VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. — Trails of Purpose, a Chesapeake-based nonprofit that uses horses to support military members, is preparing to expand its services to a new facility to accommodate a growing need for mental health resources.

Roughly 30 volunteers gathered recently at One Red Maple Farm to help clean the property. Trails of Purpose began leasing parts of the 38-acre Pungo farm in early May and is going through the city’s conditional use permit process to open the property to military members and their families seeking mental health counseling.

Located in the heart of one of the nation’s most densely populated military communities, co-founder Kayla Arestivo said expanding services was necessary.

“Just look at the news,” said Arestivo, a licensed mental health counselor and military spouse. “Military mental health — Department of Defense mental health — is overrun right now. It is not well supported or billeted.”

Jarred Bragg helps move bales of hay during a clean up event for Trails of Purpose, May 20, 2023, in Chesapeake, Va., ahead of the opening of their new location in Virginia Beach, Va.

Trails of Purpose provides therapeutic care for service members suffering mental hardships, using horses for assisted psychotherapy and mental health education. The various services, which mostly involve handling the horses on foot, are meant to help current and former military members and their families overcome the trauma, transition and trials from military service.

“We’ve doubled our service members every year since we’ve been in existence,” Arestivo said. “I have had chiefs call me and say, ‘Nobody’s picking up the phone, Portsmouth is overrun and I have got this kid.’ And they literally drive the sailor out to us. That is the need.”

Ricky Bledsoe, a Trails of Purpose board member and retired Navy special warfare officer, purchased the property from Lynnette Bukowski, the widow of a veteran Navy SEAL. Bukowski, who owned the farm for nearly 10 years, had turned it into a retreat for veterans returning from combat.

“The whole premise behind buying the place was to continue the mission Lynn started,” said Bledsoe, who had volunteered with Bukowski.

Bledsoe retired as a chief warrant officer 3 in 2021 following a 30-year naval career.

“I noticed there was a lack of attention to people’s well being — especially for their mental health. It was always, ‘Go, go, go’ and not about the individual,” Bledsoe said.

Bledsoe, Arestivo and Trails of Purpose volunteers worked for three hours, ensuring the property will be available to military members and their families to “rest and refit.” Volunteers cleared overgrown vegetation and cleaned up animal pens, a bunk house and a barn.

“If you need a place just get out of the city on the weekends, we have that. If you want to just get out and be amongst nature with horses, without horses, or just sit over there and have lunch and let your kids play,” Bledsoe said. “It is somewhere to totally relax, for you to just withdraw from the overwhelming stuff of reality for a little bit.”

Trails of Purpose sees about 100 military members, veterans and their families per week in individual, spouse, family or group therapy sessions.

“These are people who are built for community,” Arestivo said. “A lot of military members don’t typically have friends outside the military because they have built-in friends in the military. But when you leave the military, you don’t have that anymore. When you come out to us, now you do.

“Now, every Saturday you can show up to groups and you can trust that somebody is going to be there checking in on you. You have a place where you belong.”

Susan Welch, left, and Kyle Arestivo help move bales of hay during a clean up event for Trails of Purpose, May 20, 2023 , in Chesapeake, Va., ahead of the opening of their new location in Virginia Beach, Va

In working with One Red Maple Farm, the nonprofit will be able to facilitate additional groups, running in tandem with the Chesapeake location. It hired three additional licensed professional counselors and is leasing seven new horses.

Opening the program at a second location has also expanded Arestivo’s goals.

“I would love for people to understand the value in civilian counselors for the military,” she said. “Maybe we don’t need to report everything back to TRICARE. Maybe people can just go and talk about what’s going on with them and it doesn’t have to be reported to the command.”

Participating in Trails of Purpose is free and is not reported to commanding officers or military health insurance providers. A service member’s participation will only be reported if licensed professional counselors deem that person a threat to themself or others.

Arestivo’s short-term goal is to see the waitlist dwindle. It is currently four weeks.

“But right now, if I remove three from the waitlist, three more replace them,” Arestivo said.

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