Photograph by John Keatley
When Seattle-based poet Heather McHugh, now 67, won a $500,000 “genius grant” from the MacArthur Foundation, a philanthropy dedicated to supporting creativity, she didn’t buy a Maserati or fly to Paris. Instead, she put the money in the bank and continued teaching college courses and writing poetry. “I was just stunned,” says Heather.
It wasn’t until about two years later, in 2011, that she finally figured out what to do with it.
That year, Heather’s godson and his wife welcomed their first child, a beautiful baby girl who was born severely disabled; doctors didn’t think she’d ever be able to walk, talk, or feed herself. “I saw how people’s lives can change overnight. I started thinking about all the people on this earth who are in the same situation,” says Heather.
She discovered there are millions of caregivers in the United States taking care of the chronically ill or disabled 24/7. “It’s a heartbreaking contract of love, and who but a poet would be lit up by that notion?” she says. So in 2012, Heather formed Caregifted, a nonprofit that offers a seven-day all-expenses-paid vacation to Vancouver Island, in British Columbia, to people who have been caregivers for at least ten years. “It’s hard physical, psychological, and emotional work. It’s clear they deserve and need a respite,” she says.
Tricia Elsner from Federal Way, Washington, was one of the first caregivers to go on vacation, in 2013. Heather found Tricia through the Seattle Children’s Hospital Autism Center. The now 51-year-old single mother of 19-year-old triplet boys, two of whom have severe autism, had her hands full. Ian would throw tantrums almost daily; he screamed and jumped up and down so hard that it shook the house and knocked nails off the gutters. Every time this happened, it set off Conner, who would lash out at Ian; when anyone tried to stop him, he would bang his head on the floor or try to hurt someone else. “It was not a fun life. I felt overwhelmed,” says Tricia, who has never been able to work full-time.
When Tricia got a phone call saying Caregifted wanted to send her to Eastport, Maine (caregivers used to be given the option of four locations), she “couldn’t believe” someone would pay for her to go on a vacation; disbelief gave way to concern about leaving Ian and Conner. Caregifted doesn’t pay for care for the disabled during the vacation, so Tricia arranged that on her own. But after two days away from her troubles back home, the worry was gone. “Since the boys were diagnosed at three years old, I’ve felt like there’s this big rock wedged in my chest. After being in Maine by myself, with nobody to take care of or think about except myself, I realized that rock was gone,” says Tricia.
Tricia went kayaking and exploring, but her favorite parts of the trip were indulging in the simple things.
“I got to eat hot food hot and cold food cold. I could go to bed when I wanted to and wake up whenever I chose to,” says Tricia. “I felt free.”
She was afraid the heaviness would return when the week was over, but to her surprise, it hasn’t been back since.
Heather says Tricia’s story resembles those of the other ten caregivers she helps every year. “They arrive at their hotel suite so crushed, and the transformation is amazing. They reflect and relax. They tell me it feels magically like another world and gives them a chance to see their lives from another perspective,” she adds. “Everybody needs restorative time. For some, it’s life-extending.”
Tricia and the other guests aren’t the only ones to benefit from Caregifted; Heather has too.
“I thought I was the queen of love, being a poet,” Heather says. “But I didn’t know a thing about love until I met these people.”