PRINCE ALBERT - The River Valley Resilience Retreat has settled on their final location.
The RM of Prince Albert council approved a discretionary use application for the project at their meeting on Thursday, April 14, which will give the retreat a place to call home.
Jeff Reeder, Michelle McKeaveney and Evert Botha made a short presentation to the RM outlining why the concept was needed. McKeaveney said that the best way to describe what they do is as a peer support respite house.
“That's our version of a retreat,” she explained. “We want people to understand retreat (as) meaning safe, secluded and serene—away from people, but utilizing nature (and) utilizing peers.”
The retreat will be the first of its kind in Western Canada. McKeaveney and Reeder have been working on the idea since 2019.
“The only other place like us currently that would be best comparable is Valley Point Retreat in Nova Scotia,” McKeaveney said. “He has been a mentor for Jeff's and me from the beginning. Him and his wife are doing exactly this, and they have been at over 100 per cent capacity for the last two plus years.”
Reeve Eric Schmalz said the idea had been in front of RM council before he became Reeve. The property will be zoned agriculture, but with a change in prescribed use of the property.
“The RM of Prince Albert and I are very touched to see the level of support that was exhibited at the public hearing,” Schmalz said. “We look forward to seeing all of the good work that they can accomplish at their new property.”
McKeaveney said she had appeared in front of council before the River Valley Resilience Retreat existed to get a bylaw change passed. In 2018-2019, the RM created a bylaw for special care facilities within an agricultural area.
“We don't want to use the word facility, but that's the box that we had to fit into because this is such an out of the box kind of process,” she explained.
McKeaveney said they will offer a safe place and a home environment for first responders, veterans and their families. The retreat will offer prevention and resilience skills too.
“We will be just like Nova Scotia—the first in Western Canada to be here, peer led peer operated and professionally guided,” she said.
Currently, the group hosts retreats and does peer support and training in the RM of Duck Lake.
“We are all operating this from a peer perspective,” McKeaveney said. “We have not forgot about the professionals who generally guide us, but we are all peer led and peer driven.”
The retreat relies on old and young first responders and veterans, who share their lived experiences with others from a place of genuine understanding. McKeaveney said professional spaces are still needed, but those already exist. Places like River Valley Resilience Retreat, on the other hand, are sorely needed.
Roughly 20 people came out to support the presentation team at the public hearing. Schmalz said the decision was easy after hearing the testimonials of the individuals in the organization and residents who would be in contact with the property.
“The support for it was quite heartwarming and overwhelming,” Schmalz said. “There were a lot of our residents who came out to the public hearing and voiced their support for our veterans, (and) our public safety personnel. All of those people are near and dear to the hearts and minds of our residents and it was an easy decision once we heard from the them and their overwhelming support for that organization and for the discretionary use of that property for that purpose.”
Schmalz added that it was easy to get behind the proposal since the space is so badly needed.
“It wasn't long ago when a veteran exhibited some symptoms of what was formerly an unknown issue, they would be swept away into a corner,” he explained. “As long as they dealt with it without the public seeing it, everybody was fine with it. People understand that PTSD is a real thing and it affects tens of thousands of people, not just public safety personnel but everybody in society is susceptible to those issues and that trauma.”
Schmalz added that the RM is enthusiastically behind the concept.
“We wholeheartedly support them in their endeavours to try and give our emergency responders and our public safety personnel a good place and a constructive place to deal with critical incidences or just personal trauma that they need to work through,” he said.
McKeaveney said that the whole experience at the retreat was life changing. She’s hopeful veterans and emergency service personnel who use it can receive the same benefit.
“It was the most magical experience because we have never had that type of support gathered in one place,” she said.
“We are used to having our backs up and having to explain and work on trying to help people understand that stigma.”
She said that strangers took to the microphone at the meeting and spoke from the heart about their own struggles with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and operational stress injuries from corrections. She thanked them for their bravery in coming forward to speak in front of a large group that didn’t know them before.
McKeaveney said some recent experiences have shown her that you can’t count on things like psychological services always being effective, which is why there’s a need for this retreat.
“In the past few weeks I have (had) personal experience and professional experience with people seeking out psychological services because they are finally ready to deal with the darkness and the demons. They get themselves to the hospital, they are seen in the emergency room by a doctor, (and) didn't even get to see a psychiatrist because they hadn't slashed up and they did not disclose a recent or a serious enough plan to die,” she said.
The new location is near the South Saskatchewan River in the RM of Prince Albert. McKeaveney said visitors will gather at a specific point of contact, and then receive directions to get there.
“That's how we can keep our serenity and safety element somewhat under control,” she explained.
McKeaveney said they’ve been struggling to create this retreat for a lot of years, so it was meaningful to finally find a permanent place to call home.
“Our goal is to stop suicide for first responders when they feel like they have no other choice,” she said. “We want to be one of their choices.”
The retreat plans to honour Regina first responders Chris Siddone and Robbie Curtis, along with others at the site.
She said it’s important to remember their legacy. Thinking about how the retreat would have helped them is something that inspired retreat supporters to keep moving forward.
The retreat has a goal of $200,000 for fundraising. McKeaveney said they have received donations of $125,000 combined that have helped convince them they are on the right track.
“This is so much bigger than Jeff and I,” she said. “This is our whole province, our country. This is bigger than us, and it should be.
“Jeff and I are very humble about the past few months because it felt like we were alone for so long and all of a sudden we did John Gormley and right after that all of a sudden there is these blessings. People who are seven and a half or eight hours away from me in our province are seeing the value and have their own first hand experiences.”
McKeaveney thanked the many people who came along to help, including Evert Botha, and all of the people who have been around since the beginning.