Stephen Kavalkovich serves on the planning board of his Burlington County hometown, where he also became an emergency medical technician, began his recovery from opioid addiction, and founded a shamanic practice called Ancient Healing Pathways.
“The word shaman means someone who sees in the dark. I’ve had a lot of dark, and my own healing journey has groomed me to find ways to help other people heal,” said the 40-year-old Evesham Township resident, who’s married to a teacher and has a son and a daughter, ages 13 and 10.
“To be a shaman,” Kavalkovich said, “you don’t have to be some mystical guy who lives on a mountain.”
Raised in the Russian Orthodox church — he was an altar boy at Assumption of the Holy Virgin in South Philly — Kavalkovich is a state-certified recovery specialist who works with individuals reentering the community after incarceration.
That’s his full-time gig. As Owl Grey Fire (”I have always felt connected with owls”), he offers shamanic healing sessions. He said this time-honored spiritual practice, which combines elements of ceremony, light-touch massage, and talk therapy, can facilitate what he calls “soul retrieval.”
Shamanic practice is compatible with more conventional approaches to mental and physical wellness, he said, and it has nothing to do with the so-called ”QAnon Shaman,” Jacob Chansley, who was among those who stormed the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.
A soft-spoken man with a ready smile and an alert gaze, Kavalkovich was born a triplet and believes the death of his brother Matthew, 24 hours after their birth, was the first of several “woundings” he suffered. An attempted sexual molestation by a youth group leader, and a former high school girlfriend’s death in a traffic accident, also traumatized him, as did his 15 years of living in addiction.
“Shamans were the original trauma therapists,” he said.
After stints in rehab, an arrest for drug possession in Kensington, and an overdose that brought several of his former Evesham Fire-Rescue colleagues to assist him at his parents’ home in Marlton, Kavalkovich began his recovery journey in 2016.
The disease cost him his career as a paramedic, as well as his first marriage. Medically assisted treatment “gave me somewhere to start from,” said Kavalkovich.
“My previous training and certification in the Reiki healing practice helped prep me for the healing work I do today, and my recovery, and especially, the lockdowns at the start of the pandemic, reawakened my interest,” he said.
Kavalkovich trained under the guidance of a local shaman for nearly a year and began offering his services last May. Sessions last for between one and two hours, and fees vary but generally run between $75 and $100 per session.
“When someone comes to see me for the first time, I evaluate their energies and do my best to balance them. Some clearing of stagnant energies can be done on the massage table,” said Kavalkovich.
“I use drumming to get the person into a different state of consciousness for the shamanic journey. We’re trying to bypass the rational mind, get into the subconscious, and bring up stuff. It’s like tracking in the woods. I’m looking for original wounding. I’m tracking for places someone’s soul essences may have been damaged by traumatic incidents in childhood, for example.”
Last July, two months after he launched his practice, Kavalkovich was appointed an alternate member of the Evesham Township Planning Board.
“It’s a quasi-judicial board, and to serve you have to be a resident of the township, a good citizen, and willing to undergo [state-required] training,” said Heather Cooper, Evesham’s deputy mayor.
“We’re happy Stephen wants to serve. He has a passion to give back, and he has an awareness of development” and its impact on the township, said Cooper.
Members with different backgrounds also can provide the board with “a different lens” to view issues that come before it, she said.
“It’s a new experience, getting to see the workings of local government and how things happen in town,” said Kavalkovich. “I bring the perspective of someone who has lived in this town for more than 30 years. I’ve seen where it came from, and I can be a small voice in the process of where it can go.”
Kavalkovich has long been civic-minded; he was among a group of young township EMTs who volunteered to be dispatched to Manhattan on Sept. 11, 2001. After his recovery was underway, he launched a podcast called Rescue the Rescuer.
Although he’s taken a break from podcasting, Kavalkovich continues to be a public advocate for mental health and recovery. He tells his story on the website deconstructingstigma.org, a project of the Harvard Medical School-affiliated McLean Hospital.
He also spread the word about shamanic practice with a Jan. 4 interview on YouTube’s Readily Random channel. And last November, he spoke to a continuing education class at Camden County College in Cherry Hill.
“He did a fantastic job,” said Tracy Farquar, a medium in Oaklyn, Camden County, who teaches a class called psychic development. “He did a healing on the most skeptical person in the class, a beautiful little ceremony, and the 26 people in the room were so engrossed in what he was doing, they were completely silent.”
Kavalkovich is well aware that despite the interest in alternative spiritual and wellness practices among many people, some regard shamanism as charlatanism.
“If someone said that, I would say, ‘Shamanic practices have helped me. They’ve helped my family. They help other families. But you’re entitled to your opinion.’ ”
He also believes the pandemic has sparked interest in alternative spiritual practices of all sorts.
“Right now we’re in a place where everything is being challenged and people are seeking out things that are not the norm,” Kavalkovich said. “We’re in a great awakening period.”