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Schools & Program Visits - Jun, 1993 Issue #22 

Marion, Montana
John Brekke, Chief Executive Officer
Lon's Visit: June 2, 1993

"Big Sky Country" is the feeling a person gets when looking around at the view from the buildings at Wilderness Treatment Center in Western Montana. Nestled in a broad valley, surrounded by rolling foothills, and behind them the towering peaks of the Rockies, there is a sense of spaciousness and elbow room. The 600 acre property was originally a cattle ranch, built in 1928, and many of the buildings, including several small log cabins, date from that time. The property was a private boarding school in the fifties and sixties, but the school was closed down when the teen rebellion of the sixties hit campus and caused more problems than the owner thought it was worth. There is plenty of room to grow, both for the boys and for the program. 

When John Brekke founded the program in 1983, it again became a working cattle ranch, but this time for boys ages 13-24 with drug, alcohol and other emotional problems. The work of the ranch, and the animals including cattle, horses, and rabbits are important parts of the program to teach work ethic, self-esteem and responsibility. The boys spend two days a week doing ranch work, and also learn patience in their free time from trying to befriend rabbits running freely about. Dealing with horses also teaches patience, self-control, and sensitivity. There is constant activity for the boys, including fishing and all of the standard activities you might expect from any ranch, which reinforces the ideas there are positive and fun things to do that do not require negative and/or self-destructive activities.

The orientation of the program is drug treatment, with a 12-step basis. What makes WTC unique is the addition of a working cattle ranch and the 21 day Outward Bound type wilderness trip to a more standard drug treatment program. These additional aspects enable them to cover all aspects of emotional growth, and work with most emotional and behavioral problems a young man might have along with his drug problem.

The primary reason for enrollment is drug problems and, in most cases, the boys have committed to participate in the program before arriving. When they arrive, they are involved in the Center activities almost before they realize what is happening.

The first three weeks of the program consist of ranch work, two groups a day, and individual counseling, all geared toward progression on the 12 steps. Ideally, the fourth week would be family week, five days where every member of the boys' family who could break free from their regular schedule would spend on campus growing together as a family in groups, self-analysis, and enjoying each others company. My visit was during family week, and the faces showed tension, smiles, and all the signs they were involved in growth experiences, new insights, and learning that being together could be enjoyable, rewarding and challenging.

Every boy goes on a three week Outward Bound type expedition in the surrounding Montana wilderness as an integral part of the program. It works best if this is during the fifth week, right after family week. But, logistics and a boy's progress might dictate an adaptation which makes more sense. The boys are responsible for much of their preparation, including drying the food to be carried in their packs. The challenge of the wilderness, and the resulting reduction of life down to basics and what is important and what is not, is designed to build on the previous months personal growth.

The last week, following the wilderness expedition, is a consolidation of the lessons learned during the previous seven weeks, and preparation for what is to follow, whether it is a long range residential program or back home.

A full staffing is done once a week, and informally each day during the lunch hour. I sat in on an informal staffing and was impressed by the dedication and enthusiasm of the staff. Most of the staff are well experienced in the program, with at least half having been there for five years or more. The students looked good, without any of the sullenness that is seen at some programs. Their rooms looked well cared for consistent with the rustic appearance of the facility.

Copyright 1993, 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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