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Schools & Program Visits - Sept, 2000 Issue #73 

Building Bridges
Thompson Falls, Montana
Steve & Jill Fairbanks

Visit Report by Loi Eberle on August 10, 2000

(208) 267-5550

Because it was summer, I was able take a beautiful short cut over Thompson pass, closed during winter months, in order to drive to the residence of the Building Bridges program. The house sits next to Graves Creek a few miles outside of the town of Thompson Falls, Montana. Steve and Jill Fairbanks, who are still the Directors, started the program in 1996. The day I was able to visit was just about one of the busiest during the year, so I only met with a few of the program participants and Jill, who graciously took time to talk to me and show me around. Steve had gone to the river to pick up Summer Program participants who were returning from the rafting portion of their experience. The participant’s parents were to arrive soon after their adolescents returned from their rafting trip. 

The Summer Program is a high impact wilderness experience that involves a series of activities. They have a girls’ group and a separate boys’ group. The girls base their operation from the canvas-walled tent down at the creek, a short walk from the house. There is a small bathhouse there as well. The boys camp out with their staff, about seven miles away. Unbeknownst to the groups, when they go hiking in the backcountry national forest behind the house, the re-supply site is a fairly short drive away, an additional safety factor, if an evacuation may be needed. 

Both groups participate in a series of activities starting with fourteen days of hiking. Then after a work and recreation day, the participants then spend a few days climbing. After another day of rest they do some community service: 16 days of trail work in the Bob Marshall Wilderness. Students will then bicycle approximately 380 to 400 miles in 10 days. The last 8 days are spent rafting on the Clark Fork River. The students’ parents join them at the end, to discuss the work and insights that have occurred during the program. Together they discuss the next step of their personal change. This program uses 12-step, R.E.B.T. and Reality Therapy approaches to help kids get another perspective on their behavior. The Summer Program accepts escorted kids, offering them the means to develop insight about their behavior, which frequently has involved drug and alcohol abuse. Jill said their therapeutic work is relevant to non-users as well, since usually the behaviors that have landed in the program indicate the same kinds of attitudinal work is needed. 

A student from the Summer Program can be accepted into Building Bridges’ Residential Program. In this case, he or she is invited to move into one of the student bedrooms in the house, and begins to participate in the therapy groups that take place each morning and evening. In addition to the therapy group work, residents are also responsible for house chores and building projects. They attend the local high school in Thompson Falls, where they are required to participate in an extra curricular activity, which most often is sports. 

I talked to one girl who had originally started in the Summer Program, then had been invited into the Residential Program, where she had lived for a few years, finally becoming an intern staff. I also spoke with a student from the Residential Program, who will be completing his HS diploma this year, and one of Jill and Steve’s sons, who was soon leaving for college. 

They spoke positively about the support they received from the high school teachers and how well they were accepted by the students. Co-Director, Jill Fairbank, emphasized that the degree of acceptance they received depended on the resident’s attitudes about the school, as well. She said that participating in extra activities really helps. 

There are two girl residents in a bedroom on one end of the house, and there will be up to 10 boys in the boy’s end (once completed) at the other end of the house. The Fairbank family lives in the rooms between the resident’s bedrooms. Jill showed me where Steve and the program participants were in the process of adding more bedrooms and sleeping space. Though there were a few visible “lessons learned” in construction skills, they definitely earned the pride they had in their work! 

The selection process for the Residential Program is based both on the willingness of the adolescent, as well as Jill and Steve’s determination of the appropriateness of the adolescent for the rest of their family system, since their three children also live at the house. They have found spending the weekends with their own children in a separate, second residence has been helpful to renew their energies. They have a staff member staying in the main house to supervise during those times. 

This situation seems like a good opportunity for the “right kid” to have a chance at a fairly normal high school experience. The Summer Program is a way for students to experience a high impact intervention, and the insight it provides. The Residential Program is suitable for a student who is willing to put in the effort to make it work – and who is willing to conform to the parameters of the program and the public school system. For such a student, the Residential Program provides ongoing support to help create lasting attitudinal and behavioral change. It also offers an opportunity to have a successful and rewarding high school experience, while also having access to the beautiful Montana countryside.

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