Two friends give back to Institution that gave to them

Heather Whitehouse and Caroline LeVasseur. Submitted photo.

Sydney Maltese | Staff Writer

Longtime friends Heather Whitehouse and Caroline LeVasseur have a near-infinite list of common interests, but none is more thought-provoking and unique than Chautauqua Institution.

Whitehouse and LeVasseur first heard about Chautauqua independently through friends. After their first visits, both women immediately became hooked on the experience and began making the yearly trip to Chautauqua a habit.

“We spend at least a week at a clip, and then sometimes go back for an additional day or two over the summer,” Whitehouse said.

“With each year, I feel that much more at home on the grounds. I would say, in a very real sense, that it’s like coming home,” LeVasseur said. “There’s just such a sense of peace that permeates the place.”

While at the Institution, both women enjoy participating in Interfaith events. They also partake in many of Chautauqua’s arts programming, including the opera, theater and the evening entertainment at the Amphitheater. They engage in Christian service on the grounds through the International Order of the King’s Daughters and Sons.

“I feel so blessed that both Heather and I were exposed to the whole place,” LeVasseur said. “Its atmosphere — it’s just like a treasure trove. You just never know what you’re going to choose to experience from one year to the next, but you can go into it feeling that it’s bound to be something excellent and uplifting.”

Since Whitehouse serves as a Mennonite chaplain, both she and LeVasseur take special interest in the style and content of the preachers at Chautauqua. They enjoy listening for what the preachers do differently with texts that many already know.

“I just find that worshipping in the Amphitheater is so meaningful to me,” LeVasseur said. “It makes a big difference when you’re surrounded with literally thousands of people and the preachers are just the highest caliber and the music is great. I find it a very inspirational experience.”

The two women also like to sit in Bestor Plaza and listen to the symphony rehearsing or the impromptu musicians who pass through.

“It just hearkens back to a simpler time and a quieter time,” LeVasseur said.

Born in New York, Whitehouse now resides on a hobby farm in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario.

Originally from Pittsburgh, LeVasseur also currently resides in Niagara-on-the-Lake. Both spend several winter weeks in North Palm Beach, Fla. Whitehouse and her husband, Bruce, travel to Chautauqua with LeVasseur and another friend each summer.

“I feel that I take a lot away that helps me through the year to sort of stay grounded and optimistic about the future,” LeVasseur said. “Because there have been a few times when there have been low points in my life, and I really think that having that week in Chautauqua has really helped me.”

LeVasseur and Whitehouse met at Gettysburg College. As best friends with perfectly intertwined fascinations, both are dual citizens of the U.S. and Canada, and they jointly support all the same charitable organizations in both countries, including Chautauqua.

By supporting the Institution, the friends feel they can personally express their respect for diversity and democracy, encouragement of learning, appreciation of history and the connection with faith Chautauqua promotes and provides.

LeVasseur and Whitehouse explained that their desire to give back to Chautauqua stemmed from a dream of encouraging others to experience the Institution in the same way they had — or perhaps in an entirely different way.

The two women have included Chautauqua in their wills.

“We have been blessed by being exposed to Chautauqua, and we just want to return the blessing to other people after we’re gone. It’s really just as simple as that,” LeVasseur said.

Whitehouse and LeVasseur claim that Chautauqua, as an institution, has especially influenced their decisions about politics. LeVasseur declares herself better-informed on U.S. matters because of her Chautauqua experiences, despite not currently living in the states.

As voters in both countries, LeVasseur and Whitehouse know the importance of staying on top of numerous political matters. Whitehouse explained that Chautauqua has helped her to expand her knowledge of world issues and to understand how best to address those problems.

“Maybe we’ve heard about some of the problems that society faces, the opportunities and the challenges that we all face,” Whitehouse said. “What does that mean for us as individuals, what should we be doing, what kind of legislation and so forth do we want to see for the country?”

This season, the friends said they are most looking forward to Week Six’s “Digital Identity” theme. Their wish for Chautauqua is that it will continue to provide similar interesting themes long into the future.

“I hope that it continues to provide a holistic and a reflective experience for people to grow,” Whitehouse said. “That it will continue to provide a place for personal formation and growth as a whole person, and by that I’m talking about aesthetically, intellectually and physically, with a sense of personal well-being and worth and also an outlook for society.”

LeVasseur’s and Whitehouse’s bequest intentions to Chautauqua make them members of the Eleanor B. Daugherty Society, a group of individuals who have included Chautauqua in their estate plans through a life-income gift, retirement plan, trust or by naming Chautauqua in their will. If you would like to learn more about including Chautauqua in your estate plans, please contact Karen Blozie, director of gift planning, at 716-357-6244 or