As soon as you step foot on the grounds at Checkpoint One, you’re welcomed into this incredible team with a joke, a warm welcome, and a hot cup of coffee. On the day we met with Andy Kaufmann and Kristen Fitzgerald, they made us feel at ease. And that’s the point.
Andy, Kristin, and Mary Margaret Signorelli established Checkpoint One as a safe space for military veterans and first responders, including firefighters, police, emergency room personnel, and other who deal with extreme stress on a daily basis and need to decompress. Ironically, these people who work hard to take care of everyone else in our community are some of the worst when it comes to taking care of themselves.
Andy knows this first-hand. A retired U.S. Army Lieutenant Colonel who served for more than twenty years, he experienced devastating stress that impacted his family, friends, and co-workers. Through his experience with his own stress, he encountered equine experience related to trauma and also yoga. He found both extremely helpful. After he retired in 2009, Andy accepted his next mission, to help other vets and personnel under extreme duress to change their lives through working with and healing through horses, yoga, and other activities. Andy became a Certified Equine Specialist and on the Equine Assisted Growth and Learning Association (EAGALA) Military Task Force.
Andy met and joined forces with Kristin, a professional horsewoman. Not only has Kristin grown up with and loved horses for most of her life, she is also married to a former United States Marine. She is trained as a Certified EAGALA Equine Specialist and is additionally trained and qualified in E3A (Equine Experiential Education). When Kristin and Andy co-founded Checkpoint One in 2013 they brought Mary Margaret onto the team as she is an Equine Assisted Mental Health Professional.
When you arrive at Checkpoint One, you are greeted by a number of horses, ponies, and donkeys and a couple of cats, too. The Checkpoint One team lead the veterans and first responders to interact with the animals but they allow them to do so on their own terms. All of the interaction is done with people and animals on the ground, as no one gets on horseback. Andy, Kristin and Mary Margaret are just there to provide safety and some gentle guidance. In fact, there’s nothing the vets and first responders are required to do. They can come to Checkpoint One and never even touch a horse. If they do choose to interact with the horses, they often project their own issues into these interactions. This enables the participants to not only choose their activities, but also choose what they call the animals. The Checkpoint One team intentionally does not share the gender or the names of the animals with the participants. Why? Well, if they told the participants the horses’ names, it’s entirely possible that one of those names could be a trigger or remind a participant of somebody with the same name about whom they have a negative association. To avoid that, Andy, Kristin, and Mary Margaret allow the participants to call the animals whatever they want.
Why is working with horses such a powerful experience? Kristin and Andy explained that people and horses can recognize if someone or some animal doesn’t have an authentic connection. There is no “fake it” until you make it in the horse world. They pick up on energy. Andy told a story about how he had an encounter with a horse along with other veterans. All of them had mirrored sunglasses on and their arms were crossed. The humans had body language that was sending a pretty negative vibe. A horse that was there with them walked up to the men and kind of smacked at them with his nose playfully. He was saying, in horse language, “Open up, guys!”
Kristin said, “While office therapy has its advantages, there’s just something about being in nature that really can open up a lot of these folks.”
While serving the vets and first responders is their main mission, the team provides corporate and other organizational learning and growth opportunities. Trust-building and communication are some of the lessons that these company groups gain from their experiences at Checkpoint One.
In addition, Andy and Kristin are both yoga instructors. They have what they call their Yoga Barn, which is a pretty darn cool area. It’s a space where they can do yoga and help the veterans and first responders to relax, stretch out, and do the yoga exercises.
This is a team that’s always thinking about their next big steps. Currently the Checkpoint One team leases the farm but what they’d really like to do is purchase it. Eventually they will be raising money so they can make this dream happen. They are creating a labyrinth in one of the fields that will be so large that they’ll be able to take wheelchairs and people on horseback on its path. It’ll be the biggest labyrinth on the East Coast once they have completed it. They also want to expand and do more programs.
Checkpoint One got its name because many military people will describe the first step for a mission as “Checkpoint one.” Andy and Kristin adopted this term since this amazing non-profit is the place where many vets and first responders get started taking better care of themselves. It’s a fitting title because this is a team that doesn’t stray away from tough talk or tough topics with each other or with their participants. They speak authentically and transparently, and they also are very supportive of one another. Making veterans and first responders and workplace teams feel incredibly safe and like they want to take this first step towards a healthier life is an important task. It’s a pretty awesome group and RBI is incredibly glad to support their mission.