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Health Champion helping kids

The Washington State Public Health Association named Martina Whelshula a health champion. (Dan Pelle)
The Washington State Public Health Association named Martina Whelshula a health champion. (Dan Pelle)

Group honors Spokane Valley resident for her work at Healing Lodge

During National Health Week last month, Spokane Valley resident Martina Whelshula was named a health champion by the Washington State Public Health Association.

Whelshula is the executive director of the Healing Lodge of the Seven Nations, an in-patient youth rehabilitation facility in Spokane Valley. At the lodge, Whelshula and the staff do not only think outside of the box, they get rid of the box entirely.

“Talking heads at a white board or from behind a desk don’t work,” she said. “Filling out packets do nothing. We need to engage the children.”

Whelshula grew up on the Colville Indian Reservation where she witnessed the pains of alcohol abuse. She experimented with alcohol but didn’t like how it made her feel. At 16, she became pregnant. She smoked marijuana once after the baby was born and she made a decision.

“I felt as if I was emotionally abandoning my baby and I said ‘never again.’ It didn’t feel right,” she said. “I wanted to be a good mother.” And she began searching for ways to make life better for herself and future generations.

In the 1980s, Whelshula was working at the community center on the reservation as a job developer, helping others find work in Spokane. “I was dealing with struggling individuals including the homeless,” she said. “It was beyond my scope and I felt under qualified. I realized that I needed to get into counseling in order to help the struggling families.” A scholarship enabled her to attend Gonzaga University.

Whelshula earned a master’s degree in counseling psychology from Gonzaga and a doctorate in traditional knowledge from California Institute of Integral Studies. She is a Chemical Dependency Professional trainee, and has served on many boards, committees and think tanks. She is also a mother of six with 16 grandchildren.

About four years ago, Whelshula began her position at the Healing Lodge, making changes and leading the staff out of their comfort zones.

“It was more of a correctional model at the time and it was horrible,” she said. “The kids would be discharged for rule violations and there were so many ridiculous rules. They weren’t being counseled, they were given packets to fill out. They were also given Benadryl or other medications to help them sleep and I was like, heck no.”

Instead of sleep medication, the nurse practices natural options of relaxation and massage, and instead of packets to fill out, the teens are urged to be introspective, active and engaged through a healthy diet, art, music and exercise. Currently, many of the teens, some wearing new shoes for the first time in their lives, are gearing up for a segmented 50-mile run to benefit Teen Closet.

The lodge sits on 50 acres where two sweat lodges and a teepee are used for self-reflection and a voluntary rite of passage ceremony. Under Whelshula’s leadership, the relapse rate at the Healing Lodge is at 23 percent, a staggering difference from the national relapse rate of 90 percent. Thinking outside of the box is apparently working.

“It’s about empowerment rather than fixing you because you’re broken,” she said, “It’s about self-awareness, respect, generosity, laughter, community and family, and honoring all of creation.”