As many activities were being put on pandemic pause last year, the leaders of one organization were adding opportunities to come together — the safe way — for the benefit of mental health.
Heather Ehle, founder and CEO of Project Sanctuary, said 2020 was a crucial year for the non-profit, which offers therapeutic retreats for active-duty service members, veterans, and their families. When COVID-19 hit hard in March 2020, her team created a PS Wellness Matters Facebook group to provide virtual resources for nutrition, meditation, yoga, and overall wellness — but it wasn’t enough, she said.
“We immediately recognized that even though providing PS Wellness Matters on a Facebook-type program to combat isolation, loneliness, and depression was a step in the right direction, people need one-on-one interaction, especially when you are talking about mental health.”
Project Sanctuary Director of Marketing and Communications Danella Soeka agreed that getting back to in-person interaction as soon as possible was a top priority.
“We were never more essential than we were this last year,” she said. “We always are, but at a time when mental health and other things are really a focus, it’s not like we could just kick back and say, ‘We are going to wait this out.’”
With the negative effects of the crisis top of mind, they worked together to launch “Safer at Retreats” in May 2020. Face-to-face programming — counseling, education, therapeutic recreation — was available to families in need, with protocols in place. Ehle said that protecting families, volunteers, and staff was (and still is) vital. Project Sanctuary followed guidelines from the World Health Organization (WHO), CDC, as well as state and county governments to develop standards for modified group size, masks, temperature checks, social distancing, and more.
Despite the additional hurdles, Ehle said the retreats have been going very well with little push back from the participants.
“The quality is better with people being willing to go the extra mile to take care of their mental health that their family needs,” she said. “They are taking it very seriously.”
Since COVID took hold in the U.S., 71 families have graduated from the program, and there has been a 121% increase in financial assistance over 2019.
“We are an active-duty family and always look for resources that will enrich our family life,” said Sarah, who attended a therapeutic retreat during the pandemic. “Project Sanctuary has been a blessing to our family in a time that is so unique. It has allowed us to reconnect and decompress. Each workshop has allowed us to reflect on issues or concerns that we have maybe overlooked due to life getting in the way.”
Helping families heal and reconnect is what inspired Ehle to start Project Sanctuary in 2007. While working as a registered nurse at a free clinic in Colorado, she became concerned about the influx of soldiers and veterans coming in, desperate for treatment. But they weren’t the only ones that needed care. Ehle recognized that the entire military family could benefit from “a sanctuary in a beautiful place.”
“I wanted to help them be successful in life with tools and services to re-integrate back into society,” she said. “We bring in social workers, counselors, the community, and the entire family and are not just focusing on the service member or veteran.”
Therapeutic retreats, now held in eight states across the country, are completely free for active-duty service members and veterans of all branches and can be individualized based on concerns such as PTSD, pre- or post-deployment struggles, health crisis, or the stresses of frequent moves. Certified Therapeutic Recreation Specialists (CTRS) and licensed counselors and social workers on Project Sanctuary’s staff design a plan, but families have to be willing to “put in the work and make the connections they need to succeed,” said Ehle.
To help foster even more connections, Destination Resource Weekends also began as a Project Sanctuary product of COVID. These networking events allow families to set goals, plan, and meet with partners in areas of financial planning, psychological well-being, employment resources, recreation opportunities, and more.
With proper adaptation, Ehle said that retreats and programming will continue and likely increase no matter the circumstances.
“It doesn’t matter what’s going on, we just march forward,” she said. “Our military families are that important, they really are.”