UNION — Donna Panucci and her husband, Jim Shannon, had for years been on the hunt for a rural West Virginia property. But with one caveat.
“I had said no further than an hour and a half from Charleston!” Panucci recalled.
She had a thriving, busy work life with her Panucci & Jackfert Orthodontics practice in South Charleston and a satellite office in Gallipolis, Ohio. The couple had searched long and hard for a getaway property, focusing on Greenbrier County. But to no avail.
Then, they got a call from their real-estate agent, who wanted them to consider Monroe County. The 170-acre property the agent drove them to broke Panucci’s caveat — it was some two hours, 15 minutes from Charleston.
Then she stepped foot on the property.
“It’s almost like my blood pressure dropped,” she remembered. “I’m a type-A, high-energy, high-strung, typically stressed-out individual. That’s just my nature.”
But the rolling property in Union, complete with a white Civil War-era chapel and streaked with limestone rock from ancient ocean beds, had an instant effect.
“You get here and there’s nothing but beauty, green, air, trees, no noise. No lights at night. It is unbelievable. It’s like being out in the West in the desert. Just the simple energy of this area was something I really wouldn’t have believed if I hadn’t experienced it,” Panucci said.
And there’s the key word at the heart of everything that has happened since — energy.
The couple purchased the property in December 2012. But Panucci has bigger ideas for it than just to escape with her husband, three children and dogs to West Virginia’s quieter side.
Despite her bustling practice as a popular orthodontist, Panucci had long found time to train in alternative healing fields and different, more ancient, as well as New Age, ways of dealing with the energy of the body, mind and spirit.
So it is that the Monroe County property is ground central for Panucci’s vision for the Blue Ray of Hope Center for Holistic Studies, the beginning seeds of an ambitious effort to offer a wide array of workshops, retreats and gatherings focusing on alternatives approaches to health and wellbeing.
She envisions the property as becoming a sort of mini Omega Institute, the popular center in Rhinebeck, New York, which features a host of teachers, healers, thinkers and artists who draw connections between natural healing, spirituality, creativity and beyond.
“I have a big vision,” Panucci said.
She stood one recent sunny spring day on the windswept property, as two pet goats leapt to one side of her, a half-dozen Murray Grey cows nibbled grass on an opposing hillside and two recently purchased horses — Bud and Laredo — trotted across a far field.
In the last dozen years, Panucci has immersed herself in different energy and healing practices. “Modalities” is a word that tumbles easily off her lips to refer to alternative traditions and healing regimes, both relatively new and very old.
“I personally teach energy medicine, Eden energy medicine. And I’ve taught several classes here at the chapel as well as in Charleston,” she said. “I also teach integrated energy therapy, another energy modality. All very, I’d say, adjunctive, alternative approaches to health and wellness.”
She is an HBDI certified practitioner, which features an assessment that evaluates the degree of preference individuals have for thinking in each of four brain quadrants, as depicted by the Herrmann Whole Brain Model, in order to improve personal or group communication and other benefits.
She studied with Doreen Virtue to become a Certified Angel Therapy Practitioner, a practice described on Virtue’s website as a “non-denominational spiritual healing method that involves working with a person’s guardian angels and archangels, to heal and harmonize every aspect of life.”
Panucci, along with her husband, is also trained as a Reiki master, the healing technique based on the idea that one can channel energy into another person by means of touch, triggering the natural healing processes of the patient’s body.
She also studied to become a Pathway Prayer Process Akashic Records Practitioner under the guidance of Linda Howe, a one-on-one consultation process that might best be described as soul work at a mystical, but practical level of insight into the forces at work in one’s life.
A recent meditation workshop also gave her insight into the intuition Panucci experienced that led to christening her organization the Blue Ray of Hope.
“I was fortunate to attend Deepak Chopra’s meditation workshop in January,” she said. “And Deepak explained what hope was, which was really wonderful for me to hear. When I came up with the name of our organization, I really wasn’t quite sure where and why. This was very enlightening to me: that hope is a path. And it’s much like a thread leading through a maze — that it doesn’t get us out. But it’s our connection to freedom. And if you follow the thread of hope you can make your way out and feel the joy of liberation.”
All of which is to say that she and her husband are well on their way to offering a smorgasbord of hope-infused healing workshops and spiritually themed gatherings in the heart of the heart of the country, with an even grander vision for the place on the way.
On June 6 and 7, Dr. Roger Jahnke, an internationally known teacher of the ancient Chinese practices of tai chi and qigong, will lead “The Healing Power of Tai Chi and Qigong” in the chapel.
