Morgan Richmond is an eighteen-year-old student at Texas State University, where she is pursuing her degree in Recreational Administration with a concentration in Therapy. She ultimately aims to become a Certified Therapeutic Recreation Specialist (CTRS), a path she was set on after attending a Project Sanctuary retreat with her family.
February is National Recreation Therapy Month. Morgan helps us celebrate by telling the story of how recreation therapy has changed her life.
I grew up in a small town in Connecticut called Newtown. My mom, Kate, was a respiratory therapist and my dad, Tom, was a firefighter and a medic in the Army National Guard. I have two sisters, Michaela who is older and Maeve who is younger. Growing up with parents that had jobs helping people, we knew the importance of lending a hand.
In elementary school, whenever the military was talked about, I would shoot my hand up and tell everyone who would listen that my dad was in the Army. I was proud of him. I was proud of both my parents and the jobs they did.
One of the times I was bragging about my dad, a classmate and friend of mine said to me, “What happens when your dad has to go to war?” I just said, “He won’t.” When you’re a kid you don’t ever believe that it will be your parent being sent off on deployment.
Shortly after this conversation at school, I found out that my dad would be going on a deployment to the Dominican Republic for 6 months. This wasn’t a drill weekend or a 24-hour shift at the firehouse. This was six months. From February to July of 2009, he was working down in the Dominican Republic. Shortly after returning from the Dominican, we were told he would be deployed to Iraq for 13 months.
My mom decided it would be best to move to Texas, where my grandparents lived. They agreed to help mom juggle us kids. She did it almost alone for six months already and the thought of being alone with three kids for a year was too daunting.
Leaving the only home we ever knew was hard. It was even harder because my dad wasn’t with us. We got to see him sometimes over Skype. Sometimes it was pixelated and hard to see his face or even hear him, but we managed. It was a year of growing up, and we all grew up fast.
When Dad got back, I imagined everything would pick up where it left off, but that’s not how it happened. The dad who came back was not the same one that left a year earlier, and I didn’t understand it.
I was a kid. I didn’t know what Post-Traumatic Stress was. All I knew was he would get angry and upset over things that didn’t affect him before or things I thought were insignificant. Like a loud noise or a crowd of people. Mom and Dad started to argue more. Soon enough we’d all join into the arguments.
After Dad had been home for a short time, we went back to Connecticut so he could continue working for the fire department. I thought maybe back in Connecticut things would get better. If anything it made it worse. It’s hard to be in a place that was once comfortable and feel like you don’t fit there. Dad had grown up in the town we lived in, he was well known, but he didn’t feel the same. Things that never made him anxious, made him anxious. It was hard being somewhere so familiar but feeling so different.
Post-traumatic stress makes you see things in a way you didn’t before, and none of us had a good understanding of that. He felt far away even though he was finally back with us. We didn’t feel like a complete family.
In November 2012, my mom told us that we were going to be going on a special trip to Colorado. Us kids were excited. Mom explained to us that this was a special retreat for families who have had a parent that had deployed. She said that it would be a time for the family to reconnect.
At the retreat we didn’t have to worry at anything. The week was planned, the food was cooked, it was all done for us. We finally got a chance just to be a family. Having parents that worked opposite shifts growing up it was rare to eat dinner as a family, so it was nice just be together.
While Mom and Dad participated in marriage and financial classes, us girls went to the kids program. I was very nervous at first and apprehensive about leaving my parents. As a 12-year-old kid, I was pretty shy, and I didn’t like meeting new people very much. But I met Missy Hyatt, a CTRS who would become a big inspiration to me. Once the program started, the nervous feeling I had went away. I had my sisters with me and the staff and volunteers did an amazing job at making it a comfortable space to be.
In the kids program, we played games and had fun, but we also talked about family and the importance of communication. When we got home, I noticed that our family felt closer. We all had struggles but we weren’t falling apart anymore. Project Sanctuary gave us tools that we were able to use to better ourselves.
The spring following our family retreat, we decided to go back and volunteer. We wanted to give back to the organization that helped us as well as serve those who served us. Soon, we started to volunteer as much as we could. Eventually, dad got hired to cook for retreats. Looks like all the years of cooking big meals at the firehouse paid off.
I’ve been volunteering for almost six years and every time it’s a joy. Seeing families just like mine come through the retreat and leaving better than they came in is part of the reason why I love it so much. Working alongside Missy and Project Sanctuary’s other CTRS staff (shout out Sharon, Crystal, and Holly!) is an amazing experience.
You see how games and activities can help a child be better equipped in situations that may arise with the family. Communication, understanding, and problem solving are big ideas that are shared with the kids. The things they learn on a retreat they get to bring home together. Happy memories are made on retreat, memories that you can store and pull out on a bad day or when things are tough. It’s a place to grow, and when you leave, the growth continues.
As a product of a therapeutic retreat, I believe in recreational therapy and the difference that it makes in people’s lives. If my family hadn’t gone to Project Sanctuary, I don’t know if we would’ve made it.
We were all forced to confront problems and find solutions. But we were given the tools to do so. We were guided in the right direction. It was up to us to make the changes and keep working at the difficult stuff, but we couldn’t have done it without Project Sanctuary. The people who work these retreats really care about you and they just want to help make life a little better. I want to be able to help kids just like me, families just like mine.