It’s one of those leap of faith situations where someone had what they thought was a good idea and, unsure if it would be successful or not, forged ahead with it.
Such is the case with Sheepdog Lodge, a place of respite for veterans and first responders suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) or those having difficulty in dealing with workplace-related pressures and stresses.
Allan Russell, a Princess Patricia Canadian Light Infantry (PPCLI) and Edmonton Police Service veteran and current Canmore Fire-Rescue member, had the idea of a respite site in the spring of 2015 and, thanks to the largesse of his uncle Walter Twiddy, who donated a family lake property, Sheepdog Lodge came into being that same fall.
For 2017, the lodge has become popular enough that more than 60 people were hosted at the family-oriented log cabin on Red Deer Lake.
“It’s been very busy for us,” said Russell, “we tend to be busier in winter and I think it’s because people are busier in summer and because it’s just nice to sit in front of a woodstove on a cold day.”
The lodge’s mission statement reads: We exist for the purpose of providing a community and network of veterans and first responders through leadership, mentoring and support.
Sheepdog Lodge does not offer counselling, although the idea is being looked into. Rather, lodge operators are about offering peer support and hosts who are veterans or first responders themselves are on site for guests who book the lodge for two-day getaways.
Guests needing a respite seem to soak up the cabin and outdoor experience, said Russell. “We had a satellite TV for a while, but nobody watched it. People just wanted to sit down, chat, enjoy each other’s company, maybe walk by the lake.
“People really enjoy it and it’s a great place for them to bring kids, even their dog, and be away from everything.”
Sheepdog Lodge does work with, and can refer veterans and first responders to, Calgary Dr. Jen Primmer (Involution Inc.), a specialist in PTSD and operational stress injuries. Organizers also work with PTSD awareness group Military Minds Inc. which hosts the Rolling Barrage motorcycle fundraising ride.
“We’re hoping in the future to bring formalized programs to the lodge,” said Russell, “but for now what works best is to have volunteer hosts on hand for weekends when guests are at the lodge.
“We have 30 or more volunteers and some of them were guests first, who then wanted to help. We have an acre of land near the lake, we’ve had a canoe donated and a couple of bikes and it’s fully winter ready.”
Sheepdog Lodge operates by donation and last year, Canmore’s Rolling Sculpture Car Club held a summer car show, with enough funds going to the lodge to keep it operating for a year. Those funds go to property taxes, upkeep and operational costs.
“That was huge for us,” said Russell. “That kind of community support is incredible and helps keep us running.”
The lodge has a guest book for those staying to add comments and Russell says to date, there has been no negative feedback. Hosts do the cooking for guests, are willing to chat, often on a peer-to-peer basis, and help veterans and first responders enjoy a break from their everyday life.
“One lady wrote in the guest book that she was just so happy not to have to cook,” said Russell. “She just read some books and enjoyed conversations during meals.”
Guests and hosts come from across the country and ideally, said Russell, the lodge would like to eventually raise enough funds to pay a full-time staffer to handle administrative details.
“I originally had no idea if it would work,” he said. “I just wanted to bring people out and see how it goes.”
Russell’s idea didn’t simply come out of the ether, of course. As a PPCLI member who did a six-month tour of Bosnia himself, he was later an Edmonton Police Service member when PPCLI members began to return from Afghanistan.
“After 9/11 happened, I almost signed up again,” he said. “Guys from my old section were killed and injured in a friendly fire incident (Tarnak Farms, when an U.S. air force pilot bombed Canadian soldiers).
“And when some of those guys came back, we as police had to deal with guys coming home with issues. It wasn’t very public, but we had some guys holed up in their house with firearms.
“As police, we had a job to do, but I also wanted to help because of the brotherhood and sisterhood there is between soldiers. I realized these people were having issues after being in Afghanistan. I could see they needed help.”
After retiring from EPS and leaving Edmonton, Russell and his wife moved to Canmore, where joined Fire-Rescue and is now a casual firefighter, along with his work with Sheepdog Lodge.
For more, visit www.sheepdoglodge.com.