A Saskatchewan non-profit is fundraising to build a permanent retreat where first responders and their families can rest and focus on their mental well-being.
River Valley Resilience Retreat owns property outside of Prince Albert and hopes to soon have a lodge on the land. The non-profit is working to raise $350,000 to make the retreat a reality.
They're working to raise the money through private community donors, and a campaign for River Valley Resilience Retreat recently launched on GoFundMe.
"We're just really looking for people to show us that they understand our need to stop suicides amongst first responders and create this place," co-founder Michelle McKeaveney told Saskatchewan Weekend.
"It shouldn't be so difficult to raise funds for people who truly are depended on and counted on."
McKeaveney and co-founder Jeff Reeder are working to create the retreat. McKeaveney works in corrections and Reeder first had to leave his job as a firefighter due to post-traumatic stress disorder in 2011. That's when Reeder started working toward a place like this. He's since been able to return and currently does in Prince Albert.
"We're so close," he said. Their aim is to open the lodge by 2022, which would be "an absolute dream come true and relief for sure," said Reeder.
McKeaveney said the retreat was born out of necessity. Through the years, she's seen colleagues struggling with mental well-being in need of a place to go other than the Prince Albert Mental Health Centre.
She said the centre serves its purpose, but her colleagues, first responders and front-line workers sometimes need a dedicated space.
Both McKeaveney and Reeder are involved with a local support network for first responders and veterans in Prince Albert called What's Important Now. The group offers text and online support, and also meets in person at the Cornerstone Methodist Church, while following COVID-19 protocols, McKeaveney said.
"The common theme is people don't feel like they're normal," she said.
"So the first thing when they walk into the peer-support group is creating a sense of normality, that the things that they're feeling and responding to … they start to feel like this is normal."
The group's members help each other and make sure people have doctors or other professionals in their lives they can rely on.
Reeder said including families, not just workers, in the planned retreat is extremely important, because families can be also be affected by a loved one's struggle with PTSD.
Horse therapy offered relief from PTSD
Reeder said in his experience with PTSD, being in nature worked best in his healing, and especially therapy involving working with horses.
"I went through the conventional modalities and counselling for nine months," he said. "I felt after that I was supposed to be by the book healed by that point, and I was honestly no further ahead."
That's when he discovered horse therapy.
"I just kind of ended up … having some horses at the farm and just started working with them. And that was ultimately the only time I had any relief from any symptoms."
McKeaveney said other members of their peer support group have since tried it and had profound changes as well. She said it will be a large component at the lodge.
Reeder and McKeaveney have been given 10 acres of land for their retreat as a gift from the property owners, but people using the retreat will have access to the 100 acres around the property.
"We have access to amazing river trails. They have trails to their pasture. They have trails through the valleys," McKeaveney said. "It's a remarkable green, open space."
It's a peaceful setting, says Reeder.
"When you're on top of the hill, you can see the horizon and all you see is forest," he said. "Being in that nature setting, it just takes your breath away."
Reeder hopes they can build the main lodge to house a few people, rooms for clinics or therapy, and a main gathering space.
Outdoors, the plans include a riding area for equine therapy and a classroom for workshop sessions. In the long term, he said they may expand to have cabins for family accommodation.
If you're experiencing suicidal thoughts or having a mental health crisis, help is available.
For an emergency or crisis situation, call 911.
You can also contact the Saskatchewan suicide prevention line toll-free, 24/7 by calling 1-833-456-4566, texting 45645, or chatting online.
You can contact the Regina mobile crisis services suicide line at 306-525-5333 or Saskatoon mobile crisis line at 306-933-6200.