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Schools & Program Visits - Sep, 1999 Issue #61  


Temagami, Ontario, Canada
Dr. Terence M. Semple, Psychologist/Admissions
Lonís Visit: July 27, 1999

Their program of one-to-one staff/student wilderness experience was the first thing that struck me as different and attractive about the Youth Challenge Program. The second thing was their cost, which is very competitive in American dollars, to comparable stateside programs. The third, was the sense of remoteness. I flew into Toronto, and we drove more than 300 miles north into an area of small towns along two-lane roads, with beautiful lakes with few houses on them. Hitting a Moose was the main danger of night driving. My geography lesson on this trip was that Ontario Canada reaches so far south, that even being some 300 miles north of Toronto, I was still not as far north as I am in my home in Bonners Ferry, Idaho.

Colin Rayner who lives in Toronto, Canada founded Temagami Wilderness Centre about 35 years ago. He started by providing wilderness outfitting. Over the years it expanded to include: a Summer Youth Leadership Program, canoe rentals, Corporate Training and Development courses, Eco tours, and a number of other wilderness-based activities. About three years ago, Rayner became interested in working with at-risk youth. He started the Youth Challenge Program, which utilizes the one-to-one staff/student wilderness expeditions for kids (coed, ages 12-17) making poor decisions back home. Being probably the only private wilderness program in Canada for at-risk young people, they had no role models and had to learn most lessons from personal experience. The result has been the growth of a different approach from most of those wilderness programs with which I am familiar.

Tasting success with the Youth Challenge Program, and having worked out many of the bugs, Rayner is dropping most of his other programs. His emphasis is now on the Youth Challenge Program, along with the Summer Youth Leadership Program (which takes coed groups of teens aged 13-17, with no behavior problems), and his School of Expedition and Adventure Leadership S.E.A.L.). An advantage of conducting S.E.A.L., which provides extensive Canadian Training and Certification in a number of wilderness skills, is that Rayner and the Temagami Wilderness Centre have access to the cream of trained and certified Canadian wilderness staff to lead the youth programs. Although the Center serves as hub for all these programs, great effort is made to keep the groups separate. Since the Youth Challenge Program students spend little time at base camp, there is only rare contact with the Youth Leadership Program.

The five-week Youth Challenge Program does not work with youth who have the most difficult behavior problems. Most of their students have had problems in school, are self-centered, and floundering, often angry and manipulative, but not violent, nor with serious pathologies.

The program can make an enrollment decision fairly quickly, depending on how long it takes to obtain from a list of those with whom they have worked, the specific staff suited to work with a particular child. But, if necessary, they can accommodate the need for quick action by housing a child for a short time until the staff arrangements can be made.

The Temagami Wilderness Centre acts as base camp. Upon arrival, the student goes through a brief orientation, is outfitted, and introduced to the staff member with whom he or she will be working. Before the student can become attached to the base camp, the two of them are out for a week to a week and a half trek. The goal is to teach basic wilderness survival skills, and start work on the studentís issues, in a mentoring and shared experience manner. Usually the pair camp and hike within a few miles of the base camp on this first leg of the program.

After a couple days or so back at base camp to clean up and assess progress on emotional issues, the usual second leg is for the pair to be flown north by a bush pilot, somewhere close to, or at, the Hudson Bay. The more difficult part of the journey is for them to then make their way back to base camp by canoe and portage, all the time working on issues whenever the student brings them up. The bonding and issue work matches the greater intensity of this wilderness experience. The pair has a way of signaling for help in case an emergency develops.

They had five students in the program while I was there, and several of them liked it so much that they have been asking to stay through the winter. Permission has been granted to three of them, so Temagami will be working on academics and life issues with those students throughout the year. This might be the beginning of expanding their program year-round.

I was impressed with the staff I met. Based on the way Director Richard Empey handled a couple of situations while I was there, he seems very insightful and intuitive about what is going on in the heads of their students. The other wilderness staff I met who happened to be in base camp at the time seemed sincere, serious, and savvy, both in the ways of manipulative and hurting children, as well as with wilderness skills. It seems the one-on-one approach of this program could be especially valuable for teens who need a strong adult role model against whom they can test themselves.

Copyright © 1999, 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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