Project Sanctuary Aids Military Families

A family poses during an indoor rock-climbing event sponsored by Project Sanctuary, a national nonprofit organization committed to assisting military families. Courtesy photo
A family poses during an indoor rock-climbing event sponsored by Project Sanctuary, a national nonprofit organization committed to assisting military families. Courtesy photo

WASHINGTON -- A national nonprofit organization assists military families in making the transition from "battle-ready to family-ready."

Project Sanctuary, founded in 2007, continues its deliberate efforts that to date have provided help to over 450 families here, and in 44 of the 50 states.

Jason Strickland, chief development officer for Project Sanctuary, discussed the nonprofit's mission and how it is uniquely qualified to help troops and their families.

Retreat-based recreation

"We are a national nonprofit," he said. "We are based in Colorado, because this is where we want to bring most of our families for retreat locations because of the recreational activities that it offers and the relationship that we have with the YMCA of the Rockies which houses most of our retreats."

"We've served families from 44 different states, including the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico," Strickland said. "So we're looking for families from six other states to round that out here in the next year or so."

Strickland explained Project Sanctuary's origin and how its mission came about.

Stressors on families

"In 2007, Heather Ehle, who is our founder and CEO, saw what was happening with military families based on the conflicts that we were a part of in Iraq and Afghanistan," he said.

"And really this is preceded by some things that she observed [as a registered nurse] in the Gulf War -- Desert Storm -- when that kind of kicked off," Strickland said.

According to Strickland, Ehle saw how rates of child neglect and abuse, and marital dissatisfaction increased, which inspired her to seek a specific way to help.

"She decided to form Project Sanctuary as a respite for the military families," he said. "And to help them heal and recover from some of the things she was ... observing.

"We help military families through a two-year program that begins with a six-day, outdoor therapeutic retreat," Strickland continued. "We bring most of the families to Colorado and locations in Utah, Texas, and we'll be in California next year."

The families are taken to secluded, safe retreat locations where they can enjoy therapeutic activities together, Strickland said.

Battle-ready to family-ready

"What we're doing is we're taking military families from battle-ready to family-ready," he said. "That's our mantra -- 'from battle-ready to family-ready.'"

The therapeutic activities are designed "to reconnect to the family and focus inward," Strickland said. Throughout the course of a typical retreat, he added, families can snowmobile over the Continental Divide, hike in Rocky Mountain National Park, and do whitewater rafting in the summer.

Strickland said the activities include classes that "help facilitate some healing," such as healthy marriage project classes focusing on pre-marital counseling and marriage therapy.

Managing finances

"We also have a financial preparedness class so they can discuss financial issues, because that's the cause of a lot of divorces in families and marital dissatisfaction," he said.

"We have licensed therapists throughout the retreat -- we usually have two on hand -- they're there the whole time," Strickland said. "That's where a lot of the healing takes place when families just kind of want to start talking about issues."

According to Strickland, Project Sanctuary has helped 1,652 individuals in 464 families over the past seven years.

"We do allow families to come back for a couples-only type of retreat," he said. "But that is only once a year that we offer anything like that, and that's just for the couples, not for the family."

Proven track record

Strickland noted Project Sanctuary is preparing to celebrate its seven-year anniversary later this month and has now conducted 56 retreats.

"There are usually about 10 families per retreat -- that's what we usually like to average," he said. "That's kind of our sweet spot."

But the program is considering to expanding to 12 families per retreat, Strickland said, for crisis referrals such as when a first sergeant, sergeant major, commander, a Veterans Affairs counselor or chaplain recommends getting a family into a retreat immediately.

For families from all services

Project Sanctuary has assisted families from all of the military services, he said, whether they are active duty, National Guardsmen, reservists, veterans and even Gold Star wives.

"We even go back as far as Vietnam veterans [who] have come through our program. We currently have a large waiting list because our program has been so effective," Strickland said.

"In fact," he added, "what we've found, and research has confirmed, we serve families who are dealing with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder ... and research suggests that it takes upwards of six years for a service member or a family to really identify that they're suffering from PTSD."

Strickland said those families may think they are just in a "rut" for a few months which turns into a few years and things don't improve.

"It takes a long time," he said. "So we feel, at Project Sanctuary, that we have not even seen the peak of families who need this kind of therapeutic healing."

Partner organizations

In addition to the resources Project Sanctuary brings, it also has a variety of nonprofit and for-profit organizations who work in partnership with them.

"The USO is a strong partner with us -- a grantor -- in supporting our programs, because they see the value of how we're helping," Strickland said. "They give a sizeable portion of funding to us. They even send out volunteers [as frequently] as they can. So the USO is a huge sponsor, and we're proud to be associated with them."

An example of a for-profit organization "that really is integral to our campaign," Strickland said, is First Command Financial Services and their charitable arm, First Command Educational Foundation.

Strickland noted these for-profit organizations support the program's financial management classes -- one two-hour class throughout the six-day retreat -- that focus on financial preparedness and readiness so that families can learn how to deal with handling finances.

"First Command sends financial advisors to facilitate those classes at each and every retreat," he said. "And they offer two years of follow-up ... pro bono [free] wherever the military families actually return to."

A small nonprofit group of Colorado National Guardsmen, called Patriot Anglers, also partners with Project Sanctuary to help with the fishing component of retreats, Strickland said.

One unique aspect of Project Sanctuary is the fact the nonprofit organization tracks and follows up with their families for two years after their retreats.

Family-based results

"We haven't had a single suicide among those 464 families that have come through our programs," Strickland said.

While the divorce rate in the U.S. is 50 percent, he said, 90 percent of couples who've attended retreats are still together.

Strickland said Project Sanctuary takes pride in its "innovative" approach to supporting military families.

"We just want to continue to let people know about that impact that we're having," he said, "and bring on people who have an affinity and care about our military families."

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