The Healing Power of Burden Bags

This week’s blog comes from Sharon Harris. Sharon is Project Sanctuary’s Program Coordinator and has been with the team since 2015. Sharon’s work at Project Sanctuary focuses on the programming involved with Colorado retreats, helping the families who attend achieve positive therapeutic experiences. She is a Certified Therapeutic Recreation Specialist, and today is sharing her experiences working with young people at our retreats.

Some of my favorite experiences at Project Sanctuary retreats have been working with the youth and teens who attend with their families.

There is so much they have bottled up and they are searching for an outlet, a way they can express themselves, for someone to listen. Burden Bags are one of the more memorable activities I’ve done with teens.

First, everyone gets a brown paper bag.  They’re instructed to illustrate or color the outside of the bag to show the way they think others view them, or how they portray themselves to others. In many cases, their drawings are surface-level things they like to do. Sports, singing, studying a lot, those type of things. It’s always a fun way to get to know everyone.

Afterward, everyone is instructed to find at least five large rocks. They can have more if they like, but on these rocks, they need to write down their burdens, anger, resentment, or anything they keep bottled up and hold on to.

After they finish, they put their rocks in their bags and we go on a walk.

therapeutic retreat activities for kids military family

Sharon works with a young boy at Retreat #154. Photo by Lynn Shore.

During the walk, I tell the teens to hold their bags over their heads with one hand. Despite keeping so much bottled up, the kids are so insightful.  One commented while struggling with their bag, “Are you making us do this because we often hold our burdens over our heads?”  Another time, I made everyone give their bag to another person and a kid asked, “Is this because our burdens affect other people?”

At the end of the walk, we end up at a river.

The teens were given the opportunity to throw their burdens away. If they threw their burden rock into the river, they needed to try to let it go in real life.  They also had the option to keep the rocks if they weren’t yet ready to let go of the burden they represented.

I loved seeing how seriously the teens took this activity giving a lot of thought to each burden rock they threw in the water. Many of them came to me in tears asking for help, asking how they can move on past their hurt. The most rewarding part, though, was seeing most of the teens go to their parents afterward to tell them they needed to talk.

This is one of the many reasons I love working with Project Sanctuary. It helps everyone heal as a family.  After all, if one family member serves, the whole family serves.  And everyone needs their own kind of healing.

A $50 donation funds therapeutic activities like Burden Bags for military kids at one retreat. Give today at