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Schools & Program Visits - Feb, 2001 Issue #78 

Loa, Utah 
Susan B. Quenelle, Admissions 
Lon’s Visit on January 8, 2001 

“I found I work better as a part of a team, than by myself” summarized a young man during his graduation from the Alternative Youth Adventures (AYA) 30-day program. He seemed comfortable, both with himself and with his proud parents who had just joined him for his graduation. The cold wind blowing off the snow-capped mountains of central Utah pummeling his back didn’t seem to bother him. He had just spent the last 30 days learning not only how to survive in the wilderness, but also learning how to apply those lessons to his life back in his suburban Utah home. His remark was in reference to the poor decisions he had made at home when trying to solve all his problems by himself. He discovered how much help he had gained from the positive peer culture that AYA provided in their wilderness expedition program. He, as well as the rest of the group he had just graduated with, looked very similar to private-pay students in all the other wilderness groups I have seen. From just looking at them, it was impossible to detect this was an adjudicated group. Only when they started talking about how they got there did the difference show. And, generally speaking, Utah adjudicated kids are not the hard-core type that are usually found in California adjudicated programs, so location in this sense, makes a difference. 

AYA has been in existence for seven years. It was started by Aspen Health Services using the wilderness model originally developed by Aspen Achievement Academy, but was devoted primarily to Utah adjudicated children. Now it is part of the Community Education Center Corporation, which is based in New Jersey. AYA has considerable independence of action, however, and the parent corporation wants to follow their lead in expanding into the youth market. 

AYA has programs in Utah, Montana, South Carolina, and is just starting one in Colorado. Though they follow the same model, each program has a lot of independent action. AYA-Utah has 80 staff, with about 77 kids in the field at any one time, and their new emphasis will be for AYA-Utah to create groups of private pay students, which will be entirely separate from the adjudicated groups. 

AYA National Director Gordon Birch has moved to expand his program to private pay students. He feels AYA has learned how to survive and prosper in the very competitive adjudicated field, which will serve them well. According to Birch, they have had to watch costs very closely, so their tuition is at least 20% less than existing comparable private pay wilderness programs. This also has forced AYA to provide what Birch thinks is the best staff training in the business. 

My visit to the field started with a staff training session. The group of about fifteen experienced staff had been in the wilderness for several days, upgrading their skills. The session I attended was devoted to an initiative exercise which involved the challenge of having the whole group get across an imaginary alligator pit without touching the ground, using only the few boards and materials provided them. Before that, we had circled up and discussed topics that touched on AYA’s practical philosophy of youth growth and development. 

One topic I asked them to explain further was what they called the Adventure Wave. This starts with the observation that even normal adolescents oscillate emotionally. The AYA utilizes this process in their program by orchestrating experiences to build on the emotional high to help make it go higher, which results in the low part of the cycle not going as low as before. The concept was to orchestrate the students’ wilderness experiences so their natural highs and lows would be a steady oscillation upward. 

Another topic that conveyed AYA’s training philosophy was a discussion in the circle about the way AYA influenced the students’ thinking. AYA believes a person’s actions stem from their thoughts (ideas have consequences), while thoughts come from the language the youth uses and hears. Thus, AYA insists language is probably the most important vehicle for getting into a student’s thinking, which will then influence his/her actions. 

AYA sees that the development of relationships is at the heart of working with children. I heard that assertion made during my discussions with senior staff, and it was what the staff were saying in the field training session. 

Their philosophy of staff training is probably as intensive as any I’ve seen in the business. An applicant that looks appropriate is invited to a fifteen day training session, consisting of testing and training in what is referred to as hard and soft skills. If the applicant accepts the invitation, arrangements are made for him or her to go through the initial training session, with no guarantee that AYA would eventually offer a job, nor does the applicant pledge to accept an offer. At the end of the training, those that look good to AYA get a job offer, and it is hoped most will be hired. But, it is a final culling and in essence, it is a fifteen-day job interview. Those that are hired then go through regular staff training sessions, both in and out of the wilderness, during which time they are on the payroll. Intensive on-going training is just a routine part of the job. 

I was impressed by the students’ sense of safety, which is a necessary pre-requisite for students to open up and get honest about what is really going on with them. As we approached a group circled around the fire, several of those at the side of the circle I approached welcomed and visited with me even though I was a stranger to them. This, I felt showed a sense of trust that I interpreted was a result of feeling safe. This was especially significant because we got to the group when they were in the middle of dinner, and anyone that knows wilderness programs knows food becomes extremely important. Not only did they interrupt their dinner to welcome me and visit, but also I was offered one of the apples from the sack they were passing around. Offering to share a rare treat like an apple in a wilderness expedition to a visitor was a very positive gesture. 

AYA seems to have the skills, the philosophy, the trained staff, the track record, and the competitive fees to make a success in their moving into the private pay market. I think they have a good chance of being the new player in this area. 

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