SASKATOON -- Fundraising is underway for an outdoor getaway that will help public safety workers struggling with mental illnesses.

The River Valley Resilience Retreat will be available for anyone in Canada on the front lines of public safety, such as paramedics, police, court staff, doctors, nurses and correctional officers, and their families. The organization recently launched a GoFundMe with a $350,000 goal.

The retreat will be located on more than 100 acres along the North Saskatchewan River in the R.M. of Duck Lake.

Jeff Reeder, a firefighter in Prince Albert, is one of the founders of the non-profit organization. He said the retreat will provide alternative treatment to “conventional methods that might not be best-suited for everyone,” such as medication.

It’s based off of his own experience with an operational stress injury.

Reeder found the best therapy for him was equine-assisted programming through Cartier Farms outside of Prince Albert. They’ll be offering equine therapy at the retreat when it opens.

“It kind of forces you to be in the moment,” said Reeder.

“They feed off of your energy. It’s that instant, honest feedback. You can sit across from a person and tell them what they want to hear, but the horse will call you on it every time.”

It was only after equine-assisted therapy that Reeder was able to ease himself off of his medication and return to work 12 years ago.

Michelle McKeaveney, also a founder of the organization, is a former correctional officer and social worker. The River Valley Resilience Retreat stems from her weekly first responder support group called What’s Important Now.

She said the group has showed that nature plays a large role in mental healing for front line workers.

“Since 2019, we have been asking those questions, finding the people who would benefit and tailoring what we see as our vision to suit what we know will work. Not what we think, but what we know now because of people who’ve actually told us what they would benefit from,” she said.

“We just need more access to things that are actually working, rather than trying to slam down the throats of everybody a one-size fits all plan.”

According to the Centre for Suicide Prevention, first responders experience post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) at two times the rate of the average population. The centre says about 22 per cent of paramedics, in particular, will develop PTSD.

McKeaveney said she hopes to break ground on the main lodge by spring, but that it depends on how quickly they can raise the money to do so.

The chairperson of the River Valley Resilience Retreat, Tara Kennedy, said she hopes the project will reduce the rates of suicide among public safety personnel. Kennedy has close friends and family members who struggle with a work-related stress injury.

“There’s so many people that suffer from PTSI (post-traumatic stress injuries) and OSI (operational stress injuries) from their jobs,” said Kennedy.

“They’re the people that go running into danger to save us, and who’s saving them?”

Kennedy is also selling face coverings and key chains at her business, Kennedy’s Animal Nutrition Centre, to raise funds for the retreat.