Our Vision

Cindy Pickard Founder/Director Rites of Passage
with son Andy and Elisabeth Kubler-Ross.

"People are like stained glass windows. The true beauty can be seen only when there is light from within. The darker the night, the brighter the windows"

-Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, MD

Rites of Passage, originally called AIDS Care and Assistance, is a non-profit agency which was founded in 1988 to provide services for terminally ill people and their families. Rites of Passage was born out of the deaths and losses I experienced in my own life, and I have written this story of how and why it came to be because it is a story that may be helpful to someone else.

When I was seven years old, my family moved to Texas from the Midwest, and my mother was diagnosed with terminal cancer. From then on, for what seemed an endless period of time, my life was made up of one devastating loss after another. My mother died, my brother committed suicide, my grandparents died, the family homes that were my only connection to my mother and the past were sold, and we moved again and again. It seemed to me that I was being punished for something, though I didn't know what, and, unable to trust life, I withdrew more and more from the people and the world around me. I could not imagine any sort of future for myself like the people I went to school with who talked about college majors and future careers. The only talents I had were in art. I liked to paint and draw a little, but these were not significant - or so I felt. Sometimes I had a vague sort of vision of working with patients in a hospital, but as I could barely manage a day-to-day existence, I knew I would never go to medical or nursing school. So, I put the vision out of my mind. Years passed; I got married and had a son. After some time, I signed up for an occupational therapy assistant program at a local community college. Two weeks into the program, however, I realized that occupational therapy was not at all what I had envisioned. I disliked the class intensely and wanted to quit, but one of my teachers convinced me to stay, and so I struggled through the year, all the while knowing (or so I thought) that occupational therapy was nothing I would ever use.

Feeling more of a failure than ever, I decided to try photography and took some continuing education classes at a nearby university. Although I enjoyed photography in some ways and, for a while did portraits of children, it seemed just another attempt to fill the emptiness in my life, and I didn't pursue it. When I looked at the lives of people around me, it seemed that everyone but me was doing something meaningful and important. Most depressing of all was reading my college alumni magazine. I had briefly attended a women's college in Virginia and, by this time, all of my classmates seemed to be making a difference in the world. It is difficult to express how hopeless I felt at that time in my life. Darkness and depression followed me wherever I went, and I began to put myself in dangerous situations as I lost the will to continue living,

Then, in the darkest moments, a turning point came - an event that totally changed my understanding of life and death and our reason for, being. Through a strange set of coincidences, I ended up one spring day in 1978 at a talk given by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross. I sat in the very front row of the auditorium listening to every word she said and feeling an unfamiliar feeling - a sense of hope. As soon as I got home that afternoon, I called the Kubler-Ross Center in California and put myself on the waiting list for one of Elisabeth's workshops which she was conducting throughout the United States at that time.

Over the next few years, I attended several of Elisabeth's workshops and I began to view the events that happened to me as experiences I was meant to learn from rather than as punishments from God. Elisabeth often said in the workshops that life was like a tumbler, and it was our choice whether to come out crushed or polished. This made sense to me. I wanted to come out polished and determined to work on this. I began to feel there might be a purpose for me after all. I attended hospice conventions and seminars on AIDS and, after a time, began working for a hospice in my community, using my certification in occupational therapy which I had thought I would never use. Using my knowledge of arts and crafts, I encouraged my patients to paint pictures, write poems, and make scrapbooks as remembrances for their family and friends. Sometimes I audio taped their life stories for their grandchildren, and often I photographed them. These photographs were used by the hospice (and continue to be used more than ten years later) for fundraising and community education.

I loved hospice work, and a vision began to form of my own hospice-type agency in which I would combine some of the practical things I had learned with my own unique vision. I definitely wanted to somehow incorporate art and photography into whatever I did in the future. I attended more hospice seminars, researched the needs of the community, and in June, 1988, Rites of Passage, then called AIDS Care and Assistance, accepted its first home care patient, a man with AIDS.

Since that time, Rites of Passage has provided many types of services for people facing death and dying. Some have been traditional hospice-type services like home health care, and some have been innovative, like the art classes we developed for our patients and staff, and a patient- produced art exhibit. A grant from a private foundation enabled Rites of Passage to offer seminars on AIDS and on death and dying to community and church groups.

In searching for a way to make these seminars more interesting and share some of the experiences of our patients more directly, I asked my son (who was coincidentally working on his degree in Radio/Television/Film at that time) if he would be willing to film some patient interviews. He was, and these interviews eventually became full length videos now widely distributed throughout the United States and Canada.

As my vision and understanding of myself and what happened to me has changed and expanded, so has Rites of Passage. From a small agency that provided home care to people with AIDS in Austin, Texas, we have become an organization which, through our videos, has reached and touched people throughout the world. This was brought home to me recently when I received a fax from the director of an AIDS program in Africa. Along with one of our videos, I had sent her a poster of an AIDS baby we had provided care for, and she responded saying, "The poster is already pinned on our notice board, and it's so touching to think such an innocent looking baby is an AIDS victim. He is symbolic and representing thousands of children in Tanzania caught in that situation without an option of saying no."

Looking back on my life, now, I have, along with a feeling of tremendous gratitude, a sense of amazement - amazement that light could come out of so much darkness - that the different talents, experiences, and visions I had which seemed so insignificant were each an important part of an overall plan - and that the losses and deaths which caused me so much pain and nearly destroyed me were also the greatest learning experiences of my life. Each step has led to another, but because these steps were most often taken on a path that was unfamiliar where no guarantees were offered, I have learned to trust my intuition. I have also come to understand that though in the darkest moments it may not seem to be so, there is a plan and a purpose for all of us. What lies ahead I do not know, but to end with a little Texas philosophy and quote Texas singer/songwriter Robert Earl Keen, I am resolved "to ride the horse that brought me here 'til I cross that finish line."

Cindy Pickard
February, 1998