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Schools & Program Visits - Mar, 2001 Issue #79 

Life Designs
Cusick, Washington
Randy Russell, Director 

[Visit Report by Loi Eberle on Feb 27, 2001]

The Life Designs transitional program for young adults, ages 18 –26, is housed in a five-bedroom home overlooking the Selkirk Mountains and the Pend Oreille River. The day I visited was a sunny beautiful day except for a few thick patches of morning fog near the river. I drove through miles of remote woods interspersed with an occasional home, looking for the yellow house with a new log fence. I finally found it, and could see that the well-crafted, student-built fence that surrounds part of the property definitely speaks well of the new skills the Life Designs residents have acquired. Two young adult residents showed me around the 29-acre ranch, and I was able to see a number of other student-built projects that were in various stages of completion, showing quality workmanship. The ranch grounds included gardens, trails, pastures, woods, a chicken house, outdoor kitchen and a llama pen. A sweat lodge was in its initial phase of construction, scheduled to be completed later in the spring. 

My “tour guides” described how they had chosen to live at Life Designs because they recognized that their former activities were not leading them towards the life they wanted, and they needed to figure out what they were going to do instead. The Life Designs Program Director/owners Randy Russell and his wife Colleen welcome up to 10 residents into their home, offering them a safe space where they can “rekindle, or find for the first time, their creativity and passion for life.” Life Designs is an opportunity for the residents to decide what direction they want to take in their future education or training. It is a way to help them develop their insights and skills so that when they are ready to take that next step, in some other setting, they can be successful. 

Randy and Colleen have created what they describe as “a small home-based training center for 18 to 26 year old youth who need to transition into responsible adulthood.” They bring a great deal of experience in previous and master’s level training to their effort to create a “family/community where integrity, honesty, hard-work, dependability, personal safety and personal growth is a way of life.” Residents at Life Designs are allowed to experience a variety of work activities while they also learn how to manage their relationships, time, money and their personal growth. 

When I was there, the residents were involved in a variety of activities. Some were sitting around the kitchen table, discussing their schoolwork with Colleen. Upstairs, the guitar teacher had just finished a lesson with one resident, and the next student was on the way upstairs for his. Other kids were wallpapering the kitchen. A few residents showed me the bulletin board and explained to me the process by which tasks were assigned and rotated. One young man discussed how the residents assume increasing levels of responsibility for the various projects, which brings with it the challenges involved in being a manager. He described how they have to learn interpersonal skills in order to get residents to be accountable. In turn, they have to experience the other side of this dynamic, as they also are held accountable to the staff member who oversees the projects. 

Randy and Colleen explained that part of their family-focused service also involves assisting parents with post-adolescent parenting, helping them to celebrate the changes. Randy and Colleen conduct parent workshops and work with the parents during visits to communicate about the changing roles and communication techniques that will help their child make the transition to adulthood. Each student goes through a Rights of Passage with his or her parent/s at the ranch followed by a few days together using the newly acquired adult communication skills. 

Randy and Colleen use “every moment as a teaching moment,” incorporating the ancient teaching form of apprenticeship to experientially teach basic independent living skills. They use informal conversations, journal writing, group processes, individual and art therapy and self-assigned work projects to assist students to develop a sense of identity and purpose. The residents talked to me about how their daily journal writing activities served for self-discovery. They showed me some of the residents’ artwork. One of the young adults told me how he had started reading books, for enjoyment, for the first time, describing how formerly he never read. In contrast, another girl had been confronted about her use of reading as a way to isolate from the community and avoid working on her issues. 

I was also shown the outdoor “Outpost” on the property which is a solo camp used when residents need to resolve their actions or attitudes that have caused a problem for themselves and the community. It is used, for example, if a resident has a relapse into an old addictive behavior. I asked about the chances of “relapsing” into these addictive behaviors, as there seemed to be some potential opportunities to do so. For example, residents are taken to a mall in Spokane every Friday, where they can spend the money they have earned working in the program that week. Randy is also a part time ski patrol at the local ski hill, and the program residents accompany him the one day each week that he is there. Aware of the freedoms that they were enjoying, the residents assured me that it would be very obvious if someone relapsed, and that it would be dealt with as a community. They pointed out that in order to be welcome into the community, residents need to commit to living without alcohol and non-prescription drugs so they can instead learn healthy coping skills. 

Life Designs is described as “ a place to learn and practice responsible individuality and freedom.” Randy and his wife Colleen conduct group sessions twice a week and individual sessions when requested to help the students recognize and let go of negative beliefs that have interfered with their ability to accomplish their goals. A goal of the program is to create a safe space for the young adult residents to clarify their plans based upon new insight into themselves. They learn how to interact about their work, how to manage projects, how to be accountable, and are encouraged to explore viable occupations that interest them and match their talents. They also develop the skills needed to start and run a home, independent living such as work ethic, simple repair, budgeting, investment, gardening, landscaping, animal husbandry and wilderness survival. 

The residents agree to an honor code that includes telling truth, supporting and participating in healthy relationships and refraining from behaviors that cause their lives to become unmanageable. My impression of the Life Design community is that it is conducted in a way that is consistent with the goals upon which it was formed, and is run by people with skill, compassion and integrity. It is a supportive and safe space that serves as a fine opportunity for a young adult who is ready to “courageously take action…to grow and change.”

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