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How the Pandemic Changed Our Approach

What was the most searched-for phrase on Google in 2021? It was "how to heal."

In 2021 America seemed to acknowledge en masse that trauma has entered the national scene.[1] Americans are now eight times more likely to be in some form of mental distress than before the pandemic.[2] Who hasn’t felt this truth? Our board members all lost someone to COVID, including a founding board member who also passed on from it. One advisor lost four family members in six months. Another brought her sister, an ICU nurse, to a mental health residential facility due to overwork and secondary trauma. It’s been a truly difficult time for all.

Frontline workers, valuable employees supporting both America’s public health and economy, have been hit hardest. Their jobs are staffed largely by people of color in most urban and some rural areas. Service professionals and their families are getting sick after being exposed at work and school, bringing it home, while masked, to elders and children. COVID deaths have not slowed in many communities,[3] causing a historically monumental trend in mental distress.

Essential workers, plagued by the mental health effects of fatigue, are least likely to afford enough time off for respite, much less vacation. In October, the research journal Molecular Psychiatry found that 23% of Americans are now experiencing Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. The researchers aired strong recommendations for early intervention and long-term support.[4]

Respite and daily self-managed mental health are critical for preventing crisis points beyond repair, and people now seem to be seeking solutions. A Cleveland Clinic survey found that 82% of America now feels that mental health is just as important as physical health (up from 68% in 2018.)[5]

To deliver services that help, we’re leaning into our original calling: bring people into nature to minimize physical health effects of traumatic stress—improving quality of life for those of humble means, relieving system costs of healthcare, and reestablishing resiliency for more members of the public.

We appreciate everyone who has helped us get this far.

With sincere dedication,


Joy Ellsworth, Board President, Clement Waters Retreat

[1] [2] [3] [4] Yuan, K., Gong, YM., Liu, L. et al. Prevalence of posttraumatic stress disorder after infectious disease pandemics in the twenty-first century, including COVID-19: a meta-analysis and systematic review. Mol Psychiatry 26, 4982–4998 (2021). [5]


offering stewardship to those who also deserve the role

Continued KC Restoration Projects – Because the Gregory Ridge Neighborhood Association has been vital to our ability to conduct activities at our first land restoration project, our four-acre food forest trail project was renamed in 2021: The Retreat at Gregory Ridge. The story leading to the rename was a case-study teaching us a hard lesson: adult citizens and population groups who are experiencing need prefer collaborative community organizing to social work or handouts.

Thanks to a generous grant from the Health Forward Foundation, facilitated through Heartland Conservation Alliance, we conducted the 2020 Loving Our Lots outreach program that explored the potential of community-led vacant lot restoration for public health. Our primary objective was to discover community generated and accepted solutions that improve public health by mitigating crime-perpetuating dumping, and by localizing public leisure in nature-spaces.

First, a virtual panelist roundtable event reached 1,200 viewers wanting to improve their neighborhoods. Then, roughly thirty caring East KC residents attended four follow-up sessions to discuss their restoration preferences. Finally, we conducted four design charrette sessions with two neighborhood associations, after which the vacant lot designs were placed in their hands, along with the onus of project control.

External to the goals of the grant, we learned that if we want truly effective solutions enacted by people who feel distress daily, the following factors must be present in every engagement:

  1. Mutual dignity and humbleness maintained at all times during convened collaboration.

  2. Autonomous community control of solution design and implementation, with reporting and bookkeeping support provided only when deemed necessary by all collaborators.

  3. Openness to two-way compassionate actions shared while pursuing mutual benefit (with the organization as a collaborator, not a benefactor.)

Leaders of East Kansas City neighborhoods responded well to this method of encouragement and support for effective stewardship relationships with vacant neighborhood nature-spaces.


applying lessons from 2020 to 2021

The Retreat at Gregory Ridge – Annually, the first Saturday of April is Project Blue River Rescue at Lakeside Nature Center. This year, the project brought over 40 volunteers to our forest. In October, fifteen parishioners from three church congregations across the metro came to plant trees with ten local neighborhood residents. With the assistance of Gregory Ridge Neighborhood Association President Carl Stafford, a rendering of forest renovation goals (below), was commissioned from artist Jonathan Lyman, providing a long-term vision for the project.

Neighbor-Grown Food Network – In 2021, fifteen household kitchen gardeners again grew food and spices to feed their families, using the nature-mimicking bio-intensive companion planting method we shared with them in 2019. Pandemic precautions made the original delivery model obsolete, but families report that they are still sharing the method and seeds within their social circles. At the Shiloh Learning Center Demonstration Garden, school volunteers weeded around self-propagated food plants seeded by the 2020 growing season’s first-generation plants. Families harvested produce at their leisure. ​ Nature Immersion Therapy – In 2021, drawing from a Nature Therapy Guide certification course being taken by one of our volunteer staff members, we publicized nature-focused mental health self-help aides through social media posts that reached over 7,000 people on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter (e.g. the square images throughout this report). Two community in-person nature therapy sessions were led in the Retreat at Gregory Ridge during October. The first advertised in-person pilot sessions in November served eight people. Sessions will re-open in March, if public health guidelines allow.

2021 Study: Understanding another face of American hardship – For Joy Ellsworth, 2021 was a year of multi-day visits to Bodwéwadmi, Laḱoťa and Daḱoťa communities, and conversations with residents. Joy attended a 417-mile memorial horse ride conducted by a Laḱoťa man in her professional network to honor his late wife’s life.

Joy’s previous studies introduced her to the poverty-surviving shared wisdoms lived by residents of both the southeastern Missouri Ozarks and of the East Kansas City area. Participating in the ride helped us to learn another American perspective.

Joy's experience validated two aspects of the organization’s work:

  1. Focusing on community-generated wisdoms is a uniting and healing action, especially for people experiencing hardship.

  2. Indigenous smallholder lifestyles and land management practices are worthy of mainstream adoption and respect, due to their inherent environmental stewardship.


a haven of clear streams, fresh food and solace

A Safe Retreat Option – As of December 1st, 2021, Clement Waters Retreat is the caretaker organization for a mountaintop retreat, chapel and conference hall near the delightfully diverse arts community of Eureka Springs, Arkansas. In November 2019, an Episcopal priest revealed the idea of continuing his existing respite-providing programs hosted there. The prospect of program acquisition required careful deliberation between real-estate lawyers and our board of directors, and on-site training with the priest.

The seven-acre project resonated most with our board members of color, who suggested adding frontline workers to the mix of intended guests. People with more darkly pigmented skin find they’re risking their own safety when traveling in rural Missouri, but there is a route to Eureka Springs not requiring Missouri travel.

Missouri is host to 19 localized and 5 state-wide hate groups. I