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Schools & Program Visits - Dec, 2000 Issue #76 

Aspen Achievement Academy
Loa, Utah
Jason York, Director of Admissions 

Visit Report on Sept 17, 2000 
By Loi Eberle, M.A. 

The Aspen Achievement Academy's motto, posted in their front office, served as a metaphor for what I saw on my visit: Through the medicine of the wilderness and relationships, we discover the fire within.

I think that the wilderness indeed served as good medicine  a balm for the hearts of these adolescents who were on trek with Aspen Achievement Academy. The Aspen staff's competence in packing, organizing and supplying the expedition with emotional support and provisions seemed to indicate that the treks ran smoothly. Yet it was the wilderness it self, the vast open spaces of the Utah red rock country that provided the medicine.

I could see it on the kid's faces. They had been hardened it seemed, by their past experiences, yet they showed a willingness to dialogue, to discuss their feelings. I was impressed how quickly the group in which I participated began to talk to the strangers who had joined them.

I was visiting the academy with the annual consultants tour. We had been divided into small groups, each one joining a different expedition group. I was with three other consultants and academy director, Gil Hallows, who drove us up an 11,000 ft mountain to join a group of adolescent males. On the way he told us about growing up in this area, while we gawked out the window at the amazing gold color of the quaking aspens.

Before meeting with the group we were cautioned against engaging in therapy with the students. The therapist for the group explained they were in a very open and receptive place, beginning to let go of their defenses, and we needed to respect their vulnerability. We were also warned that our relatively clean appearance might make the hikers uncomfortable, who hadn't seen a shower since they had left on expedition.

Even so, I was a little surprised at how easily this group of adolescent boys discussed why they were there. As we talked further, they began to discuss their frustration with their parent's willingness to involve outsiders, specifically, educational consultants, to influence important decisions about their life. They resented that their parents resorted to this, and they resented that they lacked freedom to participate in making these choices.

At the same time, the members of the group were willing to admit what their life had been like prior to arriving at the Aspen Achievement Academy. They knew I was accurate when I described the pain and frustration their parents were feeling about their inability to influence them up to this point. The boys knew they never would have agreed to come if they had been asked; they resented being there, yet they admitted it was helping them. I was impressed with their insight about their feelings and behaviors, and their ability to express themselves verbally.

I should point out that some of the group members had only arrived a few days before, and had just moved up from 'mouse status. Others in the group had been there for many weeks. One group member was now at the highest level, an eagle with honors, even though just the week before he had been told he must stay an additional week. This decision seemed to have made a big impact on him. In fact, according to the staff, he had made so much progress in the last week that he almost taken on a role as a staff assistant, in terms of leading the other members of the group.

Though master's level therapists lead most of the groups, this group had been working with Psychologist Matt Hoag, Ph.D., who seemed well liked and respected. He visited this group once a week, and was usually welcomed by enthusiasm, in part at least, because he always brought canned or fresh fruit for the group. In addition to leading groups, he is the person who does any psychological testing in the field, if requested. I suspect he would be a good person to be doing was soon to leave. A number of new staff interns were also being trained, two of whom were currently hiking with this group. New staff would ultimately be selected from the group of interns who had completed the six-week training.

I noticed that many of the staff had only been with the program a short period of time. I suppose this probably doesn’t affect the kids in the program directly, since they keep the same instructor throughout their expedition. It might affect any follow-up interaction that a student might have with a particular counselor, and it probably affects the staff. I can imagine it would be difficult to maintain staff who are involved in such grueling work for long periods at a time in very isolated areas. I was impressed with the Achievement Academy staff that I did meet, and in all fairness, I must point out some of them, such as LaVoy Talbot, Academic Director, have been involved with the program for a very long time.

Academics? Indeed, and La Voy spoke with insight and creativity about all the ways he uses the wilderness to teach science, math and English. Students can earn academic credit for these subjects that can be transferred to other educational settings.

Because my visit to this program was as part of a consultant tour, our evening meal was not dried food made by the campers on their bow-drill fire. Instead we had the opportunity to share a delicious catered meal with the Academy staff in the spectacular spaciousness of the BLM Wilderness, bathed in warm glow of the setting sun.

Throughout the day I felt a growing sense of the magic of the environment and the vision of the staff. It helped to keep me in the present moment, and allowed me to let go of traveler’s fatigue and the worry of unfinished projects. I accepted the offer by Clinical Director, Pam Parsons, to build a bow drill fire, though the sun had already set. The twinkle in her eye and the passion her voice conveyed about the program encouraged me to make the effort, though it would have been easier to defer.

I began carving my “drill” and small wood platform that served as its support. As the light dwindled from the sky I began “bowing” my drill. The staff was highly supportive of my efforts, though the hour was late and the day had been long. As I bowed away, struggling with the string that wouldn’t stay on my bow, and my arm that ached with exhaustion, I began to experience my actions as metaphors for my own life. As I watched the smoke finally issue forth from that tiny glowing ember, out there in the wilderness away from all distractions, I began to realize the power and possibility of my own efforts, when focused by the clarity of mind this place and people had inspired in me. I also realized that this was the emerging glow I had witnessed in the eyes of the students on expedition; they too were beginning to understand.

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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