When Kathryn Severns Avery’s husband, Chris, was killed in a car accident by a group of suspects fleeing a robbery on December 4, 2020, she didn’t know what had happened until officers arrived at her house that evening.
Chris, who had been on his way to get groceries, was pronounced dead at the scene; Lakewood Police, bystanders and other first responders were the only ones around him when he died.
Avery says the gratitude she felt for those first responders sparked her relationship with what she calls the “traumatic event life cycle” – encompassing every person, from 911 dispatchers to medical personnel to police officers, who are responsible for responding to traumatic events.
“After Chris was killed, I made a conscious choice,” Avery said. “I can’t tackle the judicial system, that will only make me old and bitter. But what can I do?”
For her, the answer was getting to know the people who were with Chris that day, and as she learned more about first responders and the grim realities of their day-to-day jobs, she says she grew alarmed by the apparent lack of resources available to them. While there are some mental health initiatives for first responders in Colorado that have met with success and proven popular, many agencies, like the Denver Police Department continue to suffer from low morale and high turnover rates.
Avery saw this and dedicated herself to helping.
“I went to Stan Hilkey, who’s the [Colorado] Director of Public Safety, and I said, ‘I want to tackle recruiting and retention and make Colorado number one in the nation using health and wellness as a recruiting and retention tool,’” Avery said. “He was like, ‘Kathryn, if you can figure out the secret sauce of that, go for it.’ I was like, ‘Okay, I’m going for it.’”
That secret sauce took the form of her Restoration Ranch, a 40-acre ranch in Jefferson County, built solely to provide a reprieve for first responders and their families, with priority spots for those involved in crisis situations. She started the nonprofit organization and purchased the ranch using all of her savings and an inheritance from her father, who passed away four months after Chris.
But it’s not an Airbnb. Since August 2022, Avery has hosted more than 100 first responders and their families at the ranch for free. The main lodge includes two bedrooms, a gourmet kitchen with a fully-stocked fridge, and a sunlit great-room for gathering. If her guests prefer not to cook, she offers menus of home-cooked meals inspired by the dinners she used to make with Chris. There’s also plenty of outdoor space for hiking in the summer, lounging and snowshoeing in the winter.
“You got almost 40 acres to roam around and do whatever you want,” Avery said. “If you want us to cook for you, we’ll cook for you, so we take that stressor off. Chris and I loved to cook. We’re doing all of our recipes.”
Among the challenges of operating the ranch, which she runs with one other staff member, Avery faces apprehension when talking about Restoration Ranch to prospective guests.
“I don’t blame them for their skepticism,” Avery said. “By the grace of God, I was given the wherewithal to buy this place and start this. We’re doing it because otherwise, it won’t happen. But for a private citizen to step up and to do something like this, I think there’s a little head-scratching.”
Restoration Ranch caters to the feeling of hyper-vigilance many first responders feel as a result of their demanding jobs. She keeps the location of the ranch under wraps, only sharing the address when a guest has signed a confidentiality agreement, and she thoroughly vets every prospective guest to make sure they really are first responders.
John Chamblin, an Arapahoe County sheriff’s deputy, stayed at Restoration Ranch with his wife as he was preparing to enter his fifth year in law enforcement. He saw Avery speak at a state Fraternal Order of Police meeting, and immediately knew he could benefit from the safe haven she offers.
“From the second we got there, the skepticism went away. I could truly tell she cared about what she was doing, she’d dumped everything into this project,” Chamblin said. “It was really comforting to know that there were no strings attached. She wasn’t trying to sell us some timeshare or get anything out of us. It was just her opening her arms and offering it out.”
Chamblin says that in the throes of his demanding job, it’s rare and empowering to have an option to tend to his mental health in a way that’s difficult to find elsewhere.
“Being a completely third party, unattached to any agency really puts you at ease,” Chamblin said. “It creates a lot of different options … you’re not sitting in a counselor’s office getting your head shrunk all day just to feel better about yourself. You can take it into your own hands and go do it.”
Restoration Ranch was only the beginning. As judicial proceedings for the suspects in Chris’s death were ongoing, Avery realized she wasn’t going to be able to use a vacation property in Rockland, Maine, she had bought with Chris in years prior. So she started a new program through Restoration Ranch called Valor Vacations, which sends eligible first responders on free vacations to properties donated by people inspired by her organization.
“(Some) of them are people who have serious illnesses, that this could possibly be a last vacation, we don’t know,” Avery said. “We’re just building up our momentum for getting the word out … our goal is to do 18 (vacations) this year, 100 next year and 500 the year after that.”
Avery’s outreach and fundraising efforts — which are used to help sustain the ranch’s operations — include days with local businesses like Lumpy Ridge Brewing in Estes Park, to hand-decorating and selling a line of “accent stumps,” made by filling ridges left by beetles in trees cut from the ranch with paper-thin pieces of gold leaf.
For outreach, Avery regularly speaks at meetings for first responders. On the first anniversary of Chris’s death, she made 260 ornamental angel-wing charms for Lakewood Police officers. Engraved on one wing was the date of Chris’s death. On the other were the words, “you make a difference every day.”
“The number of notes I got from people in the department who said, ‘I was ready to quit until you gave me my wings’ … blew my mind,” Avery said.
Now, Avery’s adding advocacy to her list through an initiative through Restoration Ranch Colorado called Colorado Puts First Responders First. Long-term goals include making healthy meals accessible to officers on graveyard shifts, regional childcare assistance for first responders, and joining the national 30×30 initiative, which aims to recruit more women into law enforcement. All of it would serve Avery’s initial goal of improving first-responder recruiting and retention, and she views her status as an outsider as an advantage.
“Being an outsider can be a good thing; it can also be a stiff arm, where it’s like, ‘Yeah, you’re not really one of us, you don’t really understand us,’ and I get that,” Avery said. “But I also know that I can say things that a police chief can’t say. I know that I can do things that they can’t do. So that’s [why] we want to work with them.”
Six days after Chris’s death, Avery wrote a statement to CBS News Colorado urging readers to act with kindness in his memory.
“Make a choice to take action to make a difference and think of Chris when you do,” she said at the time. “Turn a collective sense of helplessness into a powerful movement for good. Nothing makes you feel better faster than helping someone else.”
In the years since his death, Avery’s taken her own advice – giving everything she has to making a difference in the lives of those who were with her husband when he took his last breaths.
“This is the smallest way I can say thank you, because understanding that Chris was just one call that they went to that day, (and) probably one of multiple fatalities that they encountered,” Avery said. “That’s my motivation. That’s the reason why I do it.”
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