Power of Nature: May 2021

How the healing power of nature inspires resolve in recovery

Marion Callahan

Bucks County Courier Times / USA Today Network

Bathed in the orange glow of the setting sun, Jose Ortiz-Nieves gazed at the horizon and then closed his eyes, taking in the cool mountain air from atop the observation deck of the Trexler Nature Preserve. 

Under a sky ablaze in color, the 31-year-old felt free from his past anchored in addiction. A weight was lifted. The world from those heights, he said, was so much bigger than the Allentown neighborhood where he’d been running the streets since he was 15. 

“Can you believe I’ve never been on a hike before?” Ortiz asked a group of mostly strangers who had just journeyed together on a 3-mile trek. Time is fleeting, he said, and he wants to spend more of it beneath Mother Nature’s umbrella. 

“God has other plans for me,” he said. “Being out here … it’s like I have a fresh start. I could see new possibilities.” 

As he spoke, trip organizer Per Hagen filled with gratitude hearing others felt empowered by the trek and their surroundings. Co-organizer Laura Waits sat quietly with a wide grin as one by one, participants spoke of the healing power of nature.

Hagen and Waits founded Sync Recovery Community for moments like these.

The two Bucks County natives know first hand how bonding through nature can carry those struggling with addiction through the toughest of times.

A few years ago, they set out to develop Sync, a nonprofit outdoor adventure program to guide those in recovery toward invigorating, fun and drug-free activities that serve as reminders of how exciting and joyful a sober life can be. 

The group provides peer support and hosts outdoor recovery adventures, creative arts, sports competitions, and other recreational activities to educate community members about recovery resources and assist people in maintaining long-term recovery.  

Search for adventure finds recovery outdoors

More than a decade ago, Hagen was behind bars and nearing his release. He wondered how he would stay clean beyond prison walls and where he could find joy.

His mental journey brought him back to his childhood, where his happiest moments were skipping rocks, chasing tadpoles in lakes, and “rolling around in the dirt.” 

In many ways, he said, “I returned home.” In recovery, the outdoors gave him a therapeutic boost unlike any other.   

“If I’m anxious, stress out or depressed, I go outdoors and it disappears immediately,” Hagen said.   Jose Ortiz-Nieves

God has other plans for me. Being out here … it’s like I have a fresh start. I could see new possibilities.

Hagen launched an adventure recovery group in Montgomery County. When he learned Waits was launching a similar effort, they united to create the largest outdoor recovery-themed adventure group in the region.   

Sync Recovery became more than just a way for them to gather with like-minded people. In its three years, the group has morphed into an established pathway to help people find sobriety.

Its success and popularity among people in recovery caught the attention of area counties, agencies and treatment facilities that now contract with Sync to provide trips and outlets for those seeking a sober life. Northampton County’s drug court program, for instance, refers people to the group’s events.

“My recovery journey started by being incarcerated,” Hagen said. “I was a bad drunk who fought with cops, and they locked me up for that. Inside, I had a lot of time to think back about what I liked to do as a kid, about what gave me passion.

“I realized I never felt better than when I was out in the woods, and coming into recovery, I thought that others must feel that way, too.”  

Per Hagen, left, and Laura Waits, right, are co-founders of Sync Recovery Community. BEN SAMKAVITZ, PHOTOJOURNALIST

Over the years, Hagen has watched as participants who were mandated to attend an activity walked away with a new approach to life. “Some of them fall in love with nature by the end of the hike and want to do more; they’ll ask me, ‘We can come to one more, right?’”  

That night, from atop the observation deck, Hagen said the scene of those celebrating nature and recovery gave him goosebumps. 

“How amazing is this?” he asked the group. “To give it back to others who are now appreciating it … It gives me chills. This whole thing is just a spiritual experience for me, being out on a hike with people I never met before, hearing their stories, knowing we are all kind of the same. It fills me with gratitude.” 

Orlando Torres, 58, felt a surge of thankfulness and purpose as he walked along a winding riverside path and raised his voice over the sound of flowing water. 

“They say nature is part of your recovery, and that is what I’m working on,” said Torres, using a walking stick as he climbed. “I feel good, real good. It’s good to be out in nature to see what God created for us, and it’s amazing.” 

Stepping away from everyday life, Torres reflected on past unsuccessful attempts to find sobriety. This time, he said, he’s keeping steady on the new path he’s forging for himself and his 36-year-old daughter, who looks up to him. 

“I got to appreciate life, which is valuable. We are not here forever,” Torres said. “Before I leave, I want to leave a trail, which is what I’m walking. Just leave a trail.”

He joined Ortiz, and they crossed a bridge together. 

A parallel journey through nature and recovery 

Along the 3-mile trail at the Lehigh County nature preserve, the group walked through the hollowed frame of a red covered bridge, chatted and swapped names and stories as they navigated gravel trails bordered by rivers and streams, and inched up rocky banks.

Hikers put one foot in front of the other. Sometimes they gripped hands; sometimes they shed tears. They expressed gratitude for the camaraderie that kept them all climbing.

As she leaned against a tree and caught her breath, Missy Saraceno had her mom, Irene Librach, beside her to fuel her resolve — both on the trail and in recovery. She and her mom suffered through active addiction together. Now they climb together and rely on each other for support. 

“Can you believe this? We’ve done stuff together in active addiction, and now we are doing this, and we are present,” said Saraceno as she smiled at her mom. “And we’re here and we are going to remember it because we’re sober.” 

Reaching for her daughter’s arm, Librach said, “We have our relationship back, and it’s awesome.” 

Saraceno likened the trail — with its steep hills, rocky paths and winding ways —- to her journey in recovery. 

“I would have given up, I would have tripped on a pebble. I couldn’t do it alone. But we — and I mean we — can do this together.”

Driven by a common bond

The diversity of people and experiences make the adventures more interesting but also more accessible to people at all stages of recovery, Waits said. 

“This is the beauty of what we are doing … We have people who have 20 or 30 years of sobriety and people who might have a day,” she said. “That helps new people understand that they can have a different life and it looks different than what they are experiencing right now.” 

Some people bring family, others are on probation and some are right out of treatment.  

“I can remember being in treatment and my psychiatrist said, ‘What are you going to do for fun when you get out?'” Waits said. “And I had no idea what I would do for fun without drugs and alcohol.” 

She realized she had to rebuild the social network lost from having to disassociate from unhealthy relationships, and she knew she wasn’t alone. Others had to be seeking drug-free social events, too. 

About 30 people affected by substance abuse hike together and share stories during a Sync Recovery Community event at Trexler Nature Preserve in North Whitehall. Sync is a regional organization that provides peer support through outdoor activities for people affected by substance use.BEN SAMKAVITZ / PHOTOJOURNALIST

With a love for music, socializing and the outdoors, Waits helped organize “Rally in the Valley,” a concert event at Bethlehem’s Steel Stacks that attracted more than 4,000 people in its third year in 2019 and got the support of sponsoring agency, Lehigh Valley Health Network.

After teaming up with Hagen, Sync Recovery expanded its events to offer outdoor adventures, creative arts, sports competitions, and other recreational activities to educate community members about recovery resources and help people maintain a long-term recovery lifestyle. 

During the pandemic, as many people’s options for recovery support were limited due to social distancing, Sync Recovery’s outdoor events soared in popularity, underscoring the demand for natural outlets and activities for people in recovery and others coping with mental health challenges.   

“This is for everybody, absolutely everyone.”

Laura Waits

Recently, Bucks County’s Today Inc. Foundation granted the group $10,000 to help with the administrative costs of these events. Community support, Waits said, is incredibly important, symbolically and financially.  

“It helps our participants reclaim a meaningful life in the face of all the hardships,” she said. She hopes to one day raise enough funds to open an outdoor campus for events and activities.  

Reclaiming life outside addiction

The road to a life in recovery is riddled with potholes.

Ortiz, who is living in a halfway house, has been sober since December, yet faces an uphill battle to find work and social outlets without reliable transportation and with a criminal record that’s holding him back from his dream to become a firefighter.  

For now, he just wants to keep going outside, moving forward.  

After his first hike with Sync Recovery, Ortiz asked if he could join the group again.

The significance of that trek at Trexler Nature Preserve was hard for him to put into words. 

“I’ve never been to a beach or outside New Jersey or New York,” Ortiz said. “I was stuck in my neighborhood, missing out, doing the same thing on and off since I was 14 or 15.” 

The sudden shift in environment gave him a “spiritual awakening,” enabling him for the first time in years to envision more adventures. 

“It made me want to travel and watch sunsets from other heights in other places,” Ortiz said. “There are so many beautiful places where I can hike. Maybe, I’ll have a fishing pole with me.” 

Thinking of his late mother, who died while he was in active addiction, he fixed his eyes on the horizon.

“My mother would be proud of me,” he said. 

For more information Sync Recovery and its events, visit syncrecovery.org/four-core-components/View |32 PhotosHealing power of nature treasured by Sync Recovery CommunityAbout 30 people affected by substance abuse hike together during a Sync Recovery Community event at Trexler Nature Preserve in North Whitehall.