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Women warriors walk back to the Wiawaka Holiday House in Lake George at the Adirondack Arts and Reintegration Retreat last summer. This year, the respite retreat is being held Aug. 9 to 11, with a few spots and scholarships still available for women veterans.

▶ Retreat aids attendants in reentering life after combat

Lying on the cool, dewy grass under the stars one August night, Adirondack artist and storyteller Fran Yardley knew it had worked.

Concluding a respite experience for female war veterans, she knew the women warriors were able to relax after the final, parting ceremony.

"We knew it worked," Yardley said of the approach she has developed with Naj Wikoff through more than a decade of healing programs.

In its second year, the Adirondack Arts and Reintegration Retreat for Women Veterans is designed to give voice to the challenge of re-engaging life after fighting in a war zone.

It is part of the emerging Patriot Hills project, a larger vision to build a year-round respite community in Saranac Lake for war veterans.

TELLING THEIR STORIES

"We heard over and over in the workshops last summer, 'This is the first time in years anybody has ever said thank you to me,'" Yardley said in a recent interview.

"The most important thing we focus on is the stories the women bring to our retreat. We do this in a confidential, non-judgmental way.

"We hold the space open for them. They have a chance to fill the room with their voices, and pretty soon they figure out this whole group is going to listen. Sometimes, they aren't aware they have these stories and that they need to be told."

BUILDING RESILIENCY

Wikoff recently held a similar retreat with a group of 19 men from the National Guard's 24th Civil Support Team for Weapons of Mass Destruction, based at Fort Hamilton in Brooklyn.

"We've been able to combine arts and nature to help people learn how to tell their story — within themselves and to a larger group — about how it is living on a day-to-day basis with what it means to serve in the armed forces," Wikoff said.

The men's retreat was held at Paul Smith's College earlier this month and combined team-building and communication activities with canoe races and a sweat lodge ceremony.

"Soldiers have tremendous teamwork skills," Wikoff said, "but this helped them learn to get to know each other in a different way.

"A four-man canoe race is just unfamiliar enough that it supports the teamwork they've already built. It reinforces and deepens their understanding of each other.

"What we are trying to get at is a way to strengthen resiliency and help them, in a way, leave the job at the job.

"A lot of these guys have been through horrific experiences in combat. This is to help them assimilate their experience."

ROLE OF NATURE

The upcoming women's retreat will be held Aug. 9 to 11 at Wiawaka Holiday House in Lake George. The retreat is all filled, and no one attending has to pay, thanks to funding from several sources, including the Charles R. Wood Foundation and the Glens Falls Foundation.

Yardley said the Holiday House itself was built in the early 1900s as a respite home for women.

"Wiawaka goes way back to the turn of the century when a holiday house was a place where working women could spend a few days to stay and rest and recuperate. It's got a really great old history of serving women and providing a place for healing."

Retreat and reintegration sessions for women include nature walks, hiking and paddle-boat excursions, along with morning yoga, massage therapy, songwriting, storytelling and dream workshops with Adirondack healer Wanda Burch.

"Being close to nature is really important to this process," Yardley said, "along with creating a sense of ritual.

"On the last morning, what I observed is that the women are allowed to move through the images of their story; they are able to let go. This works. It gives permission to be in touch with their own strength and their power."

To find out more about the women veterans retreat, contact Yardley by phone at 359-9324 or online at www.creativehealingconnections.org.

E-mail Kim Smith Dedam at: kdedam@pressrepublican.com

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