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The Healing Power of the Outdoors

May 23, 2018

Found in Community news, Stories

Last summer, on a beach in Sechelt Inlet, BC, a group of young women sat together in a circle and cried. They had been led there by a Defender of Culture from the Sechelt Nation, who told them how his ancestors had practiced a similar outpouring of emotion with the support of elders as a ritual of womanhood. He called it the “Crying Beach,” and over the next few nights, it became a place where the young leaders in Minerva BC’s Indigenous Roots program could share stories about their lives, hopes and dreams.

“These conversations can absolutely happen outside of an outdoor context,” explains Ashley Milbury, Youth Programs Coordinator at Minerva BC. “However, I am confident that they would not have been as deeply honest without the closeness that comes from overcoming challenges together in the wilderness. Connecting with the ocean, the forest and the beach offers valuable medicine to soothe these wounds once they’ve been opened.”

“Connecting with the ocean, the forest and the beach offers valuable medicine to soothe these wounds once they’ve been opened.” – Ashley Milbury

Healing through a connection to the wilderness is at the core of the Indigenous Roots program, as it is for the Healing in Nature: Bereavement Network as well as Forest and the Femme – three incredible community programs that help participants develop strength, balance and resilience.

Indigenous Roots

A group of young women sits in a circle on a beach as the sun sets.

Indigenous Roots is a year-long outdoor leadership program that gives Indigenous girls aged 13–19 the opportunity to create strong connections to themselves, other Indigenous girls and the natural world. The BC-based program includes day trips, leadership workshops and two longer trips that challenge participants and ask them to witness each other along the way.

Lisa Tallio, a former director with Minerva BC and a proud member of the Nuxalk and Heiltsuk First Nations, conceived of Indigenous Roots in 2017 when she saw a need for an in-depth, long-term commitment to Indigenous youth and their leadership. She connected with Jeff Willis of Fireside Adventures, and together they developed a program focused on leadership skills grounded in Indigenous culture and environmental principles. In the program’s inaugural year, 25 participants canoed and camped around Sechelt Inlet and circumnavigated Gambier Island.

“Many of the girls refer to Indigenous Roots as their family,” says Ashley. “This sense of community comes from their courage to share so much of themselves and to witness each other so powerfully. […] They have demonstrated tremendous vulnerability and willingness to learn throughout the program. Almost all participants have described feeling disconnected from their Indigenous culture.”

A group of girls paddles a large canoe across an ocean inlet.
A young woman wearing a hiking backpack looks back over her shoulder and smiles.

Ashley describes one participant who overcame a serious fear of water to flourish in the program. In her first outing, the group paddled the Tsleil-Waututh Nation’s large canoe down Indian Arm, and before long, she was kayaking, whitewater rafting, canoeing on a 21-day expedition, and even jumping into Howe Sound to swim to a nearby island.

“Indigenous Roots gave this young woman the opportunity to cultivate the bravery and resiliency that will serve her and her community her entire life,” says Ashley. “My hope is for every young Indigenous woman to know that she is valued and that her voice is important. We should all look forward to a future guided by their strong leadership and look for our part in supporting their voices.”

Healing in Nature: Bereavement Network

A group of tents set up among trees.

Michael Modica and Paula Tablon founded the Healing in Nature: Bereavement Network (HNBN for short) to provide a different avenue of grief support and change the conversation around death and dying for their generation.

“Personally speaking, we have been through various deaths together and the outdoors has helped ground us throughout our grief journeys,” explain Michael and Paula. Michael lost his father suddenly, and his grandfather and family dog within three months of one another. In between, Paula lost her grandparents. “Grief feels like ocean waves; it’s always moving – there are up and downs as there are good and bad days,” says Michael. Traditional bereavement support could not provide what they needed. “We know everyone grieves differently – for us, nature provided the support and healing we needed to be resilient.”

The graduates of MEC Outdoor Nation’s 2017 Think Outside Summit are recruiting young adults in the Greater Toronto Area who have faced significant loss for a 10-week pilot program focused on nature walks, mindfulness exercises and group activities.

In their own experience and from conversations with others, the HNBN duo have observed that being outside helps people get out of their heads, restores a sense of peace within, and helps people find themselves when they feel lost. “Being in nature connects us,” they explain. “When we go through grief, we tend to internalize, close ourselves off and stay indoors, but we want to be the safe space outside where bereaved individuals can go for support.”

Forest and the Femme

Two people walk on a trail through a lush green forest

As the founder of Forest and the Femme, Jaime Adams provides outdoor programming for highly marginalized women who face multiple barriers to accessing nature on their own. The program’s participants include trans, cis and gender-diverse women living with mental health and addictions, chronic physical health or mobility issues, trauma, cognitive disabilities, poverty, and who are involved in street-based survival sex work. “Indigenous women are prioritized because they should have unrestricted access to their land,” explains Jaime. Many of the participants have lived in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside community for years, often since they were teens. “Some have parents and even grandparents who live in similar circumstances in the community. This is the tragic legacy of colonialism and residential school trauma.”

Jaime came up with the idea to start the program in 2011 while working in a women’s transitional housing program in the Downtown Eastside. “I quickly discovered a huge gap in resources available to that vulnerable demographic and knew that I had to do something to support the wellness of those women,” she says.

Forest and the Femme creates a connection to nature for people who would otherwise have none. To keep things accessible, many outings are as simple as a picnic in a beautiful location, such as the bank of a North Shore creek or the shoreline of the Salish Sea. “So much physical and emotional healing and growth can occur in these places simply by being there,” Jaime explains. “We want them to create great memories, feel hopeful, have new stories to tell … recognize their own strength, and feel a part of something bigger than themselves.”

Two women look out over a creek, surrounded by a forest.

Jaime’s own experience with anxiety and the way being in the outdoors helped her overcome its terrifying hold on her life helps her connect with participants. “I have always found nature to be a healing place for me both in terms of finding resilience for trauma and anxiety and for finding my strength, building courage and changing my narrative around my sense of ability.” She sees similar transformations in the Forest and the Femme participants. “100% of the women surveyed each year reported that the outings helped them to socialize without drugs, to feel good about themselves and engage in more self-care.”

Instead of focusing on their limitations or circumstances, the women support one another, share stories, learn new skills and reconnect with their surroundings. “Nature gives anxiety a place to go and sadness a way out of the body,” says Jaime. “I know that being outdoors makes us strong and resilient, and I also know that those who have faced the most adversity should be able to access that healing.”

We’re all connected

Systemic injustice, mental health issues and personal circumstances make some of us more vulnerable to trauma, grief and loss. But whatever our story, nature therapies such as shinrin-yoku (the Japanese practice of forest bathing) and grounding/earthing (the idea that direct contact with the earth’s electrical energy promotes physical wellbeing) can provide accessible outdoor self-care. As these practices and programs demonstrate, getting outside can help us recharge and begin to heal on a deeper level.

It starts with warm sun on your face, the sound of wind rushing through the trees, and the first jolt of cool lake water washing over your toes. And this connection to nature, and to one another, is becoming more and more important – for all of us.

A woman in a Cowichan sweater gazes up at a large tree.

MEC is proud to provide funding and gear donations to Minerva BC’s Indigenous Roots program, the Healing in Nature: Bereavement Network program, and the Forest and the Femme program.

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