Transcending Trauma Through Connections to Nature and Community
“The impact of the Healing Lands Project on our child homicide survivor clients is profound. Caregivers report their children return from the trips calm, relaxed, more confident, and able to identify new abilities and personal strengths, including an ability to give and receive emotional support from their peers.
Clinical observations indicate the children experience the trips as therapeutic, validating, and as meaningful respite from the many significant stressors in their lives. Post-trip, children have utilized river imagery during therapy to help themselves regulate trauma-related arousal. On the last day of his first trip, one of our young clients told us, with tears running down his face, ‘I can’t wait for another year to go back on the river.’”
Melissa Rhodes, Clinical Director
Arizona Child and Adolescent Survivor Initiative (ACASI)
The Family Violence Institute
Northern Arizona University
In 2019, after several years of partnership, The Healing Lands Project officially became a Grand Canyon Youth program. This project connects youth who have experienced trauma with the healing power of nature and community through GCY expeditions.
Thanks to the support of our generous donors, Healing Lands partnerships and expeditions in 2019 included:
- The Arizona Child and Adolescent Survivor Initiative (ACASI) serves young people who have lost a parent to intimate partner homicide. 12 youth from ACASI participated in a San Juan River trip and 4 in a reunion camping trip for the previous year’s river trip participants.
- Through Child and Family Support Services (CFSS), 7 youth interacting with the foster care system explored the San Juan River on a 4-day expedition.
- Victim Witness Services (VWS) clients (ages 7-12 years old) took a day hike to Picture Canyon as an introduction to outdoor activities.
The positive results that caretakers and mental health providers report from these expeditions are backed up by science. As Noooshin Razani, a pediatrician and director at the Center for Nature and Health at Children’s Hospital Oakland in California, says, “We [have] found that nature decreases the trauma response, improves cognitive function, and promotes healing.”
Indeed, according to UC Berkeley psychology professor Dacher Keltner, “Time outdoors changes people’s nervous systems. It is as effective as any PTSD intervention we have.”
In addition to reaching a group of young people who can benefit profoundly from the GCY experience, lessons learned through the Healing Lands Project are beginning to inform GCY’s expeditions more broadly, as we work to become an increasingly trauma-informed organization.
With support from the Northern Arizona Regional Behavioral Health Institute, GCY now provides Mental Health First Aid training to all guides, so that they will be prepared to deal with unanticipated responses to previous trauma or other mental health challenges while on the river.
Your support ensures that Grand Canyon Youth can provide full financial aid to all Healing Lands Project participants. Access to the healing power of nature is by no means a guarantee for any youth, especially the most vulnerable among us. With your help, we can continue to connect these young people with powerful healing experiences in the future.
Healing Lands Founder Annette McGivney
Annette McGivney, Healing Lands Project Founder and author of Pure Land: A True Story of Three Lives, Three Cultures, and the Search for Heaven on Earth. You can read Annette’s blog post about how nature can provide healing and respite during the COVID-19 pandemic.
1. Why did you create the Healing Lands Project?
I came up with the idea for Healing Lands when I was writing my book Pure Land. As I struggled to share some traumatic experiences I had growing up, I wanted to make sure the end game for Pure Land would be raising awareness about the impacts of family violence. And I wanted to provide a direct way for Pure Land readers to help trauma survivors, especially kids. The vision for Healing Lands is to not only increase community dialogue about how nature helps children cope with trauma but to also carry out those ideas with actions in terms of facilitating wilderness experiences for kids in need.
2. What impact have you seen on the participants so far?
The impacts have been beyond my wildest dreams. Thanks to our generous donors, we have carried out two river trips and two camping trips in the past two years for the ACASI (Arizona Child and Adolescent Survivor Initiative) program. I have witnessed numerous positive changes in the ACASI kids, especially those doing multiple trips. They take pride in being veteran campers, have formed deep friendships with each other and enthusiastically look forward to the next Healing Lands trips. One child uses mental images of his time on the river as a means of bio feedback during therapy sessions. Therapists for several children have reported significant improvements in emotional wellbeing after the Healing Lands trips.
3. How do you think the ideas that inspired Healing Lands – that nature and community have the power to heal – can apply to other GCY expeditions, and beyond?
I think GCY has been a leader in terms of promoting the positive effects of time in nature for children. The good news is GCY has long been facilitating access for kids to the healing power of nature. What we could do better is to more actively acknowledge the very real benefits of time spent in the wild. Yes, a river trip is super fun. But we should also make kids aware of how the river experience impacts their emotions and mental state and actively encourage them to seek out that feeling after the trip ends by getting outdoors more often with their family and friends.