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Veterans take ‘Quantum Leap’ to recovery

Group photo of MHICM providers
MHICM Case Managers and Robert Villavisanis, MHICM Program Team Lead.

Tampa VA Veterans have found a therapeutic haven of sorts, among horses and red clay dirt.

Partnering with Quantum Leap Farms, the Mental Health Intensive Case Management Service provides equine-based rehabilitation to Veterans, and they teamed up recently to celebrate patient outcomes at the annual Holiday Bash.

Quantum Leap with Raymond James Valor Network, Wounded Veterans Relief Fund and Girls, Inc. stuffed 100 backpacks with personal care items, greeting cards and winter accessories to hand out to Veterans at the Holiday Bash.

In an environment of healing and support MHICM Veterans were ushered to the front and given safe space and an opportunity to testify about recovery, share words to encourage others, or simply convey special milestones. “I’m a grandpa!” shouted a Veteran who owes gratitude for thriving after a bout with alcoholism.

Robert Villavisanis, MHICM Program Team Lead spearheads the event and staff participation.

“We’re here to celebrate the progress you’ve made,” said Villavisanis. “It’s about your recovery,” he said.

Some conventional approaches to recovery can be barriers to rehabilitation and make symptoms worse. We’re providing healthy lifestyle choices and keys to battling addiction and supporting sobriety, he said.

The Holiday Bash event opened up with a moment of silence for Veterans who were lost this year. Then Villavisanis had each of the counselors come up with their Veteran-participant group to shower their thanks onto Veterans for progressing in the program. Some attendees declared remaining sober for two-to-five-to-ten years, and up to decades.

Studies document that endorphins or happy hormones are released with animal interaction and stress is lowered.

Quantum Leap Farms supports other Tampa VA programs. Veterans in Vocational Rehab Program and Psychosocial Rehabilitation and Recovery Center Service bring Veterans to the Farms twice a month. Quantum Leap also sponsors a five-day retreat for Veterans eight times a year, along with family fun days. 

According to Edie Dopking, PhD, Quantum Leap Farms Founder and Community Relations Director, Rehabilitation mostly connects trust faculties with the animal.

To form bonds of trust patient-participants engage in cleaning and caring for horses and feeding and picking up after their stalls.

They have 15 therapy horses and two donkeys. Donkeys are the obvious outliers. 

“Some Veterans can relate to being the odd-one-out,” said Dopking.

Donkeys are here because they’re the ones some Veterans relate to for their uniqueness and non-conforming presence.

Non-conforming approaches and thinking outside of the cookie-cutter are what make this therapy method match well with healing wounds that weren’t obtained in conventional ways. Therapies present novel problems to build solution-finding and coping skills.

One of the unique therapy approaches involves a complex obstacle course. The task requires Veterans to build an obstacle course that reflects complications in life. The horse or donkey they choose, representing their families and friends, must be led through the course. An added layer of challenge is to keep the animal from distractions and hindrances, like piles of hay—similar to real life.

The Veteran’s mission is to guide the horse or donkey through a path with one hand while holding on to a bucket of manure with the other hand. Their hands are full leading the animal while maneuvering through the obstacle course to get to the end. The secret ‘hack’ is that they can empty the manure bucket at any time to lighten the load. 

In another therapeutic task, patients have to catch their animal, harness it and bring it back. “Success may not look like perfection, but the point is to achieve the task of getting the animal back with the halter,” said Dopking.

In therapeutic sessions that have happened every other week since 2008, Veterans exercise leadership with their animals and gain empowerment that helps them advocate for and achieve their own wellness.

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