On Sept. 12 and 13, there will a basic workshop on “The Way of the Shaman,” led by Dana Robinson, who received his training through the Foundation for Shamanic Studies. The foundation was created by Michael Harner, who has pioneered the introduction into contemporary life of shamanism, the ancient practice of attaining altered states of consciousness in an effort to encounter other spiritual realms for guidance.
Panucci’s husband has also received training through Harner’s foundation, and the event will no doubt be making liberal use of the property’s hillside fire circle, ringed with large, rough-hewn sitting stones.
For Panucci, the multifarious trainings and events all come together in a common purpose: being open to old and new ways of looking at health and wellbeing.
“I’m open to anything. At this point, I’ve basically opened the doors and I’ve offered this location for anyone that would like to come teach in our community,” she said.
As an orthodontist trained in Western ways of doing things but with a wide interest in alternative healing methods, she said she wants Blue Ray of Hope events and gatherings to delve deeply into the connection between mind and body.
“I’ve learned that the physical body is affected by the energy body. And the energy body is where illness begins — emotional, physical, mental illness begins in the energetic world,” she said.
“In Western medicine we just treat the physical, we don’t treat the energetic. So it needs to be a package. That’s part of my passion. Teaching others about the value of treating that energy body, the energetic body, in addition to the physical body — your emotional, mental being. It’s not hard, it’s so simple. The techniques are amazing.”
As she surveyed the swells and vales of the Chapel Ridge Farm land, she pointed this way and that, gazing into a future of possibilities. She pointed to the apex of the property.
“There’s a 360-degree panoramic view up there that’s just amazing. And I see a glass octagon for gathering. That could be utilized for anything and everything from yoga to meditation to any type of learning,” she said.
She pointed downward toward the horse barn near the chapel. Bud and Laredo started trotting in from the hills after hearing plastic food bins being filled by her eldest son, Banyon.
“I would love to have an equestrian center, horse therapy. I experienced horse therapy myself two years ago. I’d never been around horses and it was unbelievable how a horse mirrors what’s within you.”
She sees cabins, a dormitory, a place to pitch tents.
“I see an arts and crafts center, meditation centers. I see organic gardens. I also envision orchards, fruit orchards, a community kitchen. A place that we could come and take care of each other. Back to the day when everyone just helped each other.”
Panucci said she is so open to different paths because people’s needs are different.
“I envision the gamut. I think everyone has a different need. They relate to different types of belief systems. People relate to different modalities based on their upbringing and their background. I’d like to see not just energy medicine, but the shamanic practices, which is what Jim is studying right now, as well as meditation.”
A lifelong optimist, she has also always cast about for new ways of looking at things, she said.
“I’ve always been a seeker and looking outside the box. I’m from the Western world of medicine. I’m an orthodontist, so I went to dental school. So, I was immersed in left-brain medical work all my life.
“But I knew there was something else out there. We have so many wonderful tools … that we have basically written off from the ancient Eastern ways — over 3,000 years old, these many techniques are.”
She was quick to add a disclaimer.
“I’m not saying Western medicine’s not necessary. It absolutely is a wonderful opportunity for us to heal. But we have so many things we can do first or together with our modern modalities,” Panucci said. “We can truly help ourselves. Every one of us has the power to heal within us. Everyone of us does. We’ve just forgotten.”
As she and her family began to spend more time at the Monroe County property, there were a succession of discoveries. There were simple, yet delightful ones discovered at night (“So many falling stars!” Panucci said). Then, there was a discovery that could only be described as synchronicity, especially given her initial, adamant desire to be closer to Charleston.
Her mother’s maiden name was Swope. It turns out the Swopes cut a pretty wide swath through Monroe County history.
“I didn’t know much about my mother’s family history,” Panucci said. “So she says one day, ‘You do know that this is your ancient stomping ground.’”
No, she did not know that, Panucci replied.
“She said, ‘Well, your great-great-great-grandfather settled Monroe County.’ So here I am — I came home. And I didn’t even have a clue. There’s Swope’s Knob. There are Swope cemeteries all over the place. And everyone here knows the Swope stories.
“So I’m part of the land and didn’t even know it. Another reason to be here. Isn’t it amazing?”
“So I think we’ve all been pulled back here, I hope, for some purpose.”
For more information on workshops and events, visit www.bluerayofhope.com or follow @BlueRayofHope on Twitter.