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Schools & Program Visits - Jan, 2001 Issue #77 

SUWS Adolescent & Youth Programs
Mike Ervin, Admissions

Loi's Visit - December 16-17, 2000

Parents ask me, “What? Wilderness expeditions go out in the winter?” I wanted to be able to reassure parents that yes, not only did the kids go out, they also were warm and their basic needs were being met. The SUWS Adolescent & Youth Program, which has offered “outcome driven outdoor experience” with “a variety of therapeutic and educational functions” since 1981, encouraged me to accept their long-standing invitation to visit, and see for myself. My questions were answered: yes, they run expeditions on an ongoing basis throughout the year, and yes, the kids are safe and their needs are being met. It wasn’t the program personnel who convinced me of this when I visited SUWS; it was the kids themselves. I visited the SUWS Youth Program the night I arrived. These 11-13 year old youngsters appeared barely old enough to be away from home, yet in reality, they had significant enough issues that their parents were willing to send them to this desert environment during the Christmas holidays.

A winter storm had blown through that day, so the students had been brought down to base camp for protection from the howling wind. I found them in a toasty warm, small building with a wood burning stove, a table and benches, firewood, and two instructors.

Talking to the students why they were there helped me to realize what Youth Program Director, Graham Shannonhouse meant when she described how “concrete” the thinking process can be among youngsters in this age group. The students showed me their curriculum books, which include a series of objectives for program success. The curriculum incorporates animals ranging from “mouse” to “eagle” to represent a passage in a “level” system that reinforces emotional health. The students’ comprehension of the way that the material might relate to their own lives seemed a little shaky, as expected. Even so, they did seem to understand the overriding themes and how they might apply in various situations, and were able to discuss the error in some of their previous behavior. They certainly were excited to demonstrate their fire-building skills!

The next day I watched them play on sleds in the snow. Nearby, the fenced llamas, used for carrying gear, were grazing. They seemed so playful, so childlike; I had to remind myself they were there for a reason. I had been informed that some of the kids were upset as the time to complete the program approached. One student didn’t even want to demonstrate a bow-drill fire, because it meant graduating. This program was helping some of these kids achieve their first success in a very long time.

As a result of conversations with Clinical Supervisor, Wendy Kohntoyp, Cliff Stockton, Field Supervisor, and Mike Ervin, Admissions Director, I learned the SUWS program used relationships rather than confrontation to have impact on the students. The Adolescent Program is designed to develop these relationships over the three weeks of the program. The first week is designed to help adolescents develop a relationship with themselves, coming face to face with their self-defeating behaviors. During the next week they begin to create relationships within their “family”, which in this setting is their expedition group. In the third week they learn how to work as a group to help others, using the metaphor of search and rescue.

That evening I stayed at the Gooding Hotel Bed and Breakfast, founded in 1906 and beautifully decorated using turn-of-the (last)- century motif. At breakfast, the owner, a lovely woman who had interacted with the SUWS program for a number of years, told me of her struggle with her son and her long search for answers. At last she discovered SUWS and enrolled her son, taking on a second and third part time job to pay for the program. She told me it had helped him so much, it was worth her time and effort. She spoke of the many times she has reassured apprehensive parents who stay there in preparation to meet their children after they have graduated from SUWS. She also spoke about one set of parents who felt SUWS had been so beneficial for one of their children, that they decided to send all of their children, feeling what was taught in the program would be of benefit even though their behaviors were not as serious.

The next morning I was driven out to the field to visit three Adolescent Program groups. The first group I met had been in the field for five days, and had been somewhat separated from each other to work on their personal issues, though they always remained in close physical proximity to each other. While waiting for the group to arrive back from their hike, I saw the heavy canvas tent heated by a wood stove, where they slept. I decided its small size must help it provide body heat; it did seem quite warm inside. I stood in silence, awed by the large red rock formations clustered around me that created a stunning contrast to the white snow. Suddenly they returned from their hike, and we were introduced to each other. Their positive attitude somewhat surprised me. The four adolescent girls and three boys were for the most part energized, though tired from hiking through the snow with their gear. One boy hung back, unwilling to participate. I learned later that even though the staff felt his complaints were part of his resistance, they were taking him to a doctor to see if there were any medical grounds for his complaints. I was impressed that the SUWS staff were not willing to take chances.

The other members of the group described why they were there. They were very clear not only about the difficulty of the trek, but also about why they needed to do it and what it was accomplishing for them. I was particularly interested in one girl’s account of why she had chosen to come, even though she said she hated hiking and camping. She said she would never have dreamed that she would camp out in the winter for three weeks, but had chosen to participate because she recognized that she needed to get a grip on her life. She was soon to be 18 and was taking her junior year a second time. The entire group shared the attitude that it was extremely challenging to be there, but I also detected their pride in themselves for what they were doing.

Earlier, Assistant Director, Kathy Rex, my “guide,” had explained that the third week group had met this group the night before, providing an “emotional rescue.” This “rescue” is designed as the initial opportunity for the members of the first week group to begin to discuss the insights they were developing during this “Individual Phase.”

Next I met a group who was in their second week, during which they were beginning to focus on “family,” that is, how their interactions affected others. As they described the job assignments each had been given, they acknowledged how it was a metaphor for the work they needed to do in their own lives. One boy described the difficulty he was having with his job; he had to confront the other kids and make them accountable to him for the completion of their jobs. When asked if the group helped someone having trouble with their job, their descriptions of how they handled it gave me the impression that the group had developed a sense of itself. Though they didn’t necessarily enjoy all that they were doing, they did take it seriously, and felt it was important to function as a group.

I returned to base camp for lunch, and saw where the kids meet their parents at the end of the trail. It was great to meet Field Supervisor, Dennis Thompson, face to face, after having spent so much phone time with him discussing how my clients’ children were doing in the field. I had always been impressed with the ways he used to reach the more obstinate ones.

Director Sue Crowell then took me back to the field to meet the third week group. In this phase they were learning how to be of service to others. They used the metaphor of search and rescue and actually learned rescue techniques. Sue convinced me to give them a chance to try their skills during a “sim” or simulated rescue mission. I had mixed feelings, not wanting to mislead the kids, yet wanting to see them in action. Even though it violated my own sensibilities about how I would hike in the winter, I play- acted being disoriented and dehydrated, having exacerbated a prior back injury from a car accident. When the group answered my calls, they went into action. I became caught in the predicament of trying to convince them I could walk. Since they had been trained that people often try to move when they shouldn’t, with the symptoms I was presenting, after assessment, they wouldn’t let me move. Rather than having them carry me down the rocks, the field instructor “rescued” me by informing everyone, “Loi is okay.”

They seemed to be good sports about the “sim,” probably as relieved as I was that I didn’t need to be carried. They told me of the positive impact the program has had on them, and attempted to answer my questions about whether they thought someone should be escorted to the program if unwilling. They all seemed to think it was worthwhile to send someone to the program, and knew that many would be unwilling to make the decision on their own to participate.

I continued to explore this issue with other personnel, who emphatically told me that about the only thing that didn’t work was for the parent to lie, telling their child they were being sent to some fun recreational pastime. Even the logistics person who drove me to the airport spoke about how hard it is when the child gets off the airplane with his snowboard in hand. It is indeed a challenging issue, but after visiting these adolescents, once again I was reminded that they are capable of insight, and can recognize when their lives have gotten off track. Perhaps they may need a nudge in the form of an escort professional, or a “no other option available” stance from their parents, but since much of the program deals with integrity and accountability, it is good to establish that as a precedent for one’s own behavior.

After operating its outdoor therapy program for twenty years, SUWS has learned from experience that many students benefit from the opportunity to extend their stay, to continue testing and strengthening their commitment to their newly discovered beliefs and resources. The option to stay in the SUWS Program for an additional period of time also allows greater flexibility to accommodate psychological testing, placement considerations and scheduling conflicts. 

My visit convinced me that the SUWS Program can indeed provide a high impact intervention. Not only can it help get the adolescent’s attention, it can also provide the opportunity for insight and enhanced self-esteem, one that is based on a sense of accomplishment that is truly deserved!

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