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Helping Military Families Find Their Footing

After fighting wars, veterans and their loved ones battle PTSD through mindfulness, outdoor activity and healthy habits

Article by Mary Ellin Arch

Photography by Photography Provided

Originally published in Midlothian Lifestyle

The men, wearing street clothes and some still in shoes, lay on the floor in various states of repose, circling a yoga teacher guiding their relaxation from an instructional perch in a chair.

“By the end, some of them were snoring,” said the instructor, Renee Champagne-Davis. “It was tough to get them moving afterward.”

The Yellow Ribbon Program had come to Champagne-Davis, M.Ed., owner of the health coaching company Sustaining Youth and Families LLC, to learn skills to help with reintegration and reduce stress after deployments.

Champagne-Davis’s work with active-duty personnel, veterans and military families in Williamsburg is just one example of a broad spectrum of mental health assistance available throughout Virginia and nationwide.

A veteran, mother of three teens and an active-duty spouse, Champagne-Davis speaks from experience. Her own background includes military service, sexual assault and an ongoing journey to recovery from PTSD.

An athlete who has run more than 50 marathons, two 50-milers and a number of triathlons, Champagne-Davis did what many with PTSD do – tried to stay busy. “I believed if I served others, ran races and continued my education, I would feel better and fill the void,” she said. “But exactly the opposite happened. I ended up exhausted and disconnected. This exacerbated the symptoms of my PTSD, which directly affected my ability to function. When I realized it was okay to feel emotions like shame, guilt, sadness and anger, that’s when the healing began.”

Now Champagne-Davis, who holds a master’s degree in clinical mental health from the College of William and Mary and various certifications in yoga and wellness, devotes her energy to “after care” - helping service members and their families find health and joy as she did. She teaches that the path to a balanced recovery comes through healthy eating, outdoor experiences, mindfulness, and talk therapy. In particular, Champagne-Davis promotes “integrative restoration” or “iRest,” a type of yoga that emphasizes meditation and mindfulness in a specialized practice that suits veterans under stress, who may find unwelcome triggers in standard yoga settings.

“By learning to eat healthy, being in the outdoors, and practicing rest – all these things are what foster post-traumatic growth,” she said.

Champagne-Davis says she’s one of many veterans driven to create service organizations focused on helping veterans build new lives after transitioning out of the military. She has worked with various partners including Warriors at Ease, a 501(c)(3) that uses yoga and meditation to ease combat-related health symptoms, and Give an Hour®, a Washington, D.C.-based organization that helps military members and families connect with mental health and other services.

Founded in 2005 on the premise of motivating volunteers to donate time to volunteering, Give an Hour has evolved to focus on forging relationships with providers to make needed services available. Providers agree to offer at least 52 hours of service annually, most in the form of face-to-face or tele-counseling, but other services as well, said project manager Katie Civiletto, MHA.

A provider search on Give an Hour’s website using a Midlothian ZIP code generated more than three dozen returns, nearly a dozen locally.

“Thanks to the generosity of providers like Renee and our donors, Give an Hour is proud to offer mental health services to veterans, military and their loved ones,” Civiletto said. “In the past 15 years, we have offered over 311,000 hours of support, valued at nearly $31 million. The need continues to grow, and we stand ready to continue to offer help for as long as it is needed.”