A one of a kind program that helps frontline workers hit mental health issues square on begins later this week.

Dan Irvine, CEO of Sheepdog Lodge, along with other first responders as of late, are looking for preventative measures to tackle a growing epidemic. 

Irvine, a reservist and first responder is pretty open when it comes to fighting a battle few understand. "The things that you see, the things that can't be unseen, the things that you do, and the events that you are involved with. The jobs...they change you. You become a different person, and not only do you change but your family changes, too. I am not the same person today that I was fourteen years ago when I started this job. I have always been able to talk about my issues, I have never been shy because they are a part of me. I am not going to be back to being 'the Dan' before I was a paramedic, I will forever be changed because the issues never go away."

While many know that adequate sleep, eating right, and physical fitness are a great way to combat stress, Irvine, says the problem with just heading to your local gym is the lack of understanding from both regular gym goers and instructors as to what that person may have just experienced or is still experiencing.

Thinking about how a closed door class specific to frontline workers could help both physically and mentally, Irvine approached someone he trusted to help launch the wellness grassroots initiative. Working in partnership with Anne Garrido, Owner/Coach of Rival Boxing Gym Cochrane, the two collaborated to bring this one of a kind fitness program to town. "What this does and what Anne has been able to help create is a nice safe comfortable community for us to get out of the house, back out into the community, work out, and provide both physical and mental health in a safe place where we can debrief if we need to and basically be ourselves. We can speak in our own language and have the conversations that might be a little harsh at times, but it is the way we deal with some of the extreme situations we are put into."

The classes which will run twice a week, for now, will focus on either a component of boxing and yoga or CrossFit and yoga. Running for eight weeks, Irvine states the fitness program will run in conjunction with another mental health initiative 'Project All In,' which launched about a month ago. "That will be a big part of our program, and everyone will be issued a coin. The coin will be used in a number of different ways and the first and most important thing will be the debriefing."

Creating a safe, non-judgemental environment where registered first responders/vets can pound out their stress or debrief is being well received. The ten to twelve person maximum class already has a waitlist, and Garrido says the class will be tailored to need. "This is a completely blank page, and we will have to figure out what people want so I know what I am starting with. Depending on what the participant wants, we can go there. There are so many different things we can do with boxing; we can keep it fun, conditioning, and high paced cardio, or we can move towards the more technical side of things and get more into the sport."

Garrido, says the thing about boxing is that in order to succeed you need to quiet your mind. "Boxing teaches you how to control your emotions; you can't let your emotions take over. The minute you are in the ring or doing any kind of drill, or trying to learn something, the minute you let your emotions take over you won't learn anything. All you will end up doing is wasting your energy, your time, and get mad at yourself or mad at the bag."

Irvine shares the best part about the program is it will cater to all needs. "The great thing about the variety is it speaks to all our members. We might have a paramedic that is in their 50s or a little older that comes in and just wants to sweat it out or you might have a Veteran that comes in that is used to physical contact that might really enjoy the sparring aspect, so it offers so many different avenues."

The fitness program being offered through Rival Boxing is just another way to get ahead of mental health issues. Irvine says through his foundation, Sheepdog Lodge; he can offer the program for free to participants. "One of the things we have done through the foundation is we need to act, not react. We know there is a need for this class because you can tell by the waiting list that people really want it, but we didn't want people to be financially burdened by this. So if they see the value in it after the fact, and they see fit to give back through volunteering or donation then we will definitely accept that but what we really want to accomplish is get people through the door, people talking about this, and get people into a safe environment where they can be themselves."

Located between Ponoka and Bashaw, Sheepdog Lodge is a rustic log cabin retreat for Veterans and First Responders to reconnect and recuperate with their families and/or themselves. The meaning behind Sheepdog comes from a famous analogy by Lieutenant Colonel Dave Grossman where it talks about three different types of people in the world. "There is a person who has a tendency between violence and evil, and that is the 'wolf,' there are people that just go out and live their everyday lives, and they are the 'sheep,' and then it is up to the sheepdogs to prevent the wolves from the sheep."

Overseen by a committee of Veterans, First Responders, and Honourary members, Irvine states the unique thing about the foundation is the personal experience. "Our foundation has always been by first responders for first responders, by veterans for veterans. At Sheepdog Lodge foundation, because we're small, we can break through a lot of the bureaucracy, and we can act very quickly. If we get into a class here and somebody is having an issue and perhaps they need more than we can offer them in a simple debriefing, we have the ability to send them to a clinical counsellor that we work with regularly who is an expert on psychological trauma when it comes to first responders and veterans. We want to try and encourage all of our other sheepdogs to come out of their homes, back into the community, back into our community, and then eventually the big hope is the people  we help off the couch and into the program can branch out and help others in the community around them."

Hoping to grow this program into something that could eventually be held twice daily, five times a week, is a long term goal. "The idea is eventually the wellness program will be a starting point and then maybe have an intermediate class, five days a week that people could drop into, but keeping it restricted. It needs to be a continuous program, but for now, what we'll plan to do is start with the eight-week program. After that if our members want to go out and try new things we'll try to provide sponsorship for that as well, if they get to a point where that is too much, they come back into our program."

Any first responders or Veterans wishing to partake in future fitness wellness programs being held at Rival Boxing Gym Cochrane should contact Irvine through Facebook HERE. If you would like to learn more about the Lodge itself or donate, you can do so at www.sheepdoglodge.com



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