"It's rewarding. You can see the damage that's been done to people internally, and to see a little smile … it's pretty cool. I've teared up a few times. That's pretty much all I need in a day." — Michael Kardas, At Ease instructor and U.S. Army veteran
At Ease: Art and Nature for Veterans is an innovative approach to empower military veterans' wellbeing by connecting them to nature and the arts. Brushwood Center at Ryerson Woods, located just north of Chicago in a county forest preserve, developed At Ease and provides its nature-based arts workshops free of charge to veterans and their families. It is the only program in the Chicago region that combines nature-based arts skills with access to mental health support.
At Ease is grounded in research showing that time in nature reduces stress and improves mental disorders that afflict veterans, such as depression, combat stress, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder. Professional teaching artists lead each class with the support of mental health professionals.
Participants describe the program as life changing. Some veterans who barely spoke when they first joined the program eventually shared openly their feelings and experiences. Participants have even reported that they never would have gone out into the woods by themselves before the program.
"You can really visibly see most of these veterans just relax when they go outside, and a lot of them really crave to go outside," said Elizabeth La Combe, a therapist at the Lovell Federal Health Care Center near Waukegan, Illinois.
The Lovell Center — the nation's only combined veterans and military hospital — refers most of the current At Ease participants. Brushwood Center also provides an entry point to access behavioral healthcare. Some of the veterans who participate in At Ease are reluctant to visit the Lovell Center for care due to the stigma that many have about the Veterans Affairs systems and seeking mental health treatment in general. Brushwood Center provides a warm, welcoming environment for veterans while also serving as a bridge to programs at the Lovell Center.