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In The News

Grace After Fire's Women Veterans Spring Retreat Creates New Friendships

Published in: The Scuttlebutt, May 2016 Edition, page 19

By Monique N. Rodriguez, MSW
April 16, 2016

Jessica and Shawntiasha spent a casual Tuesday working out at a local gym, along side was Jessica’s four year old daughter, watching two women Veterans motivate each other.  As they talked, exercised, and inspired one another through the workout session, little did the bystanders know that they had just met three days prior where their friendship was created.

They met at Grace After Fire’s Women Veterans Spring Retreat.  They were among 19 women Veterans plus staff to take a bus tour through Texas with stops in Houston and San Antonio with the final destination to a private ranch in Central Texas. Two women Veterans drove into together from Dallas to meet the group. Everyone arrived on Friday, April 1st with a welcome briefing from both Grace After Fire and the Ranch staff.  Shortly afterwards, Jessica and Shawntiasha, along with the other women Veterans, sat down to eat for dinner.  The two women began to learn more about each other.  They soon realized how much they had in common, living in the same city, living only a few minutes apart yet now meeting hours from Houston.  Once nightfall fell, the wind picked up, and the temperatures dropped, the women Veterans along with the staff spent several hours by a campfire, sitting on beach chairs, covered in warm blankets, underneath a pavilion while snacking on self-made warm s’mores.  The Grace After Fire staff led a conversation allowing each woman Veteran the opportunity to introduce themselves including their military background, why they decided to attend the retreat, and what they hope to gain from the experience. The campfire conversation was filled with personal stories of struggle, tragedy, strength, courage, and motivation to heal. The light from the embers of the fire, the stillness of the night, and the twinkle of the stars created a surreal environment for all the visiting city dwellers.

The next morning opened with a sunrise walk through ranch to enjoy the fresh morning dew, fog, and colors of the sun over the green landscape filled with cattle nearby.  At 10AM, everyone walked over to a nearby horse arena where Camp Able of Buffalo Gap, an equine therapy and horse rescue nonprofit organization, were unloading seven horses from their trailer into a nearby barn.  The team of Camp Able were preparing a session for our women Veterans. A safety brief was provided for all attendees to ensure an enjoyable therapeutic experience.  All seven horses were then escorted into the arena which included Cheyanne, Chief, Annabelle, and Buddy to name a few.  Once the horses were prepped women Veterans came forward one by one and mounted on to a horse of their choosing.  All the women Veterans who were eager to ride, were able to do so for however long they desired enjoying the rhythmic and therapeutic motion of the horse.  They each made several rounds of the arena, taking selfies, and having pictures taken to capture the moment.  Several of the women Veterans chose to simply pet and watch the horses from the sidelines.  Everyone including staff had the opportunity to engage and build a relationship with the horses. Meanwhile, Jessica and Shawntiasha remained closely engaged throughout the session allowing their friendship to develop.  Once everyone had their opportunities to connect, the group walked back to the main building for another delicious meal.

After a two hour break, allowing the women Veterans the time to unwind, and engage in art coloring therapy, all the women Veterans were brought to the table for a private group session facilitated by two of Grace After Fire’s staff utilizing the organization’s “Table Talk Color Me Camo" women Veteran curriculum.  The two hour group session covered self-esteem, where many of the brave and courageous women Veterans shared their more intimate stories, vulnerabilities, and traumas but were celebrated by their achievements and triumphs.  There were many similarities in stories and life experiences despite their age and time periods served.  There were tears of pain, and laughter from joy and empowerment. Collectively, their military service totaled 259 years.  An enormous amount of volunteer military service to this country sitting at one table, sharing experiences and emotions.  Jessica and Shawntiasha shared later that they enjoyed being able to gather at the table with all the women Veterans and having a moment to hear each woman’s story.  It was a reminder that despite their feelings of isolation, they are not alone, and have a huge community of women Veterans whom they can rely on.

The final activity planned for the retreat was fishing in the man-made catch and release pond on the ranch.  Many of the women Veterans fished and caught, but Jessica nor Shawntiasha caught anything despite their many attempts.  The environment was relaxing with the cattle sounds nearby and the excitement as women Veterans caught fish one by one.  The ranch staff was nearby to provide assistance with setting up the fishing rods, helping the women reel in, handle, and take pictures of the catch before throwing the fish back into the pond.  It was an exciting opportunity for those that were able to catch especially the first timers.  The walk back to the main building after fishing at sunset allowed for more connection to the outdoors.  The evening wrapped up with conversations on the couches with popcorn while others engaged in art color therapy while also captivated in conversation.

The following morning was the last day of the retreat.  Everyone packed up their suit cases for the journey back to home to Houston, San Antonio, or Dallas.  Once again, breakfast was delicious.  The Grace After Fire staff provided closing remarks, raffled off all of the exquisite patriotic floral bouquets that had been placed in each bedroom suite to take home as a momento of their time on the ranch.  

The journey home was relaxing and everyone made it to their destination safe.  The retreat focused on inner rejuvenation, connecting with their community, and simply the enjoyment of one another amongst new friends and their own solitude.  The retreat was the planting of the spiritual seed by which they will now water their own spiritual being, and in time it will blossom into a flower of peace and joy.  

Back at the gym, Jessica and Shawntiasha had planted their own seeds and were watering their spirit through camaraderie, and motivation to succeed in life beyond the military and the ranch.  They had become friends in three short days.

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Grace After Fire can be found online at www.graceafterfire.org and keep up with daily updates on Facebook as well as pictures from the retreat at www.facebook.com/graceafterfire.
Camp Able of Buffalo Gap can be found online at http://camp-able.org.