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Schools & Program Visits - June, 2002 Issue #94 

Duchesne, Utah
John Karren, Admissions


Visit on March 26, 2002
By Lon Woodbury, C.E.P.

As the girl’s group I visited gathered for a group session, they presented quite a sight. There was everything from a couple of fresh scrubbed clean faces of ones that were still in their fastidious “Princess” stage, to grubby faces of those who had spend some time in the sun and dirt. The grubby ones were either developing a healthy attitude by accepting this part of living in the wilderness, or they were reveling in being grubby, and still needed work on getting out of their negativity.

At the time of my visit, the camps were located in the high desert country about a two-hour drive from Salt Lake City. Although forests and distant high mountains surrounded the valley where the campsites were located, the areas where the students were camping had tall sagebrush and scrub trees that were barely taller than a person. In the summer the program moves to the mountains where it is not as hot as the valley floor.

Just before the group session, I had spent some time with a student I had referred there who was still in her Princess stage after two weeks. The conversation was pleasant but followed predictable lines: first, the obligatory “get me out of here,” which we handled by discussion what had been going on at home before coming to Second Nature. Then she moved to the “can I go home after Second Nature?” That also was handled by talking about how long and how serious the troubles had been back home. She didn’t want to hear it, but her protests to a long-term follow-up school were not very strong. She was somewhat satisfied to hear that I didn’t believe she needed to be sent to a lock-up, the common fear of students in short-term wilderness programs. She then started asking if she could be moved to another group, describing underground activities in her group such as plans for running away, non-confront agreements, and the like. Although the staff was quickly on top of each of these things, she claimed these underground and secret activities made it feel unsafe and she thought she would do better in another group.

She had a point, for the staff later told me that at that point, the group was a mess; they hadn’t had a group session for some time because students still caught in negative attitudes would overwhelm those who were trying to improve themselves. Until the students changed their collective attitude, a positive and constructive group session was unlikely, so the staff was using other techniques. She said the negativity in many of the students was making it hard. However, her moving to another group would have been the easy way out, which is not the reason for enrolling a child in a wilderness program. Instead, I pointed out to her the golden opportunity she had to exercise some leadership by supporting the only girl who had gotten the idea of the right thing to do and was trying to influence the others to try some positive and constructive attitudes. The staff was pointing this out to her also. Although she found it very hard to take a chance and stand for doing the right thing that day, I heard later that she was helpful in bringing the group together on a positive and constructive basis, in contrast to the negativity they were caught in the day I was there. Evidently the group started doing better about a week later, with all of them making good progress after a period of extensively testing the program.

The group session I attended was a hoot! The therapist started it with introductions, and then asked each to respond to a question something like, “How have each one of you contributed to the problems the group has been having?” I have rarely witnessed a group session with so many puzzled expressions and confused explanations of “I don’t know,” accompanied by grins saying, “I’m not going there!” Only one student gave a considered answer, and two other students offered a half-baked one, indicating they were trying to grapple with the question; my client being one of those. The answers from the rest of the students reminded me of bumps on a log, which in turn produced a lot of smiles, good-natured teasing, and a few mild confrontations. I was flattered the staff would call a group for my visit, and it was obvious why group sessions were not being used much at that time. The staff managed eventually to turn the group around a week or so later, and from the situation I saw at the time, the staff earned every penny they were being paid.

One reason I was very impressed with Second Nature was even though that particular group had serious problems at the time, there was still an overall feeling of safety. I didn’t sense a feeling of tension and dread that I often sense when a group challenges the program the way these girls were. Spending time with the girls was pleasant and rather relaxed, despite the negativity that existed. I attribute that feeling of safety to the staff who accomplished the very difficult balancing task of not letting the underground activities totally permeate the atmosphere. The staff kept the negativity contained while still dealing with it, which has to be a reflection of the program’s staffing policy.

Second Nature has a strong emphasis on hiring experienced and trained staff. This is not a program for a childcare worker to start gaining experience, it’s a place for staff to demonstrate their previously acquired competency. As an example, they tell me seven of their ten therapists are doctoral level therapists, and typically each has several years experience in working with at-risk children in a wilderness setting before coming to Second Nature. The program also has an on-going training schedule for all staff. Their approach is eclectic. Since they use many different techniques from many different therapeutic approaches, it is important that all their staff are kept current in all therapies. This allows a lot of flexibility in addressing each individual child, and personal engagement between staff and the students is more successful.

The program now consists of exclusively single-sex groups of eight students each. Just as many other programs have found compelling advantages of single sex groups, Second Nature has found that greater progress in a shorter time frame is made in single sex groups then was happening in coed groups.

Another part of Second Nature’s approach is to use top quality gear, and provide good quality food. They have found that by providing better food than most wilderness programs, food does not become an issue, and of course good quality gear eliminates problems that otherwise might come about if the gear is cheaper but of lower quality.

Second Nature deserves their reputation of doing good work with students. With their formal assessment capabilities that can be obtained when needed, they are an excellent choice for a child with an actual or suspected pathology, who needs treatment.

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