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Military widows find clarity at Holbrook Farms Retreat

Holbrook Farms Retreat opened this past summer, giving military widows a chance for a relaxing, all-expense paid getaway. Matt and Micaela Brancato bought the farm and turned it into a retreat after they experienced the loss of close friends and wanted to help their families and others dealing with the death of military personnel. SUBMITTED PHOTO1 / 5
Activities at the retreat include pontoon and tubing rides. SUBMITTED PHOTO2 / 5
Holbrook Farms Retreat board members include, from left, Sarah and Bob Merwin, Micaela and Matt Brancato and Melissa Lorentz. SUBMITTED PHOTO3 / 5
Another activity the women at Holbrook Farms Retreat got to enjoy was paddleboarding. SUBMITTED PHOTO4 / 5
Micaela and Matt Brancato, pictured with the women from last summer’s retreat, said they plan to let these women facilitate the following year’s retreat because they understand even better what the women are going through. SUBMITTED PHOTO5 / 5

After losing several close military friends and not knowing how to help the grieving spouses left behind, Matt and Micaela Brancato started looking into how they could help their fellow service families.

Both serving in the Air Force, the Brancatoes knew what it was like to lose those close to them in both the line of duty and in other accidents.

Matt said that after losing a good friend in 2004, “we wanted to reach out and help but just didn’t know how. It was that awkward feeling.”

So they asked a close friend who had lost her husband: What was the best way for her to heal? Time with family and friends at the lake was her answer. And that’s what the Brancatoes started to look into as their gift to the grieving widows.

“It meant a lot to us to give back to the survivors,” Micaela said. “It could be any one of us.”

Micaela grew up in the Fargo area but spent her summers in the lakes area. She and her husband, Matt, who grew up in Chicago, are part of the North Dakota Air National Guard. They are serving in Washington, D.C., at the moment, but that distance doesn’t seem to be interfering with their new adventure.

Micaela said that between a great community of supporters, the Internet and a strong board of directors, they have been able to open Holbrook Farms Retreat five years early and continue their future plans for growth of the retreat.

“It never left my mind, how can we help?” Matt said, “We wanted something that was our own” rather than donating to another, existing organization.

Falling into place

Matt and Micaela lived in a home by Pelican Lake but decided to move closer to Fargo since they were both stationed there. Their realtor contacted them one day to let them know that there was a piece of land on Holbrook Lake they may be interested in, even though it was closer to Detroit Lakes than Fargo.

In fact, the seller of that property had also built the house the Brancatoes were selling, and he wanted to move back into the house they had up for sale. They looked at the property and agreed to a swap.

“It was an offer we couldn’t refuse,” Matt said.

Micaela said the 47-acre property is a working maple syrup farm, which they have continued to harvest. They also have chickens and an orchard. In time, they plan to add more animals to the property.

Growing plans

Initially, Micaela and Matt planned to open the property up as a bed and breakfast for military widows. It sleeps 12-14 comfortably, and they plan to expand in the future.

The five-year plan coincided with when they were both retired from the Air Force and could concentrate on the property full time. That timeline has shifted a bit, though.

With the overwhelming support of the community and a need for a retreat like this, the Brancatoes opened this past summer for their first retreat, “Survivors of Heroes.” Another is scheduled for this summer.

“People were just coming out like crazy,” Matt said of when the word got out about the retreat. “That’s when we knew we wanted to be community (supported and not just a private entity).”

They plan to keep it at one to two retreats a year until they move to the property full time. They are also open to hosting a few family reunions, corporate events and weddings each year.

To help clean up the property when they took possession of it, Micaela said they hosted three community work days, and groups and individuals pitched in to get the retreat ready for the women.

“It was cool to see the community come out and help us,” she said. “I didn’t realize the response. So many people want to help (when someone dies) but didn’t know how to.”

Holbrook Farms Retreat has been officially classified a non-profit so anyone donating time or money can use it as a tax write-off as well.

Future plans are in the works: They will have a large barn and bring in live bands and build a large deck and screened-in patio.

“We want to capture the heart of lakes country,” Micaela said.

The project is not only growing physically but the desire to help and the desire to attend the retreat continues to build as well. Micaela said that through word of mouth and social media, they have seen lots of interest in the retreat.

And while the project started out as Air Force spouses, the Brancatoes are expanding it to other branches of the service as well.

“It’s a fun project and we’re just getting started,” Micaela said. “It has grown much more than we anticipated.”

“We’re well beyond where we thought we would be,” Matt added.

He said that the couple had goals along the way, and if they can find a way to reach those goals early, they’ll do it.

“We just take one step in front of the other each day,” he said.

What it’s all about

The survivor retreats are an all-expense paid retreat for those who have lost military spouses. While the first couple retreats are all-women, Micaela said they will be adding a men’s retreat next year and eventually family retreats.

Last year, six women participated, and this year they are planning for 12 women. There is a waiting list already for the retreats.

“It’s a wonderful week of rest and relaxation with other like them,” Micaela said.

At last summer’s retreat, some of the women who had planned to participate canceled at the last minute because they couldn’t be away from their children. Micaela said that’s another hurdle the board of directors is looking into.

She said they would like to partner with a kids camp around Detroit Lakes and have the kids at camp for the week while the moms enjoy Holbrook Farms Retreat for the week.

While at the retreat, the women take part in yoga, paddleboarding, pontoon rides, shopping and good food — both at the retreat and at local restaurants.

Micaela said that the purpose of the retreat isn’t for grief counseling, because that happens naturally for each woman. They were open to offering whatever the women wanted at the retreat though, and they requested speakers on financial planning and single parenting.

When the women arrived for the first retreat, Micaela said that she and Matt had planned “to just hand over the keys and take out the trash and feed them,” she said with a laugh. “But they wanted us to stick around for the whole retreat. They knew we needed to understand it better.”

And they did.

“They were very strong and inspiring women,” Matt said, adding that having the women there validated their dream in the property. “It was a time of healing and connecting with each other.”

Now the plan for future retreats is for the women who participated in the previous retreat to come back and facilitate the next retreat.

Micaela said the women at the first retreat enjoyed themselves and said it was nice to be where “no one was feeling sorry for them” because all the women had gone through the same experience. The women were also at different stages in the grieving process and could help each other more than anyone else could because they understood like no one else could.

The only stipulation for those eligible for the retreat is the person has to have lost their spouse within the last five years.

And though Matt and Micaela didn’t push the spiritual aspect of healing, Micaela said it was definitely present for the women who attended.

“The best part was a location where they could relax and think about clarity,” Micaela said of Holbrook Farms Retreat, being out at the lake and being away from the everyday responsibilities and the chance to concentrate on themselves for a few days.

She said that so much of their life is about the person who is now gone, and helping their children with the grieving process, that they forget about themselves and their needs.

“It’s not moving on, it’s moving forward,” she said someone had told her.

And the retreat isn’t just about the widows either.

“We are gaining so much from helping these people,” Micaela said.

For more information on Holbrook Farms Retreat, visit

Follow Pippi Mayfield on Twitter at @PippiMayfield.