Project Sanctuary: Healing Veterans and Families

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Transitioning out of the military presents a host of challenges, not the least of which is reconnecting with friends and family. Service members usually face unique and harrowing situations while deployed, and sorting through them can be difficult. No matter the experience, handling the psychological baggage that can come from war takes time, patience, and understanding.

Unfortunately, many veterans who've returned home find that they are unable to reconnect with their loved ones due to what they experienced overseas. Life in the U.S. military is a truly unique experience, and describing any part of it and the resulting emotional impact can seem impossible. Sometimes families can get by without broaching the issue with their loved one, but some families suffer from a lack of connection and quiet suffering.

To help bridge this gap, Project Sanctuary was founded by Heather Ehle, a registered nurse from Colorado. For seven years, Project Sanctuary has helped 455 families overcome the stress of military service by providing them the space, time, and opportunity to reconnect and bond. The program includes classes in maintaining a marriage and good financial practices.

We had the chance to speak with Heather and Project Sanctuary's Chief Development Officer and 20-year veteran of the U.S. Army.

What is Project Sanctuary all about?

Project Sanctuary is national non-profit focused on reconnecting military families and taking them from battle-ready to family-ready. We do that through therapeutic recreation and marriage and financial classes. Our focus is on the whole family. We take active duty and retired military families. Sometimes family is defined as a single soldier with his dog, sometimes the family is defined as a soldier and his battle buddy. They get to decide who their family is and who their circle of support consists of.

How did it get started?

As a registered nurse in 2007, I recognized that military families weren't getting the support and services they needed, specifically the spouses and children. I set out to take advantage of Colorado's year-round recreation. Really, I went to a lot of veterans asked how I could help and what they needed. My part's mostly been listening.

What inspired the program?

I didn't know many military families when I started. During the first Gulf War I worked state-side in a free clinic, and military families started showing up with Gulf War illness. That really had an impact on me. I saw the kids out of school, watched moms take notes and look at the lab results wondering where to start and why no one was helping them. Fast forward to 9/11 and I knew someone needed to do something for those kids sitting in the waiting room.

How did you develop the program's events?

I thought we would just ride a whole bunch of horses, but a lot of families just needed a marriage and a financial class. I enlisted the help of a certified rec-therapist to design and put together a schedule that mirrored what the families were asking for.

Family during a Project Sanctuary retreat.

Was it difficult to put together?

At that point the rec-therapist was a volunteer, so I was relying on the kindness of strangers and military families that helped keep it going. I was an outcome-based quality assurance nurse before becoming the CEO of Project Sanctuary, so I wanted to collect data and make sure that we were doing surveys and always providing the best program that we could based on the feedback.

What's the general activity schedule for each retreat?

The first day we start with an orientation. We get people into their housing and let everyone meet each other. We generally start off the next full day with a class about healthy marriages. We limit the session to two hours because we recognize that PTSD and TBI can make it difficult for families to sit for a long period.  The classes are fun and interactive; they're really focused on what the families are doing right then and there. We do not do death by powerpoint. They get a two hour dose of communication skills, and then we'll generally have a group activity followed by individual activities and family meal type situations.  We have a once-in-a-lifetime Colorado opportunity to go snowmobiling over the continental divide, and the next day we may follow up with something they can do at home like bowling or hiking.

How have families responded to the program?

If you go to our Facebook page, it looks pretty positive – it looks like we have all five stars. It's really their program. If it's not working, we need different feedback. We try to create a sense of empowerment, not entitlement. The families know it's their program and we're constantly tweaking it to meet their needs. We hear that we've saved marriages. We try to downplay that and say we simply provided an opportunity, they did the work. We're most proud of the fact that we have zero suicides, and that counts the service members, the spouses, and the kids.

What kind of challenges have you faced?

There have been lots of challenges. There have been times when I didn't think we would be able to hold another retreat. Starting a new non-profit as a civilian in the military was a bit challenging. It took a while to establish a reputation. I knew the program was solid. But, we still struggle with reaching national sponsors and getting the word out. Right now our wait-list is at 1,500 families. Every time we hit media, we do get some money but we get blown out of the water with families that need help. The biggest struggle is trying to keep up with the numbers of families that are begging and pleading for help.

So the best way to help Project Sanctuary is to donate?

Donate or spread the word. Let other people know what we're doing. Volunteer: come out and a see a retreat and help us. We always need volunteers to read a book to a child, welcome the families, or wash some dishes. There's a volunteer and family application on the website.

How can people donate?

You can donate on the website with anything like time, money, or running an event. We've had simple events where people donate five bucks for a small prize all the way up to sophisticated golf tournaments with a price to enter.

Have you received any feedback on how effective Project Sanctuary is in coping with the effects of PTSD and TBI compared to conventional treatment?

One of the fathers who came through her said it best. We gave him the time and opportunity to figure out not who he was as a Sergeant, but who he was as a dad and a husband. Through the retreat they get introduced to alternative therapies including massage and acupuncture. Some veterans come back and volunteer, and those are the ones who have come off their medication and can do things like peer mentoring. Again, it's the families who make project sanctuary successful because they come back and volunteer and mentor other families.

Jason: We are part of the R4 Alliance. That's a group of 21 organizations who are committed to recreational therapy in a similar fashion to what we're doing with proven results. One of the “Rs” is research, and we've seen that the way we're doing therapy and helping with mental health and wellness is working and has demonstrated results. It's important to not only demonstrate it at project sanctuary, but to collaborate with other organizations who are conducting similar types of activities that shows a pronounced improvement over just taking lots of medications.

As a veteran working for the executive leadership team at Project Sanctuary and having been in the army for twenty years and seeing service members go through what they have, I can offer personal testimony to the effectiveness to what we're doing and how important it is that we bring the whole family as a part of the therapeutic process. So often there are organizations that focus on the individual wearing the uniform. That's good, but the effect of having your inner circle, whether it's your partner or your kids, is extremely beneficially.

What are your plans for the future?

We're still in a state of growth, we're trying to keep up with the need. Next year we'll expand to California and this year we took our program to Utah and Texas successfully. We want to continue to expand and grow to meet the needs that we're seeing.

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