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Schools & Program Visits - Aug, 1996 Issue #41 

(Letting Experiential Adventure Promise Success)
David Stephenson, Director of Admissions
Centerville, Tennessee
Lon' Visit: April 12-13, 1996

The group of about a dozen boys and parents standing in a circle was the first graduation for L.E.A.P.S. We were on the edge of a pool of water where the Duck River came up from the dry river bed to start its surface journey downstream. Although a natural setting, the place looked well used by the students. It was obvious the symbolism of refreshing water rising out of the dry land made this a special place to the staff and students. 

The graduation was an emotional experience, combining the excitement of those successfully graduating from the program and looking forward to their next step, with the tearful farewells to and from the graduates and staff who had been sharing everything for the past several weeks. Going around the circle one by one, each person reminisced about challenges shared and overcome, and words of encouragement and advice for both those graduating and those remaining. Graduation is not an automatic entitlement. It is a special honor which requires achieving high standards, and staff told me only a few will achieve that status. The rest will be validated for the progress they have made, and will receive something equivalent to a certificate of completion. 

By coincidence, one set of parents attending had touched bases with me briefly by phone a couple of months before when they were just starting their search for a program for their son. Having heard their "before" story while it was happening, I had some basis for a comparison with what I saw in front of me. The boy I saw graduating was light years ahead of the boy the parents had described originally. His sense of responsibility and ability to express himself was impressive. By contrast, the original boy I had heard about had been out of touch with his feelings, had a confused sense of responsibility, and mostly expressed anger and rebellion. It was the difference between an unhappy and angry child, and a young adult with goals and the ability to work towards them. It was obvious the program had helped him grow up. His parents were elated at the change, and although still nervous if the changes would hold, were determined to enjoy every minute they could of seeing their "real" son back. 

L.E.A.P.S. is a stand alone, eight week program, developed by the Three Springs Outdoor Therapeutic Programs near Centerville, Tennessee, 65 miles west of Nashville. It is fairly new, and the goal was to take the Three Springs Treatment philosophy and use that to develop a short term, experiential, adventure program for boys who needed some intervention, but not necessarily a long term treatment program. Although L.E.A.P.S. shares the 337 acres and facilities with Three Springs Outdoor Therapeutic Program for Boys, there is almost no interaction between the L.E.A.P.S. students and the Three Springs students. 

L.E.A.P.S. is licensed as a Private School, as a Residential Treatment Facility, as a Residential Child Care Facility, and is JCAHO Accredited. The group lives and spends most their time in their campsite, but use dining, shower, laundry, school and infirmary facilities located in the center of the property. The program is adapted from the long term fixed place camping model philosophy as developed by Three Springs, and includes adventure-based trips every other week which help promote responsible behavior, positive peer interaction and better decision making skills. Group processing after significant (and sometimes not so significant) occurrences is a major and regular emphasis and tool of the program. The students also continue their academics in an experiential outdoor setting with practical application in the core subjects of English, math, science and history. 

The program believes that intervention within the family is key to long term growth and change. Consequently, while their son is going through the program, the rest of the family works through weekly counseling and education sessions that parallel what their son is going through. Most of these occur back home, but when feasible, the family does part of their work on campus, including some interaction with their son. The result is, by the time a family reaches graduation, there will have been a considerable amount of work by the whole family on the special circumstances and specific issues of the family. One result is there are few surprises to anyone when the program is completed. Follow-up is also important to L.E.A.P.S., with continuing family counseling sessions designed to sustain the progress and provide professional support when a family needs it to get through some situation. 

Coming from the West Coast, it is an obvious temptation for me to compare L.E.A.P.S. to the short term wilderness programs common to the West that I am more familiar with. The philosophical difference is while L.E.A.P.S. is based on camping in one developed site, and going elsewhere for most adventure-based experiences, the western programs tend to be based on long distance treks where the students might camp in a different wilderness and undeveloped site almost every day. Although most western programs have modified their program to where they do less cross-country hiking on public lands than they used to, they still tend to keep the children on the move through different campsites, more than does L.E.A.P.S. The western adventure-based experiences tend to come out of experiences and challenges encountered as they travel. 

The very rebellious and angry boy who might be a run risk would be better served by one of the western programs. But, for a boy who is floundering, trying to make sense of what is going on, and perhaps might need treatment, L.E.A.P.S. is a viable alternative. 

Copyright 1995, 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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