Sunday, November 5, 2017
Higher Ground: A Path to Healing and Wholeness
This past week I had the opportunity to serve as a mental health resource for a program called Higher Ground. Based in Idaho. Higher Ground programs use innovative sports and recreation therapies to enhance the quality of life for our injured military community as well as children, teens, and adults with disabilities.
I was involved with the veterans program that was conducted at the Beaver Hollow Conference Center which is located in Java, New York, about 45 minutes Southeast of Buffalo. The center also serves a site for one of the four Biggest Loser camps, which pattern themselves after the long-running TV program of the same name. The participants all live with a variety of physical and mental concerns including Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, Traumatic Brain Injury and Multi-trauma. There was also, professional staff on hand, including Higher Ground’s Director of Operations, Rich Cardillo, Military Program Specialist Chris Dooley, Recreational Therapist Natasha Rosenbloom and Northeast Regional Coordinator Patrick Welch.
Going in to the week I knew instinctively that it would be a great experience. Personally, I was looking forward to getting away and slowing down. Frankly, I was pretty fried. The two days of the work week leading up to the event I conducted three presentations and facilitated a panel discussion for my day job at the Mental Health Association of Erie County and Compeer Buffalo. While the programs all went well, I was ready for a break. But I digress.
The five primary days of the program each revolved around a theme: Day 1 was Building Bonds, Day 2 was Healing Tools, Day 3 was Live Your Passions, Day 4 was I Am Enough and Day 5 was Taking the Next Step.
Each day was comprised of a number of activities that served to establish camaraderie and shared experiences designed to support the participants. The men in the program live with a variety of physical and mental wounds of combat. These concerns significantly impacted their daily lives in some form or fashion. Along with the six veterans there were two companions that accompanied their family member and friend.
The start of each day included an hour of ‘gentle stretching,” led by Michael, a yoga instructor and one of the center’s staff. The other activities included kayaking (done in an indoor pool due to the inclement weather), a “catapult challenge” where the group was divided into two teams and each one had to fashion a device to launch three potatoes in an attempt to get as close as possible to a buoy in the lake on the property, and a trip to the center’s fitness facility which once again included more friendly competition utilizing the gym’s equipment.
There were also several opportunities to fish at the lake which proved to be exciting considering there were a number of successful catches over the last two days. Amidst the physical activities, there were also several learning opportunities centering around nutrition, wellness and goal setting.
Wednesday was devoted to a field trip to Letchworth State Park. This particular day I was away at a state conference in Lake George, New York presenting a 3-hour workshop on the theme of wellbeing.
Each day included an hour of “processing” at the conclusion of the day’s programming which allowed the folks to participate in a discussion about the theme of the day as well as any other topics that were relevant to the program. This included exercises to build self-esteem and bolster self-confidence.
To go along with the activities there were high quality, nutritious meals. They mirrored the meal plan that the other Biggest Loser camp was utilizing with the exception that the portion sizes were larger and there were some sugary beverages.
Now to the real thing. On the first evening, there was the sense that some of the participants were not exactly keen on being there. This was much due to their life situation and the sense of being uncomfortable with the idea of being away from the comforts and security of their homes.
But on the first full day, there was a miraculous transformation that took place. Almost immediately, the men began to bond with each other. They shared their common experiences of being in combat situations as well as the challenges of acclimating to civilian life. The level of sharing and intimacy was remarkable. As the week progressed, the men (and one family member) all opened themselves up to experience things they never had done before, not to mention sharing very personal feelings about military life.
I am not a veteran. So, I do not have the perspective that these men have. But being a witness to their courage and strength is something that I got so much from. I’ve always respected our military but this week’s experience greatly increased the amount of respect I have for our men and women in uniform. I learned that a soldier’s word truly is his/her bond and that there is a special connection between those who have served.
I also learned that there is healing in recreation and play. It’s a simple concept but Higher Ground’s approach to helping veterans work through their various combat-related issues is highly effective. I observed an incredible change in demeanor, attitude and behavior in all of the participants.
So, what does this mean to the vast majority of the U.S. population that has not been in service to our country like our warriors. Basically, it demonstrates that we need to be more sensitive to the needs to those who have selflessly given their lives for our country. According to U.S. Department of Defense statistics, 20 veterans die by suicide each day. Programs like Higher Ground serve to preserve the dignity of our veterans and provide them with an opportunity to find healing in what to the outside observer may seem like “fun and games.” But it’s much more than that. And I can state that based on what I observed. I know that I was personally affected by the various activities (and I did participate in all of them).
I feel fortunate to have been “on the inside” to get a glimpse of the life that most have never seen. PTSD, TBI and trauma are all life altering in so many ways. The unique means of introducing recreational activities to assist veterans in finding a path to wholeness is unique and powerful. This is yet another example that follows my mantra of “Recovery is Possible.”