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Brushwood Center’s At Ease program combines art, nature to help veterans heal; ‘After the class you can see their inner light is shining’

The changes are subtle, but U.S. Air Force veteran Michael Kardas has noticed. He teaches photography to veterans through the At Ease program sponsored by Brushwood Center in Riverwoods.

"At the beginning of the class, you could see they were a little shattered," Kardas said, referring to trauma some of the participants might have experienced while serving in the military.

"The reality is, right after the class you can see their inner light is shining a little bit. It's been very moving for me," said Kardas, who has found his own solace in nature and art.

What makes the 6-year-old At Ease Program unique is that it combines art with nature to promote healing, he said.

Brushwood Center, a nonprofit organization, is situated within Ryerson Woods, an ecological treasure in Lake County brimming with native plants, animals and trails where people can commune with nature. Founded in 1984, Brushwood Center's strategic plan is to use art and nature as tools for well-being, especially for veterans and low-income communities in Lake and Cook counties.

Most recently, At Ease program participants studied photography and practiced their skills at the Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie in Wilmington, Ill., managed by the U.S. Forest Service.

Their photos will be displayed on Brushwood Center's website beginning Nov. 11. In addition, 12 photos were selected to appear in a 2021 calendar, being produced by Brushwood Center and the U.S. Forest Service, and soon to be on sale to the public.

"When you look at the stats around veterans and veteran services in this country, and the shortage of resources available for a group of people who have really made ultimate sacrifices in so many ways, I think there's a moral obligation to provide a program like this," Brushwood Executive Director Catherine Game said.

"Brushwood Center is focused on promoting nature and the arts as pathways to healing," she said. "So often we experience those separately. When you bring it all together, it's a holistic experience. We've heard that over and over from veterans who participate in this program."

U.S. Air Force veteran Michael Kardas took this photo of compass plant at Midewin National Tallgrass prairie while teaching a photography class there to veterans. This photo is one that will be highlighted in a 2021 calendar and displayed virtually on the Brushwood Center website beginning Nov. 11. - Original Credit: News-Sun (Brushwood Center / HANDOUT)

Game added that such programs are becoming more common nationally.

She said the At Ease program began as an experiment a few years before she came to work at Brushwood. It began as a partnership with Thresholds, a mental health organization serving military veterans and others throughout the Chicago area.

"We started providing photography lessons through an ongoing series with their veterans who were transitioning into employment and into homes," Game said. "It was so successful. The veterans loved it. It was completely outside of their typical therapy experience.

"We heard stories from many of these veterans who participated — they had not been to a place like Brushwood Center, immersed in the woods. It opens this new world of opportunity to experience peace and well-being, and then the creativity of using a camera and using the lens to look at the world differently," she said.

Game added the At Ease program is not formal therapy, nor is it meant to replace therapy veterans are getting from professionals.

Brushwood partners with veteran organizations and facilities, including the Captain James A. Lovell Federal Health Care Center in North Chicago.

Harold Bretzlauf took this photo of a snake at Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie as part of the At Ease program for veterans. It will be highlighted in a 2021 calendar and displayed virtually on the Brushwood Center website beginning Nov. 11. - Original Credit: News-Sun (Brushwood Center / HANDOUT)

Since the arrival of COVID-19, group outings for the program have been on hold, but Brushwood Center is creating virtual programs on photo editing, drawing, painting, writing and studying nature.

U.S. Air Force veteran Marshall Fox, who lives at housing on the Lovell Center campus, said part of his job is to drive veterans to places such as Brushwood for the At Ease program. He decided to join the program himself.

"We would get lessons on how to take pictures," Fox said. "They had cameras available. I really picked up on it, and I really enjoyed it. It's a wonderful way to get out there and commune with nature, as well as capture very specific moments on everything from plants to animals to things that are here in Lake County.

"We have veterans who struggle," he said. "I could see how the program was working for them. The first thing is they get off campus, they're able to get out and about, which is in itself, a great thing. You can tell that they open up a little bit when they are asked, what kind of pictures do you want to take. It seems they're talking a bit more, and sharing with other veterans."

At the end of the session, their photos were projected on a screen. "It gave them a chance to express what they saw, and then they are talking about things that are not related to the issues they might be having as a veteran."

One of Fox's favorite experiences was learning to freeze time using a camera. He took a photo of a dragonfly seemingly suspended in time. He considered it "capturing nature to help heal."

U.S. Air Force veteran Marshall Fox, who works at the Captain James A. Lovell Federal Health Care Center in North Chicago, took this photo of a dragonfly while participating in the At Ease veterans program at Brushwood Center in Riverwoods. (Marshall Fox / Lake County News-Sun)

On one occasion, veterans created a collage of photography to honor one of the participants who had passed away. "It was quite moving," Fox said.

Kardas, who helped teach veterans for the Midewin prairie project, admitted that when he was in the Air Force, he had some issues as well. He described feeling as if he were a broken porcelain glass that couldn't be glued back together. Today, he is in the 12-step program and said photographing nature helps.

What has helped him the most is that he's able to use his skills in photography to help others.

"How you stay well is by being of service," Kardas said.

Jessica Klinge, veteran program specialist at Brushwood, said she recently received an email from a veteran who participated in the At Ease program.

"He was telling me how he's been going outside a lot more," she said.

Klinge, who serves in the U.S. Army Reserves as a paralegal, said over the years she's used poetry as a form of art therapy. She said veterans tell her the At Ease program helps improve their mental health.

She is creating virtual classes for the At Ease program to begin in November. She's working with an artist on classes involving nature, drawing and therapy.

"She uses metaphors, like water or forest. She gets people to think about how they would feel in that setting, and how you would draw it," Klinge said.

Greg DuBois, a U.S. Navy veteran who also works with Brushwood's At Ease program and is an ardent birdwatcher, is creating a series of presentations on photo editing and ways to use bird-related apps for smart phones.

"As spring migration nears, we will do another photography webinar more focused on bird photography, and a birding-by-eye and ear program. And that will be followed in May with a bird photography field trip," DuBois said.

"By being involved in Brushwood's veteran's program, I can contribute not only to the environment but also to the men and women who have made significant contributions to our country that often are underappreciated by the general public," he said.

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