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Opinion & Essays - Jun, 1991 Issue 

Aspen Achievement Academy
(800) 283-8334
Orem, Utah
By Larry Stednitz, Ph.D.
Western Youth Network

I have made three visits to Aspen Achievement Academy. With the proliferation of Wilderness Programs, placement specialists are eager to find and work with high quality, safe programs. Aspen has conducted 52-day wilderness programs for the past 2-1/2 years and was originally founded by wilderness expert Doug Nelson and a few of his close colleagues. One of these colleagues, Dr. Maddy Liebing is a clinical psychologist. This blend of wilderness technology and clinical focus has resulted in a well-balanced program.

While Aspen is only 2-1/2 years old, Doug Nelson is a seasoned veteran of wilderness programs. Along with his Aspen responsibilities, Doug is also an Assistant Professor of Recreational Management and Youth Leadership at Brigham Young University. He first became involved in wilderness programs at Brigham Young University in 1971 and remains as their Director. In 1978, Doug founded the Boulder Outdoor Survival School which continues as a successful program to this date. He currently is the Chairman of the Intermountain Wilderness Program Association and provides assistance to the State of Utah in developing guidelines for wilderness programs located within that State. Careful clinical screening, effective medical supervision, effective communication, and emergency capabilities as well as provision for educational needs are a few of these standards. Doug readily calls the development of good field personnel as the greatest challenge of wilderness programs. Few people are in the position to leave their families for extended periods of time to work in the wilderness. Doug has lessened some of this problem by his association with Brigham Young University. Students who have completed a Bachelor's Degree in Recreational Therapy or Rehabilitation Therapy are often trained and developed as staff members at Aspen Academy. This connection provides a ready pool of young qualified staff members. I found the Field Leaders and Tim Marshall, the Field Administrator to be knowledgeable and dedicated staff members.

Aspen developed their program based on well researched and well tested wilderness survival practices plus the addition of professional therapy involvement in the field. The staff understands and consistently adheres to the philosophy and structure of the program. Aspen's program also places equal emphasis upon clinical and wilderness skills. Supervision of staff results in consistency within the program structure.

The Aspen Achievement Program is broken up into four components. The first is a high impact wilderness survival course that has as its purpose to teach youngsters basic survival skills, help participants to work through denial issues, and to lessen feelings of resentment and anger. In the second phase, called "Frontier," youths work together pulling and pushing a handcart across the wilderness terrain. This phase is designed to instill a sense of teamwork towards achieving common goals, improving interpersonal skills, cooperation, and learning to be a team member.

Backpacking is the third phase, which is intended to not only teach backpacking skills, but also encourage self-reflection. Solo experiences are carried out during this phase. This phase assists the youth in exploring more deeply the personal issues that brought them to the wilderness. The focus is also on exploring their true values, their actions, and reconciling the discrepancies that so often exist between the two. Leadership is the last phase and is a period designed to "pull it all together." Youth participate in ROPES course experiences, learn navigation and leadership skills, and assume leadership roles. Much of the focus is upon reuniting with their parents for a 2-1/2 day family program to end the experience. |Licensed therapists are in the field working with the youth on key issues developed from assessments. Communication to referral sources and family therapy are done via telephone on a weekly basis.

Wilderness programs have great promise. Research has suggested gains in self-esteem, self-concept, physical fitness, and an increase in personal responsibility. Wilderness programs are not for everyone, and a clinical assessment prior to enrollment is essential. With strong clinical supervision and a close adherence to quality standards, wilderness programs can be the choice of treatment. I had the opportunity to drive from Bicknell to Provo with one of Aspen's staff. He said it best, "I feel great that I am able to do something that makes such an obvious difference in people's lives."

Copyright 1991, Woodbury Reports, Inc. (This article may be reproduced without prior approval if the copyright notice and proper publication and author attribution accompanies the copy.)

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