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Wellness Retreat for First Responders

By Danielle de Leon for Evoke Changes Outdoors Inc.

It only takes a little awareness to understand the value and role of a First Responder, yet certain urban areas seem to offer minimal support for this career path. First Responders have a suicide rate that is 8 times the national average and the PTSD is comparative to combat veterans. This calls for a great need to prioritize mental health awareness among this community. Evoke Changes Outdoors is a nonprofit that provides therapeutic outdoors adventures with the intention of improving overall quality of life to first responders and veterans alongside qualified therapists and wilderness guides. One of their premiere partners, Mountain Mamas Outfitters, specializes in navigating the outdoors in mountainous terrain, all with uplifting attitudes. With their own insight as First Responders, they have an inside look at the need for mental wellness among first responder communities specifically located in urban areas. Together, these two companies have cultivated an annual all expense paid Adventure Therapy Retreat for First Responders called ‘Respond to Wellness’ which is held in Northwest Montana. The main intention is to cultivate a sense of purpose, retention of emotional coping skills, and to establish a sense of family with others who serve their communities.

The President of Evoke Changes Outdoors is also Licensed Clinical Professional Counselor (LCPC) Sean Patrick. Through his work in the field of psychology, he has come to understand the desperate need of mental and emotional support for our veterans and first responders. He has also seen the benefits of being in nature through his own experiences as a licensed guide in Montana. With this knowledge base, he started offering a unique service called “Adventure Therapy'' back in 2016. Since then, he has been able to offer his clients an unmatched experience of finding wellness in the wild. Many of these trips are centered around activities such as hiking, rafting, fishing, and hunting. Acknowledging that those who need these trips most should be supported for their efforts, he formed a nonprofit to help manage overhead costs and provide all expense paid trips to those who have served our country and communities so selflessly.

Teaming up with Mountain Mama Outfitters owners Erin Howell and Sierra Lake for a

retreat dedicated to First Responders was a perfect partnership. Erin Howell is an EMT who holds an emphasis in wilderness safety, while also having three years experience as a volunteer firefighter and 3 years in a paid position on an ambulance running 911 calls. Her passion and understanding of the First Responder community has encouraged her to share the wilderness of Montana with her fellow brothers and sisters. Sierra Lake’s background in Exercise Science and being a certified personal trainer only slightly echoes her passion for the outdoors. As an avid rock climber, mountain biker, and hiker, her overall enthusiasm for the outdoors simply showcases her in-depth knowledge of living off-grid in the backcountry. While they both took a cross-country biking trip to various first responder hubs, they soon learned how apparent suicide and trauma was for first responders in more urbanized areas. This fueled their passion to share the wilderness in Northwest Montana with various first responders from around the US.

The individual paths of Evoke Changes Outdoors and Mountain Mamas Outfitters merged into the creation of an annual Adventure Therapy trip for First Responders called “Respond to Wellness”. Five first responders from all around the country were nominated and randomly chosen to join each other for a four-day retreat detached in the Bitterroot Mountains. A firefighter from Oregon, a volunteer firefighter from New Jersey, a police officer from Brooklyn, a paramedic supervisor from Missouri, and a helicopter medic from California all stepped into their first Adventure therapy trip together. Various hotels around Missoula, Montana graciously offered some rooms for the attendees. On a crisp Friday morning, the crew all met up at Sierra's house to set up for their long weekend adventure. Backpacks were packed, food divided amongst the group, and last minute necessities were gathered before heading to the trailhead. Our ultimate goal was to hike into a mountainous alpine lake. With boots on the ground, they set off on a 6 mile hike into camp.

The group engaged in some yoga, different group activities, and various reflective discussions every day on the trip. Group activities were designed to inspire deeper reflection of habits and build an over sense of teamwork. Attendees were provided Adventure Therapy Journals and encouraged to individually engage in written reflections and gratitude exercises. Many spent their free time getting to know others in our group or fishing in the large creek that flowed along the trail. On the third day, the group made our ascent to the Alpine Lake. The crisp water was not only felt, but also seen through a crystal clear view of the rocky bottom. Jagged layers of rock, lush green meadows with trees, and snow-capped mountains encompassed the alpine lake, all backdropped by an incredibly blue sky. Awe-inspired statements were spoken from the group. Everyone was overtaken by the beautiful grandeur of the surroundings. Many swam in the frigid glacial waters, some fly fished, and others simply absorbed the experience. After our group activity and a delicious dinner of red beans and rice, it was time to head back to camp. We all knew this was our last night together. Many anticipated the sad separation that came along with departure. As Sean led our last evening reflection, everyone in the group spoke about what they appreciated most about every individual who attended this special retreat. There was a palpable sense of connectedness equivalent to what could only be expressed with the term “family.” It wasn’t just that individual conversation, but rather the cumulation of days spent together accomplishing a goal mixed with vulnerability.

Nearly everyone’s testimonial about the trip included statements of immense gratitude for the retreat. They shared thoughts about hope and a desire to bring the tools learned into their daily lives back home. The first responders encouraged future attendees to stay open to the experience, and do whatever they could to take time off and join on the trip. Evoke Changes Outdoors and Mountain Mamas Outfitters are greatly looking forward to hosting the next six nominated first responders in 2022 as a welcome into the family that is “Respond to Wellness.“ For more information please visit www.montanawildernessretreat.com and www.evokechangesoutdoors.org.