I Thought We Were Just Going to Ride Horses.

Written by Heather Ehle, CEO & Founder of Project Sanctuary.

I thought we were just going to ride horses, and I also thought we would build a retreat center in the Colorado Rockies. “The journey of left turns” is how Project Sanctuary began, and how we continue to this day. For ten years, our journey has been blessed, complicated and never boring.

September 27, 2007, I was grieving the loss of my mom. She had passed away on that date several years prior. Being the good southern daughter that I am, I was reminiscing over a glass (or two) of wine. The idea of Project Sanctuary had been swirling around in my brain for a few months. I had done some due diligence, I had spoken to veterans. I was intrigued with the idea of serving the whole military family as a healing concept. And no single organization was addressing the physical and emotional needs of the military family. One online visit to Legal Zoom and a Discover card transaction later, voila! Project Sanctuary was a reality and incorporated. I never want to grieve again on September 27th. I wanted to be able to celebrate LIFE on that day.

“Riding horses, maybe hiking and fishing… Oh! I’ll need a counselor who understands military culture. This will be FUN!” That was my first left turn.

Therapeutic retreats are a lot of planning and hard work. They leave you emotionally drained, but strangely fulfilled. Immediately, the families asked for classes on relationships. What? Can’t we just ride horses? No. They wanted to strengthen their marriages. We were blessed to have The Center for Relationship Education right here in Colorado, so I called, and voila! Healthy Marriage classes were added.

A few retreats later, our military families asked for a financial class. Voila! Right? Um, not so easy. This one took a few years to find the right partner. Today, we are eternally grateful for First Command and their commitment to service and family.

Two years ago, our families requested a class on “How to Live with PTSD as a Family.” Once again, we did what we needed to do to provide the tools our families need.

This pattern continues as we constantly rely on our families to offer their candid feedback on what they need to heal. As an RN, one of my personal philosophies is that everyone knows what they need to heal. Sometimes they just need the opportunity to stop, and listen to themselves. Sometimes they need a sanctuary and caring people to encourage them to the path that will lead to hope and healing.

I thought we would build a retreat center. That first year was so full of hope and naive dreams. “That is a phenomenal concept. Surely someone will donate land, someone will easily give you a few million to build….” And my personal favorite: “You should call Oprah.” Another left turn. We partnered with YMCA Snow Mountain Ranch and began hosting retreats immediately. Our families needed help NOW, not after a capital campaign. In 2018, we will host 30 retreats in eight states. I did not see that coming, and we never did build that center. But, it is what is best for the families – less travel, and we reach more people who are inspired by our program and want to help.

Another left turn was believing that I would be inspired and overwhelmed with gratitude for the military families that we would serve. This is very true. I honestly feel like I fall in love with each family that bravely enters our retreat to face their demons together. But what I didn’t see coming – my left turn – was being inspirited and overwhelmed with gratitude for all the helpers as well. Project Sanctuary is not “mine.” Project Sanctuary belongs to the families we serve, our partners that generously give us discounts, our volunteers, our team members who sacrifice higher pay and a lot of personal time. I am so in love with all the amazing, selfless angels who are able to help for a single day, and for those who have sacrificed for years. I am in awe daily because the most generous loving souls surround us. They all have become our family.

As I look back over ten years, I am most grateful for the left turns and our family. They have made our organization one that is constantly improving, growing, changing, and proactively taking care of the needs of our families and team. Life needs to be lived with fluidity and curves. Take chances, make mistakes and always count your left turn blessings. Project Sanctuary is a solid, well run, thriving organization, but we are GREAT because of the people, our family. Here’s to another 10 years. Or 100.


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