On Friday 10/26/12, Obi (our Health Education Coordinator) and I drove a van of 6 BFC clients out to a lakeside yoga retreat house near the Shenandoah Valley.

As we rolled over the curvy country road, I could feel the city stress just melt away from me and all of my van mates. With every tawny yellow leaf and clean inhale of autumn air, memories of concrete and to-do lists and making ends meet slipped momentarily into the background.

We were here for the sole purpose of relaxing. We were on a day-long yoga retreat.

When we got to Debbie’s house – Debbie Sheetz is one of Bread for the City’s volunteer yoga instructors, and the person who fortuitously has a lake house in Virginia and a dream of sharing it with others – we made a beeline for the water’s edge. Water is so healing… and it’s also a great canvass for canoeing and leaf-peeping!

We all took turns going out in the canoes, some folks went off for a walk up the country road, some sat and read or meditated. After our free time we came together and Debbie led us through a peaceful 60 minutes of yoga on the deck looking out on the trees and lake. Then we all made and shared a delicious vegetarian meal together before taking the dark road 2 hours back to the city.

“I can’t remember the last time I was out in a boat, but it came right back, and man, did it feel good,” said one participant. One woman who has been living out of her broken car for the last few weeks while she plans a move to Texas where she has more family support said, “I really needed this.” Another said, “This is the most relaxed I have been in a long time, maybe my whole life.”

One participant said directly to Debbie a toast of sorts over dinner, “It wasn’t just that you invited us for a retreat, but you opened up your home to us and that is a very personal thing… that’s a difficult thing for many people to do, but I believe those who give are the happiest in this world.”

This comment was one of many insightful gems that made me think throughout the day.  As I said before, the main goal of the trip was relaxation, and on that front we had irrefutable success, but I’d say there was also another win: community building. The simplicity of this observation feels almost insulting, but I was reminded that when you relieve people of the distractions and bustle we are able to laugh and connect and grow in ways that we wouldn’t have been able to back in DC.

At Bread for the City we talk about client engagement as one of our new frontiers. But how does it happen? So often client engagement in the past has materialized as a survey or a one-off meeting where we expect “the community” to make a special trip out to tell us what they think.

The retreat was a reminder that meaningful client engagement can happen when you don’t have an agenda, but the conditions are just right. When we feel relaxed and connected and whole, we can cross barriers like class and race to have meaningful discussions about real stuff like gentrification, and trauma, and the type of world we want to see. I had a feeling that we could do anything, that there were an expansive number of good ideas and beautiful collaborations that could be made. In my opinion, that’s what client engagement should be about – change through conversations and spaces in which we see each other as equals, not just service providers and clients.

On that note, thank you Debbie for opening up your home to us and treating us to a wonderful day, and Bread for the City for giving us the wheels and the gas and the leeway to try this. I also want to thank Sandra, Jeanette, Desmond, Christine, Ivy, Maxine, and Obi for sharing this special experience and your whole selves, your wisdoms, and your backseat driving with me.