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Schools & Program Visits - June, 1994 Issue #28 

Trout Creek, Montana
Lon's Visit: May 29, 1994 

There are three things which always distinguish Explorations in my mind. Never a dull moment, western hospitality, and flexibility. On May 29, five of their students were graduating from the local public high school, so the place was buzzing with parents, grandparents, siblings, neighbors and local friends, and staff, every one of which seemed happy and comfortable being there. Considering the occasion, this was understandable since it is human nature to want to share those milestones of life. 

However, since Explorations is within 100 miles of my home, I've had occasion to drop in from time to time before, and the level of activity seems always to be the same - a constant flurry and always the sense of a safe place. It is almost impossible at any time to have an uninterrupted conversation with owners and founders Lorne and Penny Riddell, unless you catch them at some meeting off the ranch, or wait until everyone else crashes and join them in the hot tub. 

By almost all accounts from parents I've talked to, the success of the program comes from Lorne and Penny as role models. Kids look up to them and respond to them as mentors. To kids especially, they always seem to have a word of advice, a suggestion, a consequence, or whatever the child needs at the time. It all comes back to the old saying, the key to any successful program is the staff and their philosophy, and the form is best which best fits the personality of the key staff. 

So far as the form of their program, the key seems to be their flexibility, and that is probably the key word explaining the philosophy of the Riddells. Focus on the needs of the child, and then put him/her in the situation to help them get what he/she needs. 

Explorations is located on an 80 acre ranch in rural northwestern Montana. The year round residential students live there (boys downstairs and girls upstairs) and attend school in the small public high school located in the nearby community of Thompson Falls. (They have just acquired a new building and property nearby to run an all girls program). They are very careful in their screening so the only students accepted into the long-term program are those who are ready and able to take advantage of the opportunities offered by living in a family style ranch setting and attending public school. 

Their screening takes place through a variety of wilderness experiences. The most commonly used has been their 26 day wilderness assessment course, which typically combines elements of meeting and overcoming a wide variety of wilderness challenges along with counselors to work with the children to help them learn how to apply the lessons learned to the child's own life. 

Then there is the Custom-Designed Experiences, which is a more intense one-on- one work with the child in the wilderness. Lastly they have the Big Sky Summer Program which is more like a typical wilderness experience, with some elements of emotional growth lightly folded into the experience, for children having moderate or minor problems. 

When parents first inquire, the Riddell's recommend a wilderness experience for the child based on the type and level of difficulties the child has been having. The choices range from minor emotional growth intervention to moderately intense intervention experiences. 

If the child needs a very intense experience or intensive work on addiction problems, the Riddells are quick to steer the parents on to a more appropriate program. This flexibility and willingness to recognize they are not the best program for all children is one of the best ways to ensure a successful experience for those who do enroll at Explorations. 

By the time a child has completed one of the wilderness experiences, it will be evident if the long term residential program is or is not appropriate for the child, and appropriate recommendations are discussed with the parents. This flexible approach maximizes the chance of each child receiving what he/she needs. 

Everyone is aware of what can happen to a program, classroom, or any gathering of young people when even only one child is not really appropriate and is not getting his/her needs met. That inappropriate child, in an attempt to get the attention the child needs, will start acting out, going underground, and be very disruptive in an attempt to get his/her needs met, or at least get the attention of adult authority figures so maybe someone can figure out how to meet his/her needs. 

Lorne reports his residential program this last year has run very smooth, and he credits that with his screening process. Its not that he takes only easy kids, some of their residential students were very much out of control back home. But, he has been successful at picking out and enrolling children who gave signs on their wilderness expeditions that Explorations was the exact environment the child needed. And, the smoothness of the last year is evidence he has learned how to pick the ones who need Explorations. 

Copyright 1994, 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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