There comes a moment every few weeks when Jessica Merritt, executive director of a nature-based nonprofit for Gold Star families and veterans, especially loves her job.
It’s called the “Wishing Tree” hike, a mile-long jaunt through the woods of western North Carolina on the grounds of Special Liberty Project (SLP). Gold Star spouses and veterans who have mental and physical health issues quietly make the trek to a special tulip poplar tree. En route, each hiker thinks about something they need to release, something they’re wishing for and something for which they’re grateful.
Once there, Merritt and other SLP staff hold a pinning ceremony. Hikers take a special pin they chose to represent their wish and affix it to the tree.
“They’ll touch the tree and grab on ― lots of tears have been shed at that tree,” said Merritt, a mother of teenage twins. “After the pinning ceremony, we take 20 steps forward, turn around and I ask them what they notice. There are massive scars where the tree has lost her limbs, but that didn’t stop her from growing.”
Nature & newness
It’s a poignant lesson for all SLP participants, including Gold Star wife Amy Dozier. Her husband, 30-year-old Army Staff Sgt. Jonathan Dozier, was killed in Iraq in 2008, leaving her with their infant daughter. She attended an SLP retreat for Gold Star wives in 2022, “glamping” in cabins, hiking, meditating, practicing yoga, learning a new skill like pottery or knitting and hanging out with horses.
“It was peaceful and relaxing and just gave me a chance to connect with other women who had experienced loss,” Dozier said. “We were in a place where we could receive the beauty of the earth and connect with what God has to give us, to soak it all in and find that peace.”
The experience of driving to a rural, mountainous area to share her pain with strangers was decidedly outside Dozier’s comfort zone. But she knew she made the right decision when she connected with another widow from California on a hike to a waterfall.
“That was really meaningful to me,” Dozier said. “When you lose somebody to combat or suicide, it’s very complex ― something that can only be understood by somebody else who has been through that.”
Those are exactly the types of connections that Merritt and her husband, Corey, a retired Navy senior chief petty officer, imagined when they founded SLP in 2016 while stationed in California. Corey was an experienced hunter and outdoorsman, while Jessica, his high school sweetheart, was an avowed “city girl.”
But after experiencing California homesteading ― the Merritts raised dairy goats, pigs, chicken and turkeys alongside three massive gardens and a fruit orchard ― she became a believer in nature’s ability to heal and inspire.
Then one day Corey came home with a dream: “What about starting a nonprofit to help military families and troops heal through time outside?”
The couple dove in, serving more than 500 military and Gold Star family members since SLP’s inception with a staff of three and dozens more volunteers.
Since 2020, SLP (and the Merritt home) has been located on 27 acres bordering national forestland in Macon County, North Carolina. Merritt and her team stay busy hosting wellness retreats like the one Dozier attended, as well as the following programs:
Veterans Exploring Together;
Series of Equine Retreats for Veteran Spouses;
Mini Acts of Kindness for those unable to physically come to SLP’s acreage.
Chapters exist not only in North Carolina, but also in California and Arizona.
Each service SLP offers is no cost ― a perk made possible by fundraisers and private donations. Add in all the work a farm brings, and Jessica’s calendar is “exhausting, but so rewarding,” she said.
“On our very first retreat here, I had a military widow pull me aside on the last night and tell me that I saved her life,” Jessica said. “Just being here in the healing mountains with other people who understood what she was going through was enough to pull her out of a dark space. And that’s very special, to know loss can affect us, but doesn’t make us who we are.”Read comments