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Ashley Addiction Treatment patients, guided by Nature Worx, participate in outdoor therapy sessions on Harford Land Trust properties

The COVID-19 pandemic has prompted drastic changes in how people receive health care services. One thing that hasn’t changed is the healing power of a simple walk through nature, and three Harford County organizations are partnering to harness that power and support people in recovery from addiction.

“So much has been closed during COVID or postponed, but nature is still available for us 24/7,” said Phil Hosmer, founder and executive director of the Bel Air-based nonprofit Nature Worx.

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Nature Worx is partnering with Ashley Addiction Treatment, of Havre de Grace, and the Harford Land Trust, of Bel Air, to bring small groups of Ashley patients to a property in northern Harford County owned by the Land Trust so they can participate in outdoor therapy sessions.

“We do experiential outdoor programs that invite patients to explore their relationship with nature using all of their senses,” said Hosmer, who noted his organization works with other groups such as youth participating in Harford County Teen Court and military veterans being treated at the Perry Point VA Medical Center in Perryville.

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Nature Worx guides have been working with patients at Ashley since 2017, taking them through the outdoors on the treatment center property along the Chesapeake Bay or various public lands around the county. The guides have been taking patients to the Land Trust property since May.

“This partnership with the Land Trust opens up great opportunities to utilize beautiful lands to support peoples’ health and well being,” Hosmer said Wednesday. “I think it’s an example of three different nonprofits working together to help people.”

The Harford Land Trust owns more than 350 acres of preserved tracts around the county. The organization has worked with multiple partners, using a variety of methods, to preserve more than 11,000 acres throughout Harford since its founding in the early 1990s.

The Land Trust has made one of its properties in the northern part of the county available to Nature Worx guides and Ashley patients. Hosmer hopes to expand the program to more Land Trust sites, giving patients the opportunity to experience a variety of natural settings in different areas of Harford.

“At Ashley, we remain committed to helping as many people as possible find their own personal path to recovery — whatever that looks like for them,” James Ryan, director of emerging adult services, said in a statement.

“We’re honored to partner with Harford Land Trust and Nature Worx on this unique program that bolsters our holistic approach to treatment and improves the overall patient experience,” Ryan added.

Representatives of the Land Trust and Nature Worx got together about a year ago to discuss where both groups’ missions align. There are a number of connections between the two organizations, such as how a Land Trust board member’s son serves as a Nature Worx guide.

Frank Marsden, a local naturalist and nature photographer who spent 29 years on the board of Eden Mill Nature Center in Pylesville, is a long-time supporter of the Land Trust and also serves as a Nature Worx guide — the trust worked with Marsden and the county government in 2004 to acquire property to expand the nature center, according to Kristin Kirkwood, executive director of the Land Trust.

“Working with the partnership had been a pleasure, as all of the missions naturally align,” Kirkwood said Thursday.

Nature Worx guides take patients out in groups of 10 for 90-minute sessions. Participants “walk very slowly” through the property and make frequent stops, using techniques such as “mindfulness” to be in the moment and connect with the natural setting, according to Hosmer.

He noted that “a lot of our activities are based on mindfulness approach.” Nature Worx will host a mindfulness and yoga session on the grounds of the Liriodendron Mansion in Bel Air Saturday morning.

“Nature is an ally in bringing us into the moment, and allowing us to let go of things in the past or future and to be fully engaged in the present,” Hosmer said.

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He also described nature as an “ally and a resource to support people during this pandemic.”

“We feel like our program has broad appeal, particularly with COVID and the stress and anxiety associated with the pandemic,” he said.

The sessions with Ashley patients also benefit the guides — Hosmer said he comes back “much more relaxed and centered, myself.”

While Harford Land Trust properties are open to the public, they are not set up for general public access like a county or state park. The preserved tracts do not have formal trail networks, restrooms or sufficient parking areas to support such access, according to Kirkwood.

The properties are open for select activities coordinated through the Land Trust, though, such as scientific research, activities involving members of the trust or guided visits such as the sessions with Nature Worx and Ashley patients.

Preserving land not only helps the protect the environment, but it creates benefits for the economy and human health, Kirkwood noted.

“This really hones in on human health and all of the reasons why it’s good for people to be outside,” she said of the partnership with Ashley and Nature Worx.

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