Janet Merrick and Gary Hillesland
Janet and Gary have been part of the fabric of IMCW for many years, serving in a variety of volunteer roles. As they step out of active volunteering, they sat down with E.D. of Programs Trisha Stotler to share a little about their experiences throughout IMCW’s evolution.
Trisha: Gosh, you two have been around longer than I have! When did you start coming to IMCW programs and getting involved?
Gary: Janet found Tara’s Wednesday night class in 2004 when our family was going through some difficulty, and we were looking for some solace. We both really resonated with Tara’s teaching and the gathering at River Road became a regular event for us. But it wasn’t until 2006 when we went on our first retreat at Sevenoaks that we really knew we were home. We fell in love with retreat. I really had no idea I’d make such a connection with IMCW.
Janet: Yeah, we really loved the whole community. For me, volunteering began when one day I realized after Wednesday night class that they recorded the talks, and I really wanted to hear them again. They were $10 each for a CD, and you’d have to wait several weeks for them to be mailed. I didn’t want to wait, so I volunteered to help produce them. I’d take the original cassette tape they were recorded on and drive them out to a little old man in Silver Spring to be converted to CD – he worked in this little closet of a studio. I’d drop them off and pick them up, then we’d sell them. Eventually, I got interested in learning how to do that part myself, and that really started me off on volunteering with anything related to sound.
IMCW had a website by then, and I got interested in posting the recordings there too, and soon after that on Tara’s own website. I remember a crucial meeting we had one Wednesday after class when we realized if we put them up on the websites, we couldn’t sell them anymore. At that time, it was a decent source of income for IMCW, so it was a leap of faith. But Tara said “Go for it! Put them all up and get it out there for free.” Dave Broadhurst, another wonderful long-time volunteer before me, figured out how to make a podcast and we were off! It felt like a freedom to open the gate to these teachings. And of course, that’s one of the ways Tara and IMCW got introduced to the world and listeners grew exponentially. It was so exciting to see. People from more and more countries joined us, and it was just beautiful to see the teachings spread.
Trisha: It’s interesting to look at it through that lens of how technology has had such an impact on how far and wide the dharma can be shared. This explosion of technology and participation around that time also coincides with a raft of new teachers coming on board, in addition to Tara and the handful of other folks who had been offering drop-in groups and daylongs around the DC area. So, it got really busy around here!
Gary, you also managed the IMCW Mentor Program for a long time, among other things.
Gary: I picked up the Mentoring Program in 2011. It had been running for a while already, but not many people were involved. There were maybe 5 or 10 in the program. We grew it by working with Jonathan Foust and graduates of his Year of Living Mindfully program. With his leadership, it grew to more than 100 people matched with mentors. That was intense, but it kept me in touch with everyone and I got to know a lot of people. I found it very fulfilling. Having someone to talk with about your practice is important. It’s great to see this program going strong! Hopefully, we can go back to having face-to-face mentor meetings again when the pandemic is over.
Trisha: Do either of you have a favorite story to share about your time volunteering, or just about your time at IMCW in general?
Gary: Can I share a favorite retreat moment? I remember we were at Sevenoaks, and in one of her talks Tara had shared the story about Thich Nhat Hanh describing his memory of his mother who had passed away – it’s well-known by now – walking in the moonlight in the vineyard, and his mother was with him as a memory. At the end of the talk, I went out and the moon was shining on me and I felt the presence of my own mother, and it was so wonderful. That’s the kind of thing that happens on retreat. Every now and then we get those real touching moments. I can still recall that feeling and I’m just so grateful.
Trisha: Thanks for sharing that, Gary. We’re going back to Sevenoaks for our residential retreats now starting in April, and we’re excited because the energy is so great there and the land is so beautiful. And so is the food!
Janet: A big moment for me was when a woman named Cindy Frei ran into Tara in the bathroom on Wednesday night and talked to her about this new thing called social media. Cindy was a real go-getter, and this prompted us to begin recording video. At first, we paid a guy who would drive in from Frederick to do it, then a few volunteers stepped up. But we really needed our own good camera. So, I just went out and bought one and we got it done. The guy from Frederick spec’d it out for me, and I just said let’s not fool around, we’ll just buy it. I remember it was a Panasonic – a big one we’d set up on a tripod – it’s still lying around somewhere! Then we got onto YouTube and things just took off again. So, moving to video was a big step.
I also managed retreats for many years with La Sarmiento, which was very special. I loved it so much because when you’re managing a retreat or even a daylong, you get into a gear where it’s all about service…how may I serve you? How may I make your retreat peaceful and the best experience possible? You go into gear and that’s it.
Trisha: What are your aspirations for IMCW going forward? What should we not forget as we look to the next 25 years?
Gary: I’d say the personal connections and staying true to the teachings. There’s so much uncertainty these days. I’m grateful there’s a virtual option for those who can’t make it in person and I hope we continue to stay connected to those who have come along over the past two years.
I also like having ceremonies – things we do together to mark occasions. I think adding more remembrances throughout the year is important, the blessing circles, solstice celebrations. So much about being in community is energetic – being in the room together.
Janet: My aspiration for IMCW is just a continuation of the work already being done around creating gathering spaces that are truly welcoming for all people. We’ve come such a long way since 2004, and yet there’s a lot of work to be done. And I’m very glad we’re doing it!