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Schools & Program Visits - Dec, 2000 Issue #76 

Valmora, New Mexico
John McKay, CEO/Administrator 505-425-6057

Lon’s Visit on October 30, 2000

After a two-hour drive north of Albuquerque past Santa Fe through a sparsely populated countryside that alternated between very arid range land and forested areas, I arrived at the small community of Valmora. The main building obviously had roots in the historical range area of New Mexico, and actually is a National Historical Marker. The community turned out to be the Rancho Valmora Treatment Center itself. It is probably the only treatment center in the country that has its own post office and zip code, which gives a sense of community but also isolation, out in the middle of nowhere.

The main building, originally a boarding school in the early part of the 20th century, was then converted into a hospital which gradually incorporated all the elements of the community. Today, the community/treatment center of Rancho Valmora consists of 1,000 acres of mostly range land, a combination post office and 50s style soda fountain called The Little Dipper, a few homes for staff, the old style main building containing the offices, classrooms and lunch room, along with the detached seven dorms for the students.

Founder Bill McKay bought the property some years after the hospital was closed, performed the much needed refurbishing of the buildings, and started the non-profit treatment center about seven years ago. Rancho Valmora established a reputation for doing quality work during its first five years, but two years ago they did a major revitalization emphasizing the concept of Positive Peer Culture (PPC) as developed by Harry H. Vorath and Larry K. Brendtro. They also aggressively hired the most competent clinical staff they could find. They now have a better than one to one overall staff-student ratio, and I was impressed by the collegiality and dedication of the staff I met. There has been very little staff turnover in the last two years. The general mood among the therapists I met was one of permanence, along with a feeling that they were creating something important and effective.

The students looked good, and the dorms were decently well kept, although the staff was still working on getting the dorm environment tighter. There are between seven and eight students in each of the seven dorms, with each dorm in many ways a self- contained unit, with relatively little mixing between them. Groups, counseling, classes, lunch and recreation is by dorm, making each dorm a somewhat autonomous program. This allows the program for a dorm to be modified depending on the specific therapeutic needs of the students in that dorm, without having to adjust the program for all some 55 students.

One of the goals of Rancho Valmora is to build a private pay clientele. They already have some private pay students, and their plan is to convert one or two of the dorms into a private pay dorm as soon as feasible, thus alleviating the problem of mixing private pay students with state referred or adjudicated students. Although from what I could see, they already screen state referred children well enough that it doesn’t look like mixing students would be a major problem. There is already a natural separation into dorms that makes establishing private pay dorms a feasible and workable plan.

Being a ranch, they have a number of horses, and involvement with the horses is an important part of the student’s experience, both for recreation and equine therapy. As the students heal, their equine therapy is an important part of their experience. They also have an extensive arts program, which is used as part of their therapy. While I was there, there were a number of self- portraits of several of the students on the wall. The quality was good, and it was very interesting to me that most of the self- portraits had the appearance of being older than teens, which I assumed reflected the difficulty of their short lives made them feel older than their chronological years would suggest.

For recreation, each dorm goes down separately to the Little Dipper, which is an old fashioned soda fountain. There the students can enjoy soft drinks, music, haircuts and have some healthy and relatively structured time to briefly “hang out.” While I was there, they had just completed a haunted house for Halloween in the adjoining building. The students went through one or two at a time with a staff member, and all the haunted house acts were manned by staff, who I think were the ones enjoying it the most. They of course used this experience as a hook into working with any issues of death and dying that came up for any of the students.

It is impossible to overstate the importance of their approach to Positive Peer Culture (PPC). Working with Vorath’s PPC Center, they are able to take advantage of the body of research and experience his Center has developed over the last couple of decades. Their PPC is not clinical as such, but provides a solid foundation on which to carry out individual therapy with the students.

Not only does a PPC approach lend itself well to virtually all disorders you would expect to see in a typical treatment center, but they claim it allows them to very successfully treat more specialized and difficult to treat diagnoses such as Reactive Attachment Disorders, and Borderline or other character pathology, such as narcissistic or antisocial personalities. They also claim the PPC model is especially effective with Conduct Disordered adolescents.

For example, many treatment centers will not enroll an adolescent with a Reactive Attachment Disorder (RAD), partly because although most adolescents in treatment centers have relationship or attachment problems, when it gets to the stage of RAD, the appropriate therapeutic interventions at times become almost the mirror-image or opposite of the needs of adolescents with less intense psychiatric issues. For example, isolation or seclusion interventions that are commonly imposed by treatment centers as a response to intense acting out or aggression, may by welcomed by the RAD adolescent and thus ineffective as a consequence. This response reversal makes most treatment centers inappropriate for the RAD student.

Because Rancho Valmora is divided into smaller, somewhat autonomous units with a heavy emphasis on PPC, the program can meet the needs of students with diverse and difficult diagnoses. The PPC approach helps the child learn how to attach with his/her peers, while also allowing the normal adolescent separation process in the interactions with the adults. I am familiar with the history of one student who has a diagnosis of RAD, who has been making steady breakthroughs in the few months she has been in the program.

Rancho Valmora seems to have the building blocks in place to be a very effective program for private pay clients, especially for those hard to place students with serious character pathology.

Copyright © 2000, 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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