Dr. David Victorson, Assistant Professor in the Department of Medical Social Sciences at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine, is a six-year resident of Evanston and the founder of True North Treks. His organization looks like a unique opportunity for young adult cancer survivors to rediscover a strength they'd once believed was gone.
I recently asked him some questions about True North Treks and what it means to him.
How did you get started with True North Treks? What gave you the idea?
In my day job I’m a health psychologist and researcher, and I used to teach this type of meditation to people with cancer at Evanston hospital for about 5 years. Now in my research, we’re looking at some of the health benefits of mindfulness meditation for people with cancer and their partners.
I worked with some young adult cancer patients who had a profound effect on me, maybe because we were around the same age, but also because their lives seemed to be affected in such different ways compared to the older adult cancer patients I saw. This age group has been referred to as being “lost in transition” when they finish treatment and enter survivorship because of all of the important life events, decisions and milestones that were either significantly interrupted or abandoned altogether.
We chose the name True North Treks because unlike grid or magnetic north, True North is marked in the skies by the position of the North star, which has been used for centuries for celestial navigation by seafarers and explorers to help them determine their whereabouts and cross featureless oceans without having to rely on random chance.
I’ve often referred to starting True North Treks as a “screaming” vs. a “calling”, and I finally decided that we better do something about it or the noise in my head would drive me (and my wife) insane. Because we had never formed a nonprofit or had the time to learn, we applied for help from the Northwestern University Bluhm Legal Clinic’s Small Business Opportunity Center, where law students in training helped us navigate how to become a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization, free of charge. We incorporated in 2008.
What does True North Treks mean to you?
For me it’s really a combination of feeling completely privileged, humbled and joyful to be able to do this…I love that my 5 & 7 year old kids know about True North Treks and both really want to go. That makes me smile…I love getting a letter or email from a trek alum months after that tells me how important the experience was and continues to be. It’s validating and reassuring that for now this is the right path.
What's a typical trek like?
I’ll refer to you watch our brief video of our first trek to get a sense of it. Our trek in Northern Montana and Idaho occurred in well-known grizzly bear country, which served as an incredible cancer survivor metaphor of trying to sit with and tolerate the uncertainty of the unknown potential threats that are ultimately out of our control. Our next trek in September 2011 will take place in the Olympic Peninsula of Washington, and based on our success in raising enough funds, we hope to be able to offer many different treks across the country, from the Pacific Northwest, Midwest and East coast.
[I watched the video and thought these lines summed it up: “Our curriculum consists of training young adult cancer survivors in primitive skills in outdoor competencies. In learning mindful awareness practices. In sitting in both pleasant and unpleasant experiences. We believe that exposure to these things can help young adult survivors learn to recalibrate their compasses as often as needed as their compasses may have become demagnetized because of the experience with cancer…the continual lesson that, “it is what it is”, but whatever ‘it’ is, it’s accessible to us in the present moment – the only time we really have.”]
How do you get funding (if you get funding)?
Any way we can! Since incorporating we’ve had a crash course in nonprofit fundraising, and it’s been a steep learning curve. We’re constantly meeting with professional fundraisers in the area to learn more about the art and science involved, and we’re very fortunate to have Evanston resident Elizabeth Middleton (Senior Development Officer of Donor Relations at Children's Memorial Hospital) on our advisory board for guidance.
Finally, what are the things you most like about Evanston?
There are many things that I love about Evanston. One is that it’s an old town feeling “urban-suburb” with great public transportation options and a coffee shop within walking distance in just about every neighborhood. I’m a four season bike commuter and Evanston is a bike-friendly city. My family and I are huge fans of the lake and the overall “Midwestern Berkeley” vibe of everyone here makes us feel like we’re home. I love college sports, but really appreciate that Evanston is “more” than just its sports teams, unlike some other college towns. Evanston is home and we’re very happy to be able to live here.
I'm proud to know David Victorson is a resident of Evanston, someone who's making a difference, like so many folks, About Town.