and Rachel met each other at Goucher College in Maryland where they were Dance Therapy majors over 30 years ago. Although neither are practicing dance therapists currently, they are still in the health field. Rachel is an acupuncturist who also teaches Nia Dance, while Sue is a massage therapist who also teaches Asian healing practices such as Qigong.
Sue and Rachel connected for a weekend retreat on San Clemente beach in California. They invited a few friends to join them, including Judy, who Rachel met when their daughters were in daycare together.
During that weekend, they shared what helped them get through the pandemic and what they did for self-care. They also talked about what they wanted more of in their lives and decided they wanted more time with other women.
“We wanted more experiences whereas older women, we could spend time together like we used to in our 20s, before our families. We wanted to just laugh a lot, have fun and hang out in a way we typically haven’t given ourselves permission to do in a long time,” said Rachel.
Rachel began looking into retreats where she could be a participant. “They looked really good, but when I tried to picture myself there, there were so many question marks,” Rachel said. “I thought, what if we just do one of our own and invite people we knew.”
Rachel started by asking her close group of women whom she’d taught Nia Dance to for many years. “We had that background as dance buddies,” Rachel said. She thought it was a natural extension to go on retreat together. Judy and Sue reached out to their network of family and friends as well.
“Our stumbling block was finding a location,” Judy said.
They considered several locations, but nothing seemed to fit until Rachel was talking to a friend, who told her about a place in Costa Rica. It sounded like the perfect location.
Her friend told her she was taking a direct flight from California (where she lives) to the Guanacaste Airport in Liberia, Costa Rica. That airport there is small and easy to navigate and most importantly, the AirBnB where she was staying could accommodate 14 people.“Everything that she said was what we have been dreaming about,” Rachel said. Then when she saw the pictures and knew, “Yes, that’s the place.”
Rachel immediately texted Sue and Judy.
“We ran the numbers to see how many people we would need to make it viable,” Judy said. Then, they decided to set some dates and put it out to see if anyone was interested. They created a flier and sent it out “to our favorite people,” according to Judy. They needed a minimum of 9 people and ended up with 14.
Although many women said they wanted to go, they just couldn’t make the commitment, Judy said.
“Women have to give themselves permission to have time for themselves,” Judy said. “a bunch of my friends just wouldn’t give themselves permission. I get it. For years I haven’t given myself permission to do stuff too.” However, she also understood that some people had other commitments. “It’s also where you are in your life,” Judy said. She asked some friends and family members, but they had younger kids and were not able to go.
For Sue, it wasn’t really just about getting away for a vacation, she said it was about connection. “Being here in Central Pennsylvania, there isn’t a lot of opportunity to connect with my peer group. So, the idea of building it and they will come was really important to me,” Sue said. “I don’t really have a group with those similar interests, so I really have to extend myself. Now that my kids are older, I have time and desire to build those connections.”
Judy and Rachel thought about including their husbands in the trip either before or after the retreat, but it just became too complicated logistically because there wasn’t enough buy-in from the husbands to see if it would be feasible to extend our stay, according to Rachel.
The group also talked about having a mother-daughter retreat, so they combined their ideas and asked their daughters to come along with them. The girls came along with the group.
“Having the girls there was a really beautiful added experience,” Rachel said. “I think it added a depth of women. We had women aged 20 into their 70s,” Sue said. “Everyone embraced one another regardless of age.”
“The thing that I was struck with the young ones,” Judy said, “was their confidence. ‘Costa Rica, no problem!”
She added, “I think the girls enjoyed seeing their moms interacting with their friends and running this retreat. I think they had a lot of pride in us.”
Sue, Rachel and Judy took the divide and conquer approach to planning the retreat.
Rachel found the AirBnB. “That was the inciting incident of the story,” Judy said.
Then Judy became the numbers person. She determined what the costs would be and how much each person needed to pay and collected the money. Judy was also responsible for working to arrange meals. The leaders had decided to have a majority of the meals catered and Judy arranged the menus. The expenses worked out to be about $200 a day according to Judy. The group leaders wanted to keep the trip at a modest price point, but they understood that for some people that price was still too high.
Sue was responsible for arranging the trips such as kayaking, snorkeling and visiting a Macaw Reserve. Although Judy did much of the research, Sue handled working with the local adventure tour group and actually booking the trips.
The plan was to integrate a half-day tour into each day’s schedule. They created their programming around the tours such as “Birds of a Feather” was the theme the day the group went to the Macaw Reserve.
Sue worked to accommodate everyone’s wishes, but it was challenging at times to make everyone happy. If people wanted a different tour than the ones that were offered, Sue put them in touch with her tour company.
“At every step of the way there were challenges. I have to say right up until a couple days before we got on the plane there were challenges,” Sue said. “If I had to do it again, in retrospect, I would probably have a cut-off date and said ‘all done’.”
Rachel served as back up to Sue and served as the project manager. Her skills with “WhatsApp” also came in handy when communicating with the tour company.
Judy said, “You also have to understand that Costa Rica is not an immediate culture. I was asking about food and the menu and the guy said ‘oh yeah, don’t worry’,” Judy said. Only two weeks before the trip did Judy have more concrete plans regarding the food.
Vacation or Retreat
For Sue, Judy and Rachel, the trip was not just about planning a vacation with girlfriends, it was about getting more of what they talked about in San Clemente. Each one brought their talents to the table and set up programming for every day.
“The initial vision for the retreat was the programming. The tours were just secondary because we were in Costa Rica,” Rachel said. “But primarily we want to offer a creative arts retreat where we could dance, write, learn some Asian healing arts and share what we love to do in a community.
Each day there was a theme, for example, one of them was “Sunrise, Sunset” to correspond with the Sunset Boat Tour. “Then we would circle back to our programming and we would create images and writing to correspond with that theme,” Rachel said.
Judy was responsible for creating writing prompts and led the portion of the program on journal writing. For “Sunrise, Sunset”, Judy prompted people to write about different phases of their lives. Her interest in writing began when her kids grew up and left home. “I knew I needed a well-developed interest,” Judy said. “I didn’t know what to be like ‘It’s the end of the world,’ when my kids moved out.” She’s been writing workshops for over 10 years and was excited to share her interest with the group.
Sue led the Asian healing arts program from Yoga to Tai Chi to Qigong. Each class was different and focused on relaxation and getting in touch with the participants’ inner thoughts. Over the years she has built her career on her passion for Dance Therapy. “Everything is related to movement and body. Whether it’s energy within and around the body,””What I shared (during the retreat) I cultivated in a class I’ve been teaching for about 10 years now called ‘Meditation Through the Seasons’,” Sue said. ”That’s the movement I have embraced through the years.”
Rachel led the group in a wide variety of dance routines. Each had a different message and a mixture of upbeat music and rhythmic moves. “The communities of women started through dance, so of course we were going to dance and do other healing arts. We did improvised dances that were related to the tours.”
Although they had everything planned, Judy said they built in flexibility. “We wanted to be able to make changes based on the mood of the group,” Judy said. “I had different writing backups to try to match up with people’s moods of the day.”
But what wasn’t flexible was the time. “The writing portion was for a very fixed time,” Judy said. Each section had a set amount of time that the leaders stayed within. “I think we worked really well together,” Judy said.
In the evenings, the leaders invited other members of the group to share and present their passions. It was a great opportunity for the group members to learn more about each other and their individual artistic endeavors.
One of the greatest challenges was the weather. “It was really, really hot and people were not that interested in working up a big sweat,” Rachel said. Luckily, the AirBnB has a pool outside that the group used to keep things cool. Dance routines were often followed by a dip in the pool and some routines were even moved into the pool.
I spoke with the women a few weeks after the retreat to see what they thought of the week.
“I thought it was fantastic,” Sue said. “I had a great time.”
“I really enjoyed my part,” Judy said. “At first people were reluctant to get up early (6:30 a.m.) for the Early Pages writing, but with the sun coming up early and going down early it made early birds out of night owls. People really started showing up to the writing and people really shared.” “I loved spending time with my daughter. I loved having time with the women. I loved the body movement part being able to move all day,” Judy said. However, she admitted that the woman’s energy could be a little overwhelming at times. “I was really surprised by that.”
“It really met all my expectations and my vision,” Rachel said. “I fell in love with Costa Rica and would really like to go back and explore more of it.”
“I feel we got so much of it right. It felt so good in that way. Sharing dance with everyone and seeing their smiling faces has stayed with me,” Rachel said.
One of the changes they would make would be to have clearer intentions. “We kept saying to people that this was a hybrid model of a retreat. Some of it is structured and some of it is you,” Rachel said. Not everyone understood that. People understood the structure, but they were reluctant to venture out on their own according to the group leaders.
If they decided to plan another retreat, they might hold it in the U.S. “Having it in Costa Rica we were taking in a lot of unknowns. So, we might do something in the states where we would have a little more control.
But as far as the programming, I wouldn’t have changed a thing,” Sue said.
Judy said they might also have a smaller group.
“I have to say it was a lot of fun. It was a lot of work too. I loved all the planning,” Rachel added with a laugh. “It was pretty ballsy to do it.”
For Judy the only downside was when there were glitches during the retreat. “It was a stressor when things go wrong on your watch,” Judy said. But she said when that happened, they had each other to lean on.
“I have to say we had each other’s backs” Sue said, ”in the planning and the facilitating.” “And we knew how to pull out the best in each other as things came up,” Sue said.
And of course, having co leaders allowed them to vent!
“I have nothing but a deep bow to Judy for all of her details and cool-headed numbers. And for Sue keeping everything in emotional balance and to ground everyone. I felt so comfortable co-leading with them,” Rachel said.
“This is the perfect time in our lives to go on a trip like this,” said Judy.
If you know someone I should interview for this blog, email me at email@example.com.