The Heron Center
Spirituality and the Philosophy of the Eight Guided Paths
April 25, 2023
IN-FOCUS ARTICLE: Jessica Howard & The Heron Center
It’s not unusual for the arts and spirituality to meet—the Rothko Chapel and the works of Van Morrison are two examples that come to mind—but there’s one clear place in the South Coast where the two not only meet but frequently collaborate: The Heron Education Center for the Human Spirit.
The Heron Center is a 501c3 non-profit operating at two locations. The first and largest is the Center’s community gardens and wildlife sanctuary in Westport, which plays host to Music in the Gardens during the summer, as well as seasonal celebrations, yoga, and educational programs and services. The second location is a flexible space in the historic Durfee Mills in Fall River that can host anything from music and dance performances to yoga classes and seminars in the humanities.
Both locations are run by Jessica Howard and her husband Colin Walford. The road to establishing the Center started as a spiritual quest for Howard. “Studying dance has been a huge part of my life and a huge outlet of expression. After receiving my BA in Theater and Dance in 2009 from Keene State College, I was doing that in addition to receiving my yoga teacher training, but I pondered, ‘OK, what am I doing with all this?’ I had the idea of wanting a center. Throughout my life, my vision got clearer and clearer, especially after I had completed my yoga teacher training.
“We were out in Vermont for a graduation retreat, and I was like, ‘Yeah, this is it, this is what I’m looking for. This is what I want, to be part of building a space for people to not only invest in their spiritual nature but also to immerse in the arts and nature. I grew up around the mountains and lakes of New Hampshire. I wanted to bring in all those aspects to one place as a retreat space, an educational space, a space for people to gather, to learn, and to connect with their inner selves and the outer world.”
“I moved down here from New Hampshire,” she said, “and shortly after that, I met Greg [Squillante], the founder. I don’t want to say it was a coincidence, but it was a very opportune meeting. His family trust supports the center and the work I do with the 501c3. They’ve gifted us this space so I can fulfill our mission.” That mission as described by the Heron Center’s website “is to cultivate balance amongst nature, community, and individuals.”
Squillante used the Philosophy of the Eight Guided Paths (POTEGP) as the basis for the Center. POTEGP is different from the similar-sounding Eightfold Path in Buddhism; POTEGP encompasses a wide array of religious, philosophic, and humanistic viewpoints. “It’s basically a road map for people to look at where they are,” Howard said. “Who are they? What are their goals? What are their beliefs?”
“We work with individuals and help each person to create a sense of understanding and connection to themselves and to their world. It’s the study of humanities in the sense that you’re helping people connect to that humanness, that spiritual nature, but everyone’s path is so unique. And that’s what I loved about [POTEGP]. I found some things in my prior yoga studies that were a little bit dogmatic. It didn’t make sense because we’re all so unique and different. How can one formula really resonate with everyone? After meeting Greg, I found the lessons within the POTEGP framework finally resonated because it gives a lot of freedom for individual expression within its philosophy.”
Howard studied POTEGP with Squillante for three years, during which they opened up the Center as a combination yoga and dance space, playing into her main areas of expertise. That was just the starting point. “It was always the intention for it to be an accessible space for people to come participate in programming. Because as an artist I had to work while I was in college to pay for my education and living. I just thought, ‘How do we make these things accessible for people like me that don’t have tons of money to throw around? How do we support the other artists out there?’”
The Heron Center accomplishes that through a variety of creative initiatives. Music in the Gardens is an annual music series that takes place in their Westport location’s stunning gardens. The Center also offers a free artist-in-residency program, in both locations. At a time when it can be expensive to find studio space, having a free location to create for a few weeks—in nature no less—can be a boon for artists. The Center’s Fall River location also offers low-cost open studio space from 11 AM to 1 PM on Tuesdays and Fridays for $5, or free for members.
A lot of the creative initiatives at the Center loop in local artists and musicians. Molly O’Leary has hosted Writer’s Circle nights in Fall River, mixing singer/songwriters with poets. The Center’s Fourth Annual Imbolc/Candlemas brought together a host of creatives, including O’Leary, Cassie Lee, Silvana Melo, and Hooly J Chan and her large-scale clay puppets.
Howard and Walford look to expand what the Center can offer in the coming years. Howard said, “With each of the seasonal events that we do about earth cycles and rhythms, I’ve always tried to collaborate with different artists. I see those growing. We’re on our third season of Music in the Gardens. And then I also see the possibility of offering more opportunities for artists. As we develop the woodland paths, working with artists to do things like sculptures in the gardens that are temporary, that are sustainable, and things like that.”
“I have this idea of doing meditation prompts so people can go on a self-guided journey, and they’ll find QR codes that guide them into an internal experience. We did a similar theme last solstice with a poetry walk.” The ultimate goal much further down the road is for the Westport location to become the lone Heron Center, folding in all of its creative, spiritual, and holistic initiatives, including nature and wildlife conservation. Having a single location is “about sustainability. We’ll always be part of the Fall River community because we do a lot of outreach there. But one location will make operations easier and make things more accessible.”
The Heron Center for the Human Spirit
311 Sanford Rd
Westport, MA 02790
Scott is a New Bedford-based singer, songwriter, and sound sculptor. He’s also The Artists Index’s Music & Performing Arts Podcast Host and In-Focus Article writer. Scott’s been creating music under the name Scapeghost since 2016.
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