West Hartford resident Tracy Tighe Johnston has founded a nonprofit focused on empowering families to heal through outings and other experiences.
By Ronni Newton
Throughout the month of February, Tracy Tighe Johnston focused on spreading love. Hearts attached to utility poles near her Asylum Avenue home, across from Elizabeth Park, form an art installation as they proclaim love for the earth, for animals, for friends.
The hearts were purchased for a donation of at least $10 each through the month of February – but the heart-based fundraiser, timed to coincide with Valentine’s Day and heart health month – was more about raising awareness of a nonprofit Johnston recently founded that nurtures and supports families dealing with trauma.
Tighed Together is more than just an organization that offers professional support. And while they arrange outings and experiences for families, the goals are also different from organizations like “Make a Wish” because the the outings themselves are intended to promote emotional healing.
“It started with cancer, but now it’s about healing from all sorts of trauma,” Johnston said.
She started Tighed Together in 2020, but just launched the website for what has blossomed into a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization in January.
The organization is rooted in her family, in the lessons she learned growing up and in her own healing journey following a diagnosis of breast cancer and the discovery that what she thought initially was Stage 1 was Stage 3B, and that she carried the BRCA2 gene.
She received her cancer treatments in Connecticut, but had her surgeries performed at Dana Farber in Boston, where she participated in their Facing Forward program. She said she personally benefitted from the six-week program that emphasized survivorship, but it made her realize that her husband and kids didn’t have that opportunity.
“My diagnosis is my family’s diagnosis,” she said. It was important to try to find a way to better support her entire family on their healing journey. “I don’t want them to wonder alone.”
Johnston herself is a natural networker and facilitator, and she’s not afraid to be public or to reach out to the public. She even uses the front door of her home across from Elizabeth Park as a “canvas” – right now it’s also decorated with hearts.
“I’ve never been a silent person,” she said. “So many cancer survivors are stoic,” she said, but she thinks it’s important to talk about healing and recovery, to view it not as a battle but to find the positives, to bring family members closer together by openly facing their thoughts and their fears and to make their time spent together as positive as possible.
The outings are intended to be fun experiences for families, and the wide variety of options include trips to adventure parks, art therapy, drumming, visiting a farm, learning a new sport, family tattoos, music workshops, outdoor adventuring, paddleboarding or kayaking, puppy therapy, or a picnic at sea. Not all of the experiences are calm and meditative; there’s also a “rage room” session as an option. And if the available options aren’t appealing, families can create their own.
There is no charge for families, but there is a goal for the experience and participants aren’t just sent off on their own. Tighed Together’s facilitators works with families before, during, and after the outings in which they participate. The initial sessions are typically held via Zoom, and that’s when families determine the type of experience they would like to have.
People don’t like to talk about trauma, but the trained facilitators, all experienced, practicing providers, are adept at making the experiences meaningful and positive, helping people find new ways to confront their fears and the images that may haunt them, to talk about the things that have happened, or a diagnosis, that scares them.
Three families have already had experiences this year, and seven are currently in the works. “The goal is to be mostly spring and summer,” she said, but there are also ski outings.
“We’re really fortunate that the families who have found us are really looking for care,” Johnston said. This isn’t meant to be long-term care, she noted, but rather a short-term care situation, hopefully involving fun, laughter, and enhanced communication, that “empowers families to stay together.”
Growing up, she said, the Tighe family motto was: “The family that plays together stays together.” Tighed Together builds on that idea, creating positive memories of the adventures. It may sound overly simplified, she said, but it generally works. “Everybody’s family is fragile. We all want to stay close, and stay together.”
Johnston has always looked to spread positivity in multiple ways, and for several years has had a Little Free Library at the end of her Asylum Avenue driveway, with a chair beside it inviting people to stop and rest, and browse through the current offerings. She chats with those who use the library, and currently there are brochures for Tighed Together available in addition to books.
Learning to build a Little Free Library is also one of Tighed Together’s outing options.
Johnston, who was formerly a teacher, assistant principal, and special education director prior to her cancer diagnosis, is now running Tighed Together full time. The other facilitators – mostly physicians or licensed social workers, and she’s in the process of adding two more, one from Dana Farber and another from Hartford HealthCare – are all volunteers, but she gives them stipends. Funds that have been raised thus far are used to pay for the experiences as well, and Johnston is hoping to attract some corporate sponsorship.
“We’re just in our infancy stage,” she said.
“If you’re curious make the call for your family yourself. There’s no expectation of what your trauma is,” Johnston said, only the choice to be empowered to not be stuck in a negative mindset because of it, to be able to let things go down the river – literally if you’re kayaking or paddleboarding.
“There’s no criteria, no fee,” she said. “If you can, we encourage you to pay it forward, but no one ever pays for themselves.” There is no requirement to be from the West Hartford area, although many of the experiences are nearby.
People often ask what they can do to help when someone is faced with disease or trauma. Funding an experience can be an answer.
The facilitators also benefit from the experiences. Two are assigned to each family, and it’s a different approach than many are used to. “It’s really challenging mental health practices,” she said.
“There’s so much room for growth regarding families, and care,” Johnston said. “We are constantly provided a choice, if we’re not fighting it.”
Tighed Together is another way of making that choice, to find healing, which she said comes in lots of shapes and sizes.
For more information about Tighed Together, visit the website. The website also includes videos of family experiences, including a video of Johnston’s own family.
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