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Oct. 21, 2021 | Thursday
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Valhalla Project Niagara adapts to pandemic realities

In the COVID-19 era, it’s as crucial as ever to provide education and advocacy for post-traumatic stress disorder in first responders, which is why the Valhalla Project Niagara revised its model to reach clients during the pandemic.

At a time when society has been collectively forced into isolation, Graham Bettes, director and chaplain for the organization, says it’s vital to keep the program going.

The Valhalla Project Niagara is a not-for-profit organization providing free access to mental health treatment, education and advocacy for first responders and veterans diagnosed with PTSD. The project offers comprehensive programming, teaching clients coping mechanisms for managing their condition daily.

“We provide them with basic materials, or basic information on the various methods for managing the PTSD. Things like information on basic symptoms of PTSD, how to utilize a support group, as well as their support network, lifestyle changes, certain coping skills that can be put into action, when they do get elevated, or triggered, as a lot of people use that common term,” Bettes says.

The information and support provided “should be out there in the hands of our demographic” and he says he’s hopeful the organization can be considered “essential” amid the pandemic.

Its cornerstone service, a five-day residential Learn 2 Live Again program, was adapted to meet clients needs online at the beginning of the pandemic. This week, after months of uncertainty about whether or not the in-person service would be back, the program began with increased safety protocols in place.

The online version offers the educational and communication components of the program, as well as some activities, which have been reformatted into 10, three-hour sessions. But the in-On Wednesday afternoon, participants joined program directors for team building and adventure on an interactive rope course.

Ken Baudette was a primary care paramedic and a previous participant of the course. Now he is a  director of the program as well. He says he believes in the work the Valhalla Project is doing.

“It changed my life,” he said.

He was given one of the service dogs before that aspect of the program needed to be halted due to the pandemic. His dog, Halo, can sense and wake him from nightmares.

“Last night she woke me a couple of times, so I only had a few nightmares,” Baudette says.

Bettes has been living with his own PTSD for 30 years. The Niagara-on-the-Lake resident has served as a sergeant in the Canadian Armed Forces, is a volunteer for the NOTL Fire Department and a detective with Peel Regional Police.

As a public speaker for mental health advocacy, Bettes has first-hand experience dealing with PTSD. And though he says he doesn’t always have the answers, he has tried enough methods and tactics for managing his own condition that he feels confident he can help guide others with theirs.

“One of the key things is all of the mentors or all of the presenters that we bring in, all have a mental health connection, whether they have PTSD themselves, which the majority of our presenters do, or they have a mental health aspect in their own life that they have dealt with,” he says.

“I found that when I was having people talk to me about my injury, it always felt very foreign to have somebody with a lab coat telling me what my symptoms were and how they could be really terrible and really brutal,” he says.

“Whereas the whole concept of our program is kind of the lived experience. I've had PTSD for 30 years. So, I can tell folks, I do what I do during the day, during the week to kind of keep myself basically suicide-free.”

The Valhalla Service Dog program, which was set to launch in late March, has been temporarily put on hold. But Bettes says the seven golden retrievers which were already undergoing training before being shut down this spring have been placed with their handlers.

“When COVID came in, we were in the process of starting the program. We were able to get the dogs out to their eventual handlers and our service dog handler was able to do online monitoring. Those dogs will continue to be monitored until they complete their training,” he says.

The Valhalla Project Niagara operates with the generous contributions and support of local businesses and organizations. Bettes says Cookware Health CLUBB Inc., will be providing meals for the residential program. Activities and events throughout the program have been made possible thanks to partnerships with Benchview Stables, Fox Den Goat Yoga, B-Y's Honey Farm, Paddle Niagara, Vino Velo Bike Wine Tours and Bike Rentals, Pete's Pizza, Homestead Donuts, Evolve MMA, Niagara BJJ and CRUSH On Niagara Wine Tours.

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