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A place to heal: Retreat center for combat veterans works to establish in Cullowhee

A place to heal: Retreat center for combat veterans works to establish in Cullowhee

When Margo Capparelli, Ph.D., first began her career, she had little idea that it would develop such a strong focus on helping combat veterans that she would one day drop everything to found a retreat center serving them.

But that’s exactly what’s happened. Capparelli, 53, is founder of Equinox Ranch, located on 23 acres in Cullowhee that she hopes to get in shape to begin operations by late spring or early summer in 2018.

“All I can say is I’m following some dream of mine, and I’m always amazed at how many people want to help and are contributing in a variety of ways,” she said. “It’s a beautiful thing.”

Ten years ago, Capparelli, a sociology professor, she landed a teaching position at the University of Maryland European division, an experience that would soon reveal itself to be life-changing. The job involved teaching classes on U.S. military bases in Djibouti, Bahrain and Kuwait.

“It was an amazing experience,” Capparelli said. “Being in the middle of the desert in Kuwait is not really for everyone, but I loved it.”

Her three years in that position awakened her to the challenges of military life, and to the issues veterans face when they return home. When she came back to the U.S., she rerouted her life, obtaining a master’s degree in psychology and taking a job at a veteran center, answering calls for the National Veterans Suicide Hotline.

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“All those things have impacted me, but on the national veterans crisis line I just listened to people at night who are in crisis, whether they’re veterans or a veteran’s family member, and you see both the problems and the weaknesses of the solutions,” Capparelli said.

She started thinking about how those solutions could be better.


Envisioning a mountain retreat

That train of thought ended in Cullowhee, where she and her Realtor discovered a 23-acre property located off of N.C. 107 just past Western Carolina University that’s looped by the Tuckasegee River and equipped with a house, a boathouse and a flat, grassy field. The house was once the home of H.F. “Cotton” Robinson, who was chancellor of WCU from 1974 to 1984.

“We couldn’t have dreamed of a more beautiful place,” said Capparelli, who is from Massachusetts.

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Her hopes for the ranch are high. She wants to offer combat veterans who come there a multitude of therapy options, including traditional individual and group counseling, but also other, nonverbal therapies such as fishing, yoga, art, music and — down the road — therapies using horses.  She wants the ranch to be dog-friendly, as well, and is still working out the details on how to allow at least a limited number of dogs to join their veteran owners for sessions.

“It’s a few steps away from the hustle and bustle of the rest of the world, and I think for healing that’s important,” Capparelli said.

She’s designed the program based on the needs and shortcomings she’s seen during her time working in veterans services. For example, the dog-friendly aspect.

When she worked the crisis line, it wasn’t unusual for Capparelli to be on the phone with a veteran whose devotion to his dog kept him from seeking hospitalization.

“They would say, ‘I would go to the hospital, but there’s no one to take care of my dog,’” she said.

The program will be longer than many existing retreat-based services, with veterans coming for two two-week blocks. The longer blocks of time will provide a more immersive experience, allowing the benefits to build and giving time for veterans to develop trust with the ranch’s staff. The idea is that veterans will leave after two weeks and then return for another session in about 10 months.

Equinox Ranch will also be free to all combat veterans — with no requirement to detail what kind of trauma was experienced in order to gain admission.

“You need to show that you’re a veteran and that you had combat service, but other than that you don’t have to tell us anything gory — ever, if you don’t want to, and definitely not for the application process,” she said.

That, too is a decision that grew from her experience working in veteran services. She remembers one incident in particular in which she was trying to get a veteran she was working with into a hospital. They sat down to fill out the application — and there was a spot asking him to detail every trauma he’d experienced while in combat. The answer space was about half a page, but the form invited him to attach additional pages if necessary.

“He just threw down the paper and left my office,” she said.

Equinox Ranch won’t be giving out diagnoses, and the setting will be far removed from the sterile, institutional feel of a hospital. Veterans will be housed in individual — albeit small — rooms that will allow them some privacy and better ability to deal with the sleep issues that many veterans battle, such as nightmares, insomnia and sleep apnea.

“A lot of the stuff that you call a diagnosis or problematic behavior, it’s stuff that keeps you alive when you’re overseas — not sleeping, hyper vigilance, moving on without expressing emotions,” Capparelli said. “It’s just when you come home that that becomes problematic, and it’s one of the reason why it usually takes a few years at least for people to feel the full brunt of their experiences.”

The goal of time at the ranch, Capparelli said, will be to give veterans a chance to get away from their real lives for a bit and be in the company of people who understand what they’re going through. Then, perhaps, they’ll be able to open up enough to start processing the experiences they’ve had in a meaningful way.

“The ability to write or talk about what happened is to me real healing,” she said.


A community effort

It’s a lot of work to design a program and get an old house in shape to accommodate groups of 10 veterans plus a handful of staff.

Luckily, that’s not a task Capparelli has had to take on alone.

“I love it here. I think it’s such a community-based place, and I meet people all the time — it’s, ‘Let me know what I can do or here’s what I can offer you,’” she said. “It’s a great place.”

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Team Rubicon, a national nonprofit team comprised of veterans, has been to Cullowhee twice to help with the renovations. Countless numbers of WCU students and faculty members have donated their time and expertise to the cause. A couple in the area moved to Florida and allowed Equinox to take everything that was left at the house — a donation that included quite a few items that were sorely needed. Home Depot is donating a variety of items for the kitchen renovation and Jennings Builders Supply and Hardware in Cashiers is working to get the ranch a low price on cabinets. The list goes on.

Equinox Ranch also includes a four-member board of directors, two of whom are military veterans. As time goes on, Capparelli hopes to see Equinox become a fully integrated member of the community, giving service as well as receiving it.

“We really want to be part of the community, and we want to give back as much as we get,” she said.

For now, though, Equinox is on the receiving end of the community’s embrace, and Capparelli is continually amazed by the fact that more often than not, it’s the volunteers who thank her for the privilege of raking leaves or hefting a hammer. Those contributions, in turn, will give Equinox a leg up toward its goal of helping America’s protectors heal from the unseen wounds of war.

“It’s a win-win,” she said.


Donate to Equinox

Equinox Ranch is working to raise $100,000 toward renovation of a house just south of Western Carolina University that will one day house a retreat center for combat veterans.

The ranch is the brainchild of psychologist Margo Capparelli, Ph.D., and the idea is that sessions will be offered to veterans free of charge once the renovations are complete. Donations of time and expert labor are needed to get the building up to snuff, and monetary donations will be needed on a continuing basis to complete renovations and help run the program.

Donate online at or contact Capparelli at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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