Non-profit helps Gold Star widows from across the country heal through nature

Posted at 3:38 PM, Apr 03, 2022
and last updated 2022-04-04 15:09:51-04

"This bracelet. This one. We each made one and each stone in it has representation for who we are," says Melissa Ard. "It reminds me of that time I got with all those amazing women."

Ard's new piece of jewelry was recently made with healing in mind.

"I had the privilege of flying out to Arizona last week to host six Gold Star widows at a retreat up in Flagstaff and Sedona," says Jessica Merritt, founder and executive director of Special Liberty Project.

Special Liberty Project is a non-profit organization that helps Gold Star families heal through nature. Widows from across the country, including Alaska, traveled to Arizona in March.

Merritt says, "The families that we serve feel very alone in their grieving process. It's oftentimes a very unique situation for them and being able to be around somebody who maybe hasn't had the same exact loss as them, but who understands the shoes that they walk in, is just such an incredible feeling. They don't feel alone anymore."

Ard's husband was a Navy seal. He died five years ago on Father's Day.

"He had been medically retired for very acute PTSD," says Ard. "When he died he actually died alone with my children in Georgia.

Ard continues, "Imagine you lose that partner that you have to bounce things off of, and to pick up the slack. Sometimes we don't have that anymore. And so, we pick up and we step up, and fill in this huge gap. Where our children are hurting, and we absolutely never take time for ourselves."

Special Liberty Project began over six years ago, focusing on nature-centric therapy.

"We got to do yoga in the Red Rocks in Sedona," says Ard. "Who does that? And we got that sound bath? Oh, it's just magical! And it refilled my soul to come back and be like, 'Okay, I can do this'."

Ard was able to get a break from cooking and dishes. She even discovered a new hobby from the retreat.

"We got to make dream catchers, which I've actually made a couple since."

Her family is also involved in the non-profit's equine therapy and camping program.

Special Liberty Project hosts quarterly retreats in California, Arizona and North Carolina. Merritt says there will be another event in Sedona and Lake Patagonia this year for families.

"Special Liberty Project has given us platforms and places so I can focus on rebuilding my family for what we are now," says Ard.