Wellness Project


The Garrison Institute’s Wellness Project was active from 2004 through 2009. A five-year pilot program of trainings for workers in US domestic violence [DV] shelters became the seedbed for the methods and findings that underlie the Contemplative-Based Resilience Training project. The following is a retrospective look at the Wellness Project.

Inner Resilience for Human Service Providers Working with Trauma

Most Americans will experience traumatic incidents in their lifetimes, studies show, and US domestic violence and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) rates are rising. Worldwide the estimated number of refugees, survivors of disasters, armed conflict, crime, domestic and other forms of violence, economic dislocation, slavery and trafficking runs into the hundreds of millions. Thus a huge and growing segment of the global human population experiences physiological, emotional and cognitive symptoms associated with trauma.

But so does a large and growing segment of human service workers who care for them. Caregivers’ empathetic connection to those they serve increases their own risk for developing vicarious trauma (VT) symptoms, closely related to their clients’ symptoms. One study found 37% of US child protective service workers showed clinical levels of emotional distress associated with prolonged contact with a traumatized population. VT can cause anxiety, depression and disruptions in family and other relationships, burnout and high staff turnover, affecting care and costing billions. Turnover among US direct-care providers, for example, cost $2.5 billion annually and negatively affected quality of care, according to a 2004 study. Worldwide, VT is a constant occupational hazard for humanitarian relief workers, human rights defenders and others whose work entails extreme psychological stress as well as physical dangers. The same courage and determination that led them to choose such work can also lead them to overlook their own traumatization.

Meeting the Need

There is a clear and growing need to help human service providers and caregivers working in highly stressful environments to recognize, and take action to prevent and ameliorate, trauma in themselves and their organizations.  The Wellness Project, a program of the Garrison Institute’s Initiative on Transforming Trauma (ITT), was designed to meet that need.

Wellness trainings presented an integrated approach supporting service providers’ well-being while building their skills to reduce stress, build resilience and enhance the effectiveness of their work.  An educational component taught trainees to recognize psychological trauma in themselves and others as a normal reaction to extreme circumstances, and to understand our innate capacity to heal.  A meditation component taught mindfulness techniques, which recent research supports as an effective means of reducing stress and enhancing mood and well-being for trauma sufferers. Body-based techniques such as active and restorative yoga helped to regulate somatic functions and increase resilience. Community-building activities helped counter isolation, alienation and "compassion fatigue." The Wellness Project’s commitment to cultural and spiritual diversity were built into the training modules and makes them easily adaptable to diverse settings and cultures, from US domestic violence shelters to human rights defenders abroad.

I could see the positive impact on my staff, and I realized that directors and supervisors needed a program as well. Now, we are benefiting from the program on all levels in the agency."
- Program participant

Wellness Project Core Faculty included Claudette C'Faison, May Krukiel, Cyndi Lee, Gayla Marie Stiles, Sharon Salzberg, Zayda Vallejo, DaRa Williams, Janet Wise-Thomas. You can read their bios here.

Wellness Project Activities

Based on the work of Laurie Ann Pearlman, Ph.D., and her colleagues at the Traumatic Stress Institute, the activities of the Wellness Project were conducted by a diverse faculty whose fields of practice include clinical psychology and social work, Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), addiction recovery, support for youth at-risk, art therapy and therapeutic movement, humanitarian aid and international public health.  The program was designed and adapted by a faculty steering committee which is chaired by meditation teacher and writer Sharon Salzberg.  Overall, the Wellness Project is guided by a Leadership Council composed of leading experts in trauma and related fields.

Wellness Trainings - In 2009 the Garrison Institute completed a five-year pilot program of Wellness trainings for workers in U.S. domestic violence [DV] shelters, including direct care, supervisory and administrative staff.  It delivered trainings to more than 400 workers in over 40 DV shelters in the tri-state New York metro area. Different formats were used to suit varying  needs and circumstances: from one-daya-month trainings in New York City and three-day retreats at the Garrison Institute, to agency on-site trainings for entire staffs. Participants found the trainings highly effective at improving their well-being, enhancing their services to clients and helping shift workplace culture (see below).

Wellness Project Impacts

A qualitative program evaluation conducted in the spring of 2009 by an independent consulting firm confirmed that the Wellness trainings had a substantial impact on domestic violence workers and those they serve.  85% of participants surveyed said they are better able to serve people impacted by trauma as a result of the training.  76% said it improved the quality of care they provide.  89% said they are less likely to burn out. 88% say the impact of the Wellness Project on their ability to do their job has been higher or much higher than that of other trainings.  98% said all DV workers should receive Wellness training.

In their own words, participants told us:  "I find myself feeling better, stronger, happier, and taking better care of myself and, as a result, better able to deal with family issues and clients at work."   And, "Being able to offer this informative, healthy program to my staff right on site is an amazing gift to all of us.  Having a large group of staff engaged in this process together increases the chances of all of us being able to keep the Wellness ideas and practice going in our lives." Lastly, "Working in this field hardened me and the tools introduced by Wellness (such as meditation, yoga, breathing, body alignment techniques, art therapy) made me softer... I am humbled to know there is a more effective, more mindful way of living."

Wellness International - In collaboration with Front Line (the International Foundation for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders), in February 2010 the Wellness Project presented a workshop for international human rights defenders to help sustain their work by strengthening their coping and security strategies while also alleviating psychological trauma. After assessing needs and current stress-management support for human rights defenders, the Institute provided new resource materials and identified opportunities for future collaboration with Front Line. In this way, the Wellness curriculum can extend Front Line’s efforts to strengthen defenders’ self care and personal security strategies. Adaptations like this one highlight Wellness’s versatility and suitability for use in a range of new international settings